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ADAPTING ANCASTER

Joe Saputo continues the family legacy with his own twist

Sam Saputo first learned to repair vehicles in a 40,000 sq. ft. bodyshop in Germany. Upon moving to Canada, the Sicilian- born body repairer was recognized as one of the more skilled employees at Ontario Auto Collision, which was run by Sam Mercanti, the eventual founder of CARSTAR Canada. As a man extremely dedicated to his craft, with a boss who saw potential in him, Sam Saputo went on to become one of the first two franchisees of CARSTAR Canada back in 1994. Today, his son Joe runs operations at the legacy shop—which has marked some major milestones in recent years.

“I have always looked up to my dad,” Joe Saputo, owner of CARSTAR Ancaster and CARSTAR Canada’s 2023 Franchisee of the Year tells Collision Repair mag. “I wanted to be exactly like him.”

Joe started “working” at his father’s place of work—Ontario Auto Collision’s Gage Avenue location—when he was around eight years old, coming to the shop on Saturdays to help detail customer cars.

When Sam Saputo took on operations at CARSTAR Ancaster, Joe was working “like crazy.” He spent that entire first summer detailing cars, emptying garbages and—without explicitly being told he was allowed to—he might have dabbled in the paint department.

“I mean, it was better that I was making trouble in paint than on the street with my friends.” It wasn’t rare for Joe to be stirring up trouble. Sam and his wife Rosa were quite familiar with getting calls from their son’s school. “My mom would pick me up and we’d head right out of the parking lot, headed toward the shop. Honestly, I loved it.” But one day, Sam and Rosa decided enough was enough.

“Instead of turning right, my mom turned left. I said, ‘where are you going? The shop is that way.’ She said, ‘Nope. You’re done. You will never work for us.’” When Sam came home from the shop that night, he told Joe he had one week to find a job, or he could go live elsewhere. “I went to Remo Mercanti at the CARSTAR Hamilton Rymal Road location and told him I needed a job. He immediately took me on. I mean, he was getting this kid who had been raised in the industry and knew that all I wanted to do was fix cars.” Joe worked at CARSTAR Hamilton Rymal for his entire apprenticeship.

“The best way I can describe it, going from CARSTAR Ancaster to Rymal Road—it was like going from the rural suburbs to being dropped in the Times Square of collision repair. I mean, it was doing 12 times the volume that Ancaster was at that time.” Once Joe achieved his bodyman license, Sam and Rosa allowed him back. He immediately took over Sam’s rack on the production floor, allowing him to get back into the office with Rosa and oversee his duties as owner.

In 2003, Joe was promoted to general manager of CARSTAR Ancaster. An accident later tragically kept him away from the business for four years. He nearly lost his life through the incident and ensuing complications—but he credits the unwavering support of his family and friends for getting him through. “I couldn’t get away with just sitting around—everyone was like, ‘What’s wrong with you? You’re better than this. So I came back to the business in 2007.” At the time, the CARSTAR Ancaster team had “very strong hands,” says Joe, and could easily repair vehicles in a very profitable way. But, in about 2013, things took a turn.

“I watched repair profitability plummet. Half of these super skilled repairers—the average age is high—and it seemed we were hiring people that, truthfully, wasn’t so excited about fixing these lightweight, thinner exterior panels on cars.”

Meanwhile, Joe looked at the profit margins for CARSTAR Ancaster and wondered how they could grow when employee wages were rising each year while labour rates stayed the same.

“I saw ways that high-tech tooling could help us achieve better results. I’d show Sam and Rosa a $10,000 dent puller and they’d be like, ‘Are you out of your mind?!’ Meanwhile I’d just watched our team try to pound out a dent that took a full four hours and looks terrible.” In 2018, Sam and Rosa began to transition out of the business—and Joe was ready to outfit the facility with a new vision.

Enter Natasha Woods. At the time, Natasha was office manager—though she first joined the business in 2011 as an accountant. Joe saw how instrumental she was to their success and noted her advanced mindset in the new ethics of the collision business.

