CARSTAR Peterborough’s vision for a united industry

Story by MAX REID


I’m a second-generation owner, just like many other people in this industry. I started in a family business, went to work on the insurance side as an appraiser for several years, and then started with CARSTAR as a franchisee 20 years ago
– Jim Shirtliff, owner  CARSTAR Peterborough

The truly progressive business leaders recognize our industry for what it is—a living, breathing organism that demands the proper function of all of its parts to achieve unified goals.

That being said, if you view your current relationship with the collision repair industry as more exploitive in nature, we couldn’t hold that against you either.

Shop owners across Canada are feeling caught in middle of competing interests of banners and insurance companies, often with less and less reward trickling down to the franchisee level. Jim Shirtliff, owner of CARSTAR Peterborough, has touched nearly every angle of the automotive aftermarket, having put in time working for insurers as an independent appraiser, managing a dealership collision centre, in addition to being a licensed collision technician.

If there is anyone who knows how to make the many tentacles of our industry function more like the intelligent cephalopod they are attached to, it would be Jim.

“I’m a second-generation owner, just like many other people in this industry. I started in a family business, went to work on the insurance side as an appraiser for several years, and then started with CARSTAR as a franchisee 20 years ago,” Jim said in a chat with Collision Repair.

From a humble beginning as an apprentice at his dad’s shop in Mount Albert, Ontario, the automotive world was what Jim knew well, so he followed the path of collision repair wherever it took him, leaving him with countless learned lessons along the way.

“I was a dealership bodyshop manager for several years, which was a great learning experience as I was educated about budgets, forecasts, income statements, payroll, hiring and firing; I came into that culture 40 years ago,” he said.

“I took the 3M ARMS management course in the early 80s, which was a great eye-opener into how to run an efficient and profitable collision repair business”. Jim has also been actively involved in continuous education in lean management principles under the direction of industry leader, Mike Anderson. “Mike Anderson has been a great mentor over the years, and I appreciate his guidance immensely. I proactively manage our business with KPIs and not opinions or emotions.”

According to Jim, the collision industry currently sits in a “crisis situation” where the demands on insurer-affiliated repair facilities are heavily outweighing the ability of these shops, banner or otherwise, to actually meet these high production numbers.

“You can see that from the lead times when you’ve got shops booking two to four months out,” said Jim.

“You have shops now telling insurance companies to remove them from their DRP because they can’t service them, due to lack of staff—that’s the first time I’ve ever seen that in my career. If we can offer a $5,000 signing bonus and not even get an applicant, is that not telling you that something is wrong?” he said.

Jim feels that, were the collision industry to have an equal seat at the table when decisions are being made, shops would be able to better advocate for and against larger business decisions that would trickle down to affect the operation of high volume shops. “I’m not blaming insurance companies; we are all responsible for the current state of the industry. Banners, bodyshops and insurance companies are all responsible for where we are today. Again, collaboration from all stakeholders is required to move forward, sound economic principles are required to ensure sustainability.”

Having had a direct hand in all these various avenues of the aftermarket, Jim recognizes the value that would come from a unified group who could advocate for the industry, in a way that would be comparable to institutions like the Financial Services Regulatory Authority of Ontario, which is in place to support the insurance industry and the consumer.

The industry needs a national association— it needs a voice. The insurance industry has the FSRAO, who they can approach for rate increases if they are not making a reasonable ROI. The collision repair industry does not have this regulatory body.

“We’ve been talking about this at every CCIF for the past 15 years and nothing changes. Well, we’re here now. Now we are dealing with the inactivity,” said Jim. “If we don’t work in collaboration, we’re not going to solve this problem. We can’t solve this problem while residing in silos.” In fact, Jim says that some of his most valuable professional experiences have been simple conversation with fellow shop owners, from within and without his own banner. “I love 20 Groups. I’ve learned the most in my career through my peers in 20 Groups,” said Jim.

In these groups, Jim has the ability to compare and contrast processes with other shop owners in order to make adjustments at his own business, whether it be a new piece of equipment he ought to buy or better practices for customer relations. What can’t be solved through just conversation, however, is how insurance companies choose to do business.

“I hear every day [from insurers], ‘Oh, we don’t pay for that.’ Well, if it is a required operation to restore the vehicle to pre-loss condition, the repairer should be compensated. This approach to the approval of the estimate needs to stop; not compensating for operations that the technician must perform is another reason we cannot attract or retain technicians; no one works for free.” “If insurance companies are not making a sustainable return on their investments, they may need to look internally at their administrative overhead and the actuarial practices underwriting the risk?

These persistent financial squabbles with the insurance industry do little to improve the actual day-to-day reality of modern bodyshop’s who are attempting to complete more and more work with fewer and fewer staff. “I think there is a monumental lag between the perception of insurers and their underwriters to the reality of what’s happening on the floor of a modern collision repair facility,” he said.

“I think a lot of that comes down to the financial ability of the shop to be able to afford to supply that training. Flying technicians to the U.S. or to Europe for OEM training is a considerable cost to any shop; the days of bodyshops being able to afford to do that are over, and yet it is a necessity.”

When it comes down to CARSTAR Peterborough specifically, however, Jim appears to have most of all he needs within his 6,000 square-foot facility in the city’s east end. Having come up in the bustle of the Greater Toronto Area, Jim says he is still getting attuned to the slower pace of life out in Peterborough, but is proud to consider the city his home, five years following his purchase of the facility, and takes active steps to give back. “We support all the local sports clubs, including the Peterborough Petes, Peterborough Lakers, in addition to multiple charities. We’re very active in the community and my wife was born and raised here,” said Jim. Much has changed since he first started out at his father’s shop in Mount Albert, but there are few people with a keener view on the collision industry than Jim.

It feels safe to say that whatever new industry challenges present themselves, Jim will have some amount of prior experience or critical insight that will guide him and CARSTAR Peterborough toward a long and successful future in their community.


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