Small Business and Franchise Success Stories

Jack Biddle
Collision on Wheels
When you buy a franchise you expect to take a risk. Few people assume the greatest risk to their small business investment will be created by government legislation.

But that’s the case for entrepreneur Jack Biddle and his Collision on Wheels of Greater Pittsburgh franchise, a small business that makes cosmetic repairs to cars at customer locations instead of at a body shop.

Not that the business model doesn’t make sense; the problem is the franchise opened just as the bottom dropped out of the new car business, a segment of the industry responsible for 90% of the franchise’s revenue. To make matters worse, Gary explains, “The Cash for Clunkers program is killing us because the cars that are defined as clunkers are typically cars that would have been repaired and sold… and that repair is something we could have participated in and generated revenue from.”

While it might sound odd that brand-new cars need cosmetic repairs, very few arrive on a dealer’s lot in pristine condition. “New cars get small dings, acid rain on the ships… very few arrive without needing some sort of repair,” Gary says. “So we do a number of new cars. We also do a lot of the cars dealers buy at auction – typically low mileage vehicles with less than 15,000 miles. We rejuvenate them so they can be sold as ‘almost new’ cars.”

“We have the skills, but we choose not to do structural repairs,” Gary continues. “We are cosmetic repair specialists; in a way we’re like plastic surgeons for automobiles.”

Dealing with unforeseen events is a way of life for entrepreneurs and franchise owners. When Jack decided to buy the franchise, he brought a wealth of experience to bear and did a tremendous amount of research and due diligence.

“I’ve been selling my whole life,” Gary says. “I spent thirty plus years in the building materials industry, running hardware stores and lumber yards, including ten years running wholesale building materials distribution facilities. Towards the end of my career I worked in the IT side of the industry.”

How did he get his start? “I worked for a hardware story and ran an organic lawn care service called Green Thumb,” Gary says. “We were the only location in the company that made money that year. So we went to the national convention, I talked about some of the things I had done, and when I sat down, the guy sitting next to me said, ‘Okay – how much is it going to cost me to get you to run my business for me?’”

Jack made that move – and a lot of other moves. “I don’t think I stayed anywhere longer than four years… until something either caught my fancy or lured me away to do something else.”

His last position was with a $2 billion company as Director of IT Training. The company told Jack he needed to move to Florida, and he and his wife – who also worked for the company – decided not to make the move. “It made it possible for us both to leave,” Jack says, “and gave us time to start looking for a business. We like where we live, so let’s see if we can find something that can keep us here.”

During the research phase Jack worked up with a franchise consultant, who helped them find and identify franchise opportunities. “The only instruction we gave her,” Jack says, “is that we don’t want a fast food place. We were open to anything else.”

“So while [consultant] was introducing concepts to us,” Jack continues, “we would investigate them. I had a three-foot stack of franchise opportunities we read through, and we just kept leaning towards automotive-related franchises. So when she brought the Collision on Wheels franchise opportunity to us, it just clicked. It seemed like a great idea and I still believe in the concept.”

And he’s learned a lot. “In retrospect I would do several things differently,” Jack explains. “One is where the technician is concerned. The person who does the work is a key component, and I took a very aggressive position and overpaid for employees. I was paying somewhere in excess of 50% of revenues in salaries before I even paid myself. I got too excited about the quality of the people I was hiring and overpaid. I thought by paying them more I could get more out of them… and it just never worked out that way.”

“But the single largest mistake I made was to grow too rapidly. I bought two trucks, and then I very quickly bought a sales truck, and as soon as I had two technicians busy, I bought a third truck and a fourth truck and a fifth truck. In the course of the first year I took on a lot of unnecessary equipment expense.”

Yet he is still hopeful. While he does not feel automotive industry struggles are near an end, he still sees a long-term opportunity. Jack’s franchise has built strong relationship with dealers, and he feels those dealers are financially strong enough to weather any storm. While he doesn’t see opportunities for growth he does look for ways to optimize operations and run as cost-effectively as possible.

“I probably do more car dealer business than all the rest of the franchisees combined,” says Jack. “I have a sales background, so I’m comfortable working with sales managers and I’ve built respectful relationships. They know that what I say we’re going to do, we do. For example, a dealer called me yesterday at 6:30 p.m. and said, ‘I need somebody tomorrow. I have a problem.’ Our technician was there by 10 a.m. to take care of their problem. They stick with us because they know they can rely on us.”

What else has Gary learned? “Working with auto body technicians has been a true learning experience,” he says. “Remember I used to manage as many as 1,600 people. But auto body techs have an artistic temperament I really had to learn how to manage. I was not capable of managing that type of person in the beginning… but that has all been a good part of learning how to run the franchise.”

Gary offers further advice for entrepreneurs interested in buying a franchise and starting a small business. “Do thorough research before making a decision,” he says. “Don’t just go with something that feels good. Make sure it not only feels good but makes sense… there is lots of stuff out there that feels good at first glance, but when you dig into them thoroughly they just doesn’t make business sense.”

“And just as importantly,” Jack says, “You can never be over-capitalized.” Jack decided early on not to take on debt, instead turning to Guidant Financial Group for help investing his 401(k) into the franchise. “The biggest reason I’ve heard from franchisees that didn’t make it is they didn’t have [sufficient capital]. They expected to make money after sixty or ninety days… and you’re just not going to do that. ”

Yet despite it all, Jack is still confident. “I know our small business investment will pay off – I believe in the concept and I believe in myself.”


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