By Jeff Sanford
Toronto, Ontario -- August 1, 2016 -- The collision repair industry is a varied and diverse place. Some shop owners specialize in fleets. Others focus on imported cars. There are those who do custom work. Some do paintless dent repair. And then there are those who work in the biggest and most expensive shops in the country, the heavy truck collision repair facilities.
Stepping into this world is to enter the land of giants. The shops are the biggest in the industry. They sprawl across tens of thousands of square feet. The paint booths can extend beyond sixty feet in length. The vehicles are the largest on the road. Techs haul huge parts up and down ladders to service them, so the work is hard and physically taxing. But the work also demands real skills. Straightening a multi-axle trailer rollover on a massive 60-foot frame is no small bit of work. The repair bills are massive, often more than what most people spend on a brand new car. So it’s no wonder the competition is fierce. A sluggish economy has many in the sector working harder than ever to keep clients loyal, but those who survive are proud of what they've accomplished. It might be appropriate to say that heavy truck collision repair is the toughest, most hardcore sector in the industry.
Garry Letichever is the CEO of Toronto Truck Collision. The company has been in operation for over 35 years. They do truck alignment, body damage repair, chassis modification, refurbishment, refinishing, frame work, panel beating, cab and chassis straightening and painting. They do this on everything from fridge body vehicles to horseboxes. The shop can handle and repair any make and model of truck up to 10 tonnes. The building itself is a fantastic and massive 37,000 sq. ft. space located in the urban jungle of northwest Toronto. This isn't the usual setting. Most heavy truck collision centres are found just outside cities in large industrial parks near highways. The company's paint booth is a mighty and majestic 62 feet long.
“Trucking is a tough business. It's not easy. Operators just want to get that rig back on the road,” says Letichever. “They have a load to haul. Their money is just sitting there when they're not driving.”
The commercial nature of the vehicles drives the business dynamics of the industry. These are invariably working vehicles. Time off the road costs a lot of money and so there is huge pressure to get the trucks fixed and back out on the road.
“Estimates can take five or six days,” says Letichever. “You can get an estimate in an hour on a car, but in this sector the parts are coming from the dealer. You have to wait to get the quotes back. It takes time.”
No matter what, the cost of repairing a big rig that's been in a collision is going to be huge. Insurance companies take longer to okay estimates. Getting an insurer to sign off on a work order that is over $100,000 is going to take some time to arrange. According to Letichever that lag time often gets the owners of the trucks riled.
“By the time insurance companies get around to checking the estimate the owners are already getting impatient,” he says with a laugh. “The owners of the fleets get on the insurance companies real quick. They want their trucks back on the road. It's not uncommon for us to be waiting on an estimate for two or three weeks.”
If the wait time is too long and damage to a truck cosmetic, not structural, Letichever will sometimes send the rig back out on the road until the okay comes in as a way of saving the client money.
“I'll put it back on the road and get it out there. If you're the owner of a fleet you want your truck on the road. Once we get the go-ahead we'll bring it back in and get the damage fixed up,” he says.
The volume of work at the Toronto facility is steady. “I don't know about other places but we're lucky to have lots of contact and insurance work,” he says. Letichever notes that statistics indicate there are about six-and-a-half thousand accidents reported each year in his region alone. “We get a steady volume, three to five a week. People are always crashing. It doesn't matter if the economy is up or down. If trucks are moving there are going to be accidents,” he says.
Every job that rolls into the shop is unique. A trailer can smash into another trailer. Trucks can jackknife. “It's all kinds of things. Every case is different,” says Letichever. The final repair bills in this sector are also the largest in the industry. “It's not uncommon to do a $60,0000 or $80,0000 repair. You're not going to write off a truck if the work can be done for $70,000 or $80,000,” he says.
When asked if he has any complaints, his answer is one that will be familiar to anyone in the industry, be it car or heavy truck repair: “Insurance companies trying to take shortcuts ... that's always an issue. We're always fighting with the insurance company. We're always trying to get the repair done right.”
Today, big transit companies like the Toronto Transit Commission and the transit authority in Hamilton run their own large shops for their bus fleets. Other heavy truck shops will focus on construction machinery, which is most common in the west where energy infrastructure projects see greater numbers of heavy trucks running on rough, remote roads. Another interesting niche in this sector involves the biggest vehicles travelling at the highest speed through cities, fire trucks.
