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BACKYARD BEGINNINGS

For Robbie Shreenan, the sky is the limit when it comes to collision repair

Story by SARAH PERKINS

When it comes to the collision repair industry, there has always existed a set of essential skills—a carefully curated toolkit—for those aiming to not just meet industry standards, but exceed and succeed at them. A well-structured collision repair shop must include foundations of technical know-how, an unwavering commitment to community and customer satisfaction and a sense of aspiration to achieve set goals and grow.

For Robbie Shreenan, owner and operator of Topcoat Automotive in Sackville, Nova Scotia, these foundations for collision repair success and growth were first established quite literally in his own backyard in which a homegrown dent repair business would quickly develop into big dreams for a future shop and an unlimited passion for the industry.

When speaking with Collision Repair magazine, Robbie explained he initially got into the industry because his dad was a licensed mechanic. “I grew up around cars and knew I wanted to be involved with vehicles, but also wanted to put my spin on it.”

This spin initially took the form of a whirlwind decision to begin a business fixing cars out of his own backyard while also performing a full-time job in the industry. According to Shreenan, this backyard business originally dealt with mainly the used car market and included fixing scratches and dents.

However, the space quickly became too small as Robbie’s dreams continued to grow, as did his children.

“One of the main reasons I decided to leave the backyard is because I had kids and I didn’t want them to grow up playing around all the paint and chemicals. I also wanted to embrace more of the collision repair industry.” As a result, five years ago, Robbie made the jump to rent a 3,000 square foot building with the goal of transitioning to helping “fix collision.”

Here, he quickly found his footing and after just over a year in the rented space, saw the need to grow again. This transition marked Robbie’s biggest accomplishment in the industry so far: buying his own building. With property rates skyrocketing in the post-Covid real estate market, Shreenan had to mortgage his house in order to be able to take on the huge financial risk of buying a building.

“I put everything on the line to start this business,” he said. “It was something that was definitely harder on my family than me. But I had a vision and we believed that I could do it.”

Robbie successfully purchased and outfitted an 8,000 square foot shop that, today, he says he’s already beginning to outgrow. While five years ago, Robbie was bringing in $15,000 in sales, today, he is achieving more than $200,000 monthly.

When asked the secret of his success, Robbie’s answer once again comes back to the idea of growth.

“Even with the financial hurdles, I’m in a good market for starting a business. My community in Nova Scotia has a growing population and that means growing traffic.”

“Building a new shop, because it’s new, it’s clean, it’s bright, this helps with bringing people in as well, I think. Getting a new paint booth definitely helped me bring in my painter.”

Alongside this, Robbie works on developing training and advancements in his staff. With his business having tripled in size from just one employee to eleven employees, Robbie frequently takes chances on young technicians who are also working on getting their start in the collision repair industry.

“Since Covid, there’s no go-to in-person training in the market anymore; everything is online but technicians in the collision industry need in-person and need to be hands-on.” “In terms of training within my business, I strongly impress upon my staff being dedicated to learning,” Robbie told Collision Repair.

“It’s hard to learn everything just in your eight hour day and so I encourage my employees to be focused by incorporating learning into their free time by watching a Youtube or social media video of someone making a repair.”

“I believe that if my staff are engaged in fixing cars outside of work, then they’ll be that much more engaged when they’re at the shop. It’s about developing a passion for what you’re doing.”

When asked about the challenges he’s faced so far in the industry, Robbie highlighted the technician shortage and challenges with retaining staff as well as his difficulties in making connections within the industry—especially with those in automotive insurance.

“When you’re growing your business, finding the right people and making those connections, that’s everybody’s problem. It’s a matter of meeting the who’s who in the insurance world. Starting a new body shop, it’s hard to get into the collision world because insurance companies have relationships with body shops that have been open for forty years—especially in my market, there hasn’t been a new collision shop that I know of; they’ve been passed down from generation to generation.”

Still, Robbie refuses to let these challenges slow him down. The connections that he has made in the local community—such as with Kelvin Campbell at Chapman Autobody—has given him a strong foundation for continued future growth.

Now, his future plans include hopes of opening another shop either locally, or, if circumstances are right, in another province. “I might not ever start one ever again,” he said, “but I would love to pick one up for sale.” Other hopes include continuing to work on developing connections in the industry since 60 to 70 percent of his business is still being done through word of mouth and, up until the last six months, through social media advertising—something that has helped get the business to where it is today but won’t, he says, ensure that it takes the business to the next level.

“Some people may think I’m crazy to do what I’ve done, but all I can think about is how I still have at least twenty years in the industry and so I ask myself ‘where’s the next shop?’ My goals are big.”

“Obviously everyone questions you, but then in the end, there’s still that support and people believe in you.”

When looking back on his industry journey, Robbie told Collision Repair magazine that it continues to surprise him to think of the process in retrospect.

“While you’re going through it, it seems sometimes like I’ve gotten nowhere, but really I have grown and done a lot,” he said. In this way, while entering the collision repair industry can be formidable at any stage, building a business from the ground up requires a determination, dedication and commitment that must constantly be navigated, whether this be done in a backyard or a freshly built shop.

But, as the collision repair industry enters an optimistic new year, for Robbie Shreenan, only “the sky’s the limit” on what the future can bring.

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