“As an office manager, she was far beyond that. She had incredibly innovative ways of closing files and taking a more granular look at our P&L statements, and she really understood repair methods.”

“Joe’s leadership skills had a huge influence,” said Natasha.“He always pushed me to do better, and questioned a lot of the things I did, which fuelled me.” The two started to work together to build out their vision for a future-proofed CARSTAR Ancaster. “I now had the check book to myself, and I’m going to Sam and Rosa with new racks, new equipment, asking, ‘can we do it?’” said Joe. “They told me to go for it.”

Meanwhile, Natasha’s bookkeeping and efforts in keeping staff up-to-date with maximizing profitability at Ancaster proved an extremely successful strategy.

“Natasha did all of that, without me dictating any of it, and we showed significant dividends. The company was growing, and we were profitable.” When asked what Natasha’s official title would be, the pair—who often refer to themselves as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen—looked at each other and laughed.

“We just had this conversation this morning,” said Joe. “We seriously talk about it all the time,” Natasha added. “I don’t think there’s any other title than general manager, 100 percent,” said Joe. Two years after the first wave of digital investments, CARSTAR Ancaster had grown operations by more than 35 percent. Joe and Natasha continued the same tactics through 2020 and 2021, showing significant growth across the board both years. In 2021, Joe says they had a “clear vision” of CARSTAR Ancaster’s future for the next 10 years.

They transformed the production floor, investing in new technology and breaking down their strategies in repair versus replace. “We started to replace more parts because, for one, the OEM doesn’t want you repairing them.” Each tech at CARSTAR Ancaster has a laptop and access to an entire library of OEM procedures.

“If I bring a green person in and hand them a grinder, a hammer, a dolly, and goggles, they’re going to spend maybe a day in here and quit. Now if I give them a laptop, shiny tools, shiny new parts, a shiny new car and every procedure on how to do the job, they are incredibly interested in sticking around.

“With all due respect to the incredible business owners and managers out there—I think a lot of collision facilities are still running the business how they did 30 years ago. This industry doesn’t lack next-gen employees—we lack leadership.”

In outfitting new ideologies and technologies, CARSTAR Ancaster was able to scale its volume by 80 percent.

“We went from $2.4 million in annual sales to $4.5 million,” added Joe.

A big part of the company’s performance can be attributed to a relationship with Sam Malatesta and CCi Global Technologies, who came in and aggregated “every single piece of data known to man” inside the store, says Joe. “Administratively, financially, productively, technologically—they aggregate the data for us and we look at it and see the gaps to grow, almost double, our sales.”

Joe added that the company’s growth and scale would not have been possible without the support of their paint partners at BASF.

“Since 1994, transitioning from the RM line to Glasurit 55 line; onboarding 90 line in the early 00s and, most recently, being the first CARSTAR facility in Canda to introduce Glasurit 100 line—our lineage with BASF demonstrates a compelling partnership,” said Joe. He added that CARSTAR Ancaster was about a year away from making a significant investment in a double-wide fix-line spray booth set when they were approached about piloting 100 line. “After three months of training, we quickly realized it was BASF’s science that would escalate our scale and performance, rather than more equipment.”

With 90 line, CARSTAR Ancaster’s max paint hours booth cycle was approximately 8 hours per RO, with booth load at one hour, 25 minutes. With 100 line, that number grew to 12.5 paint hours per RO at 42 minutes.

CARSTAR Ancaster is on track to break its own financial records this year, and Joe recently took over ownership of CARSTAR Guelph, where he’s employed the same technology-based tactics with great success thus far.

As the business continues to grow, Joe can’t help but smile as he watches how full-circle things have come for his father—who, during the interview for this story, was hard at work on a bumper replacement on the shop floor.

Sam may have transitioned out of the business in 2018, but the lifelong collision repairer missed being in the bodyshop and told Joe he wanted to come back to work in 2022. Today, you’ll find Sam Saputo bustling around the bodyshop with the rest of the CARSTAR Ancaster team.

“There’s no better, more graceful way for my father to exit the business than letting his children take over and going back to do exactly what he has always loved to do —fix cars.”

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