In Calgary, Alta., Brenda Petraschuk works as Vice President of PET Auto Body. She runs the company with her partner Darrell. Like so many of the husband and wife teams in the industry, Darrell oversees the customers and the techs on the shop floor. Brenda runs the operation and does the books. Hard work and many sacrifices have ensured that the company has thrived since 1992.
“We work really hard,” says Petraschuk. Her secret to staying in business is cultivating and maintaining loyal long-term customers as well as building a great ensemble team of employees. “Both our customers and employees are integral to our business. Without customer service, quality and trust you have nothing, but you can’t build that foundation without great employees. For Darrell and myself, both our employees and our customers are one big family unit, and that is how we can maintain the long-term relationships,” she says. “Family first. Our company is successful because of the name we have built for ourselves, because Darrell earned the trust of our customers, but it took our team to build it.”
She says it was it tough going in the early days. “It was hard. We had to earn a lot of respect and trust from our clients. It took a while,” she says. “We had some really lean times in those first five to seven years.” More than a quarter century later, the reputation has solidified as a result of consistently good service.
“Quality control is everything in this industry,” says Petraschuk. “The first thing isn't price. Long after the job is done it's not the price they remember, it's the quality and service. We work one-on-one with the customer. We're very personable. I think that's the difference. Our estimates are complete and thorough and our company is well known throughout the industry. We work with our customers to ensure that they are completely satisfied. We work with our employees to ensure that they are satisfied. We are a family here.”
Consider these words of wisdom from someone who has been through both good and bad times.
“Many of our clients have been with us from the beginning. We have grown together and we help each other out through the good times and the bad times. Having those long-term clients really helps. Our clients know that they can trust us, that quality and service sets us apart from our competitors. That's our secret. Other competitors may be struggling, but we are still here,” says Petrashuck.
Along with a good clientele list some of the work for the shop comes from the Calgary Fire Department, which often sends its firetrucks to PET for repair.
“They're great people to work for and with,” says Petrashuk.
Like so many in the province of Alberta these days she's a bit worried about the economy. In the wake of the Great Recession of 2008 the price of oil has plunged from record highs and the economy has taken a hit.
“We're hoping the pipelines get built,” says Petraschuk. New energy infrastructure projects would help heavy truck repair facilities. The trucks that haul materials to remote construction sites experience vibration damage, cracked windshields and dented bodies. But there are few big energy projects underway. The oil-dependent Alberta economy is sluggish.
“The business in Alberta right now is not as it had been. It's trickling in. There is not as much work being done right now. No one is doing any more than they have to. Customers aren't spending money. They're not upgrading equipment. If they have to fix something, they fix it, but they're not doing anything extra,” says Petraschuk. “We'll see how this summer goes. Summer is the slow time. Clients will sometimes use that time to get their trucks painted. Hopefully we'll see some of that this year.”
Concerns about the state of the Alberta economy are rife throughout the sector. “It's tough in the province right now. I can see three or four 'For Lease' signs from my office. The street we're on is quiet. There's nothing going on. It's a like a light switch went off here in Alberta,” says Steve Ray, General Manager of Western Paint & Body Works.
His company does heavy truck collision repair in Calgary. In the past Western has targeted the motor coach and bus sectors. Today the focus of the company is shifting again as the industry changes. Ray explains the deep shifts occurring in the industry.
“Trucks are about five years behind cars. You're just now seeing adaptive cruise control, lane change assist and automatic braking on trucks,” says Ray. That is, the number of sensors and cameras on the big rigs is exploding, making repairs more expensive and complex. New features like automatic braking and lane change assist are working to reduce the number of accidents. This is making it tough for the smaller shops.
“When it comes to the heavy truck collision repair industry in Calgary it's a small community. There are probably five big places in a city of one million. The best techs know where they should go. That's the way the business is. And I'm okay with that,” says Ray.
Time to find a new niche line of business. Which is what Ray did. He got serious about focusing on a specialty niche in the heavy truck collision repair sector. He spent a year and a half researching what areas of the industry were under served. The answer that came back was recreational vehicles (RVs).
“When I talked to people it turns out there was an opening here. We've found a market where there aren't too many guys. We really go after the RV business now,” he says. “You can’t be a one trick pony in this business. You have to change direction when the market demands. You have to think about where the market demand is. When the market demanded long haul tracks we did them. When the market demanded school buses we did a lot of school buses. Now the boomers are retiring and so we do what we have to do.”
There is never a dull day in heavy truck collision repair.