California Collision Shop Owner Continues Family TraditionPosted 4/14/2005
By Alexis Gross
Bernie and Laurie Gates opened Prestige Auto Collision Inc. in Mission Viejo, Calif., in 1984. What started as a 10,000-square-foot four-person operation has since grown to 35,000 square feet and up to 70 employees. In their first month, they made $70,000 in sales, and it's been increasing ever since.
For Gates, the business is a natural fit for him.
"It's in my blood," he said. "I've always been a car guy and into hot rods. It's something I've always enjoyed."
He started his career sweeping up his father's shop when he was only 10 years old. He moved on to work for a Cadillac dealership, a Porsche specialty shop and a Mercedes specialty shop. There he met Laurie and began a new life, not only in marriage, but in opening their business.
"I love the challenge," said Gates of collision repair. "There's something about taking a car that's really been whacked and sending it back out the door better than before it was wrecked."
"While we've always had access to training, we were never certified by the factory as such," said Gates. "We just got the certification in December, and I think it will make a tremendous impact on our business. There are not many independent body shops that are factory-approved. You have to have factory-approved equipment and extensive training."
As a certified shop, Prestige receives updates on new models immediately, which is a big advantage in the competitive southern California market.
Another big advantage for Prestige is the tightly knit family that runs it. Gates' daughter, Amy Beckner, does bookkeeping; son Darrell Gates is an estimator; Laurie's mother, Delores Rouse, checks all the estimates; and son-in-law Vance Beckner is general manager. The other 60-plus people at Prestige, many of whom have been there for years, are considered family.
"We have barbecues in the summer. I know their families," he said. "The guys come to me with questions about how to buy real estate. I've loaned them money for down payments on a house."
"That's a big milestone, and something they should be recognized for," he said.
The feeling of trust and security that flows from these relationships shows in Gates' management style.
"I give everybody who works for me the authority to make decisions about the company for the benefit of the company, and amazingly enough, most of the time they make the right decisions," he said. "When they have the authority, they usually think about what they're doing instead of doing something arbitrary, because they have an investment in the decision."
It's important for everyone to think of what's best for the company and mold their job around that, said Gates. His outside sales manager, Rick Iosua, for example, has been creative in his sales calls to insurance companies. Prestige follows up on those relationships in a variety of ways, including an annual Christmas party for everyone they do business with.
Gates also keeps a close relationship with his suppliers, and gets discounts and training in return. Developing these long-term relationships is important to make sure you get the job done quickly, efficiently and right the first time, he said.
That proactive philosophy spills over into his customer relationships as well.
"The customers are the most important thing," said Gates. "They're the ones who bring you the business, even if the insurance company pays the bill. They're the ones who ultimately have to be satisfied with their repair and experience. I try to be as proactive as possible to make sure problems are handled before the customer sees their car, not after. When you can do something a little extra for the customer, that's the cheapest advertising you can do."
"It's just the thing you do (for your business)," he said. "Finding out what's working for other guys is part of being proactive instead of reactive. You get a million ideas and hopefully you find one that works for you."
Like many shop owners, there's not much Gates would change about his work. As he said, the industry changes all by itself without you having to do anything. One thing he would like to see, however, is more vocational education in high schools and colleges.
"The way things are going, it's getting hard to find good quality technicians to do the work," he said. "There is one high school in town that has an automotive program and a collision repair class. Every year they bring the class over and we show them around the shop for a few hours. But most of the schools are concentrating on academics and computers, and the automotive industry has gotten pushed to the wayside."
Overall, Gates feels confident about the state of his business.
"We have everything in place that we need to have in place," he said. "I'm just about an absentee owner now. Obviously it helps to have family there, but all my employees are incredible. They have a lot of respect for the business and for the customers.
Gates hopes to acquire the remaining half-building that is part of his four-building complex, but other than that, he's looking forward to retirement.
"It's been 20 years, and it's continually grown. The first 10 years or so, my wife and I were down there 70 or 80 hours a week, so we've paid our dues," he said. "The shop will continue to grow a lot on its own merit. A lot of our customers are repeat customers. We're pretty entrenched in the community. Once we get that last 5,000 square feet, I'll be happy. Our growth has been slow and steady over the years. I didn't try to make it all happen at once, it just happened along the way."
Shop StatsName: Prestige Auto Collision Inc.
Location: Mission Viejo, Calif.
No. of employees: 60-70
Projected annual sales volume: $9 million
Company Philosophy: I give everybody who works for me the authority to make decisions about the company for the benefit of the company.
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