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Upping The Standards

Building the band at Dodge City

BY TOM BISSONNETTE

Initially, my role at Dodge City was twofold: run the day-to-day business of the existing bodyshop, even though the previous shop manager was still on staff, and work with the contractors that were building the new shop next door to Parr and the dealership. It was…interesting. I would be at the old shop for the morning and in early afternoon I would pop over to the construction site to give direction to the building contractor. I have to give the dealer principal credit; he basically gave me a free rein to re-design the floor space and select the equipment needed to bring the shop up to world class standards. I had Ton Reineking lean in on the building design because he had an uncanny knack for design and layout.

The dealer principal originally had the building about 600 sq.-ft. smaller and with supporting tele posts in the middle of the shop. His thought was, “if the bodyshop doesn’t pan out, we can always make the building into a strip mall.” Ton convinced them to nix the tele posts, make a nice drive though layout and install skylights in the ceiling to provide natural light during the day.

For equipment, Ton recommended a downdraft paint booth, a spacious paint mixing room, vacuum extraction throughout the shop, two paint prep stations and a Car- O-Liner bench — mounted on a hydraulic hoist built into the floor—with a mechanical measuring system. Keep in mind that was 1989; this shop was impressive even by today’s standards.

The budget went from half a million to over a million dollars quickly and the dealership’s “controller”—an apt title—Jim, almost lost his mind. Jim was a good guy but he was totally focused on controlling costs, especially at the bodyshop which had been a drag on the business for years. Looking back, I can’t say as I blame him; but for that first full year we were not friends, and I felt he went out of his way to make life tough for the bodyshop. Back at the old shop I had a group of guys that were typical flat rate primadonnas, set in their ways and not happy about changes that were taking place. One of them, Gary, probably the best production body man we had. We had a conversation about his attitude being so negative. He told me “I’ve always had a bad attitude; I’m not going to change it and you’re not going to change it either!” He was right, I didn’t change it, but I changed his employment status.

Maybe you have an individual like that at your shop? They’re your best producer but he’s moody and not willing to be a team player. You think you can’t do without them, until they are gone, and your existing staff come to and tell you how much they appreciate you for doing it!

One of the men that approached me after Gary’s departure was a young man named Vern Windrim; a quiet but very capable young man. I asked him to step up and take on more of the work and he told me that he was thankful because Gary always took the best jobs for himself and left the drippings to everybody else.

I mentioned that the previous bodyshop manager was still employed at the shop and demoted to assistant manager. His name was Len and he was a very nice man but he was probably in his 60s and wasn’t ready to have a 32-year-old whippersnapper tell him how to run a shop. He quit gracefully and went to work for a small local independent shop.

The dealer principal had a son that was basically out of control and one of my jobs was to get the young guy on track. I tried for about two months to talk some sense into this kid, but he was simply too rebellious and unwilling to take advice. It was a tough conversation with the dealer principal to explain to him that for his son’s own good he needed to be fired. Initially, he pushed back but I told him it is either his son or me. I was literally prepared to walk out, but he—thankfully—agreed with me and the kid was gone.

I still struggled with a sense of hopelessness each day that I came to work. We were a single income family and money was tight. I was married with three children under the age of five, and my wife made the decision to be a stay-at-home mom. She had a great job at the local technical college, at that time called Kelsey Institute, but after we paid the children’s daycare it pretty much ate up her wage. She figured that there was no point going to work and have somebody else watch her children grow up. She stayed home for 10 years. When she left Kelsey, she was using a word processor, basically an electronic typewriter; 10 years later offices were using Word and Excel on computers. She started back to work at Kelly Services to be trained on Microsoft software.

In some ways it was tough. We barely had enough money to pay all our bills and most holidays were either staycations or travelling with her parents who had a motorhome. We don’t regret it, if we had to do it all over again we certainly would.

One day in February, when I was in a particularly melancholy mood, a man by the name of Don Pogoda came riding up to the shop on his bicycle—despite the negative- 30-degree temperatures outside. Don came to talk to me about the new shop and all the changes I had planned for the business. He got me talking about the future, not the challenges I was going through right at that time. He made me realize that I had an extraordinary opportunity to raise the bar for collision repair shops in Saskatoon and he told me that he would like to be a part of it. Don was a painter; his brother Dennis was a legendary body man and they grew up working on cars together. I was flabbergasted that a man of his caliber would come and ask me for a job!

I can honestly say that after Don left my office, I knew we were going to do something special together. Once again, I was reminded that once you decide to move forward it seems like some higher power brings the people and resources that you need to succeed. I could feel that power.

The new Dodge City bodyshop opened in March of 1989. We hit the ground running trying to get things organized and the work flowing in. I still had most of the existing staff from the old shop, but it was clear that we were going to need some new staff to meet the surge in work.

Don Pogoda came on board and helped get the paint shop into a nice rhythm. We were doing work for the local Jaguar dealer and Don had previous experience with European vehicles so he was a perfect fit. I needed a body man and, surprisingly, Parr Auto Body basically told Dennis Klemecki to quit and come and work with me! The new manager felt Dennis was loyal to me and he literally talked him out the door. What a gift! Shortly thereafter I got Art Sekuluk and Art’s nephew Darryl Tomyn—both terrific painters from Parr. Brian Sanders, one of the top producing body men in town showed up shortly after and applied for a job, he wanted to work for a shop that was progressive and busy. The final piece was a young man named Abe Fehr, he could do it all, paint, body work, frame and PDR—before anyone had even the slightest clue what that was—with unbelievable speed and quality. It was a combination of, “if you build it, they will come” and that higher power bringing me the resources I needed.

The icing on the cake was getting Don Swick to come and work at Dodge City. I did not mention it before, but I had let Don go from Parr Auto Body about a year earlier. Don was a terrific young man, and it was a hard decision, but I think it was a good lesson for him to temper his enthusiasm. He was managing a local glass shop when I called him and asked him if he’d had enough of the glass business, which was very cutthroat at the time, and would like to come back to the bodyshop world.

Thankfully, he agreed. Once Don came on board, it was like I had my lucky rabbit’s foot back!

We had a state-of-the-art facility, a super busy dealership backing us up and an all-star staff ready to kick things into high gear. I was starting to forget about Parr Auto Body, finally!

TO BE CONTINUED…

TOM BISSONNETTE is the director of the Saskatchewan Association of Automotive Repairers (SAAR). Tom’s Tales is a series of Collision Repair magazine articles chronicling his journey through the collision industry, since 1982. Besides telling his story, Tom hopes that today’s shopowners and manager can learn from his victories—and his mistakes.

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