Operations - February 2002

On the Go
Mobile Automotive Reconditioning
By Prentice St. Clair

Windshield repair is one of many reconditioning services that can be provided to both the retail customer and the auto dealership.

Most of us who are currently involved in the automotive reconditioning industry had to, at one point or another, make a decision as to whether or not we would have a mobile or fixed operation. For those just entering the industry, this is a common decision point. For others who are considering expanding an established fixed operation, adding a mobile "satellite" operation may make a lot of sense. The attraction of a mobile business is that it generally involves a much lower start-up and supply cost, as well as the fact that you are free of the hassles of having a storefront to man and maintain all through the week.

This article is intended to provide information on some of the issues that surround the establishment of a mobile automotive reconditioning business. These issues fall into four categories. The first covers the establishment of a professional business operation, regardless of what services are being provided. The second involves the service options available to the professional mobile operator. The third concerns the choice of vehicle. Lastly, there is the issue of target market.

ISSUE 1: ESTABLISHING A
PROFESSIONAL BUSINESS OPERATION

Regardless of what type of service you decide to provide or to whom, there are certain characteristics and practices that establish your business as a professional operation. These include proper licensing and permits, insurance coverage, professional image, record keeping, scheduling, and environmental and occupational hazard requirements.

Permits and Licensing
In most situations, permits are not required to operate the service businesses discussed in this article. However, I recommend checking with your local authorities anyway. It may be the case that the simple act of filling out some paperwork to apply for a permit can save you headaches and punitive fines down the line.

Virtually every municipality in the country requires some type of business license for operation within city, county, or state boundaries, as the case may be. Usually, this is again a simple matter of filling out some paperwork and paying a small annual fee. Having such a license allows you to operate legally within the municipality. As such, it legitimizes your business not only in the minds of the local government, but more importantly in the perception of your customers.

Insurance
Every mobile operation should have adequate insurance. Insurance essentially protects the earning potential of your business by covering you in the event of an accident. Although we all try to operate safely, it is possible for a single mishap to financially shut down an improperly insured mobile automotive reconditioning business. In essence, the insurance policy pays for most of the damage so you don't have to, thus allowing you to regroup and continue your business operations. Having insurance is not only prudent, it may also be a requirement of the customer in order for you to have access to the vehicles, especially with regard to dealerships and fleet accounts. Advertise the fact that you are correctly insured; this will help improve your professional image among customers.

To protect yourself while working with customer's vehicles, you need a "garage keepers" or "shop keepers" policy. This usually includes "garage keepers liability," which covers you in the event of damage to the customer's vehicle. It also usually includes
coverage against damage to other vehicles as well as injuries to customers. Garage keepers coverage is usually sufficient to cover your business, limiting the need for general liability policies or bonds. Of course, your vehicle and its contents also need to be covered, and this can usually be done through your standard automobile policy. Your carrier may require that you have higher limits of liability since you are using the vehicle for business. Make sure that your equipment is covered at "replacement value" as well.

Professional Image
Your business image is critical to attracting new customers, especially on the retail side. Start by creating a business name that suggests what you do and how well you do it. I recommend a name that suggests that you offer solutions for the customer. Also, if you are starting with one specific service, you might consider using a name that is more general so that you can easily add more services down the line (i.e., Joe's Automotive Reconditioning versus Joe's Detailing).

Once you have established a name, choose colors or a logo that not only attract attention but also suggest the notions of "clean, honest, and professional." Make sure that your uniforms, signage, business cards, and stationery are all consistent in their color scheme and layout. Your personal grooming should match that of the customers that you wish to attract to your business. And, of course, your vehicle should be clean and in good working order all the time.

Left: Paint touch-up is an appropriate - and profitable - service the mobile operator can provide.

Record Keeping
Another important part of operating a professional business is keeping good records. Collect basic information on all customers, including full name, address, work and home phone numbers, vehicle year/make/model/VIN, and services provided during the last visit. This information on the customer becomes a valuable tool for future marketing efforts. As the time-honored saying goes, it is much easier to keep a current customer than to try to find a new one.

Of course, good record keeping also includes bookkeeping. Track your expenses and income to help you make business decisions month-to-month and year-to-year. Computerize your bookkeeping for simplicity and hand off your bookkeeping to a professional as soon as possible. Professional bookkeepers can do the work better and more efficiently, allowing you to spend your precious time generating more income rather than sifting through receipts.

Proper scheduling is critical to a successful operation. You must have a printed or computerized calendar to keep track of your appointments and prevent double booking. In the early weeks and months of your operation, you will gain experience and understanding of the time commitments required for each of the services you provide, and your scheduling will become more precise. Soon you will be able to customize your schedule so that you are in one neighborhood for an entire day, thus cutting down on travel time.

EPA and OSHA Requirements
Be aware of how these two bodies of national regulations affect the operation of your business. If your business involves the use of hazardous substances, determine the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) requirements for protecting yourself and your employees while using such substances. Also determine the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirements, including proper disposal, for protecting the environment from such substances. Remember that these regulations apply everywhere in the country; even though your local municipality may have variations in how the regulations are enforced, you should strive to be in compliance.

ISSUE 2:
CHOOSING A SERVICE TO PROVIDE

There are a number of options available to the individual considering a mobile automotive reconditioning operation. There are two basic categories. The first involves cleaning, restoration, and repair of the vehicle surfaces. The second involves enhancements to the vehicle's appearance and function.

Cleaning, Restoration, and Repair
Of course, detailing is the first thing that comes to mind here. The goal of most detailing is to clean and protect the various surfaces of the vehicle, including the engine compartment, the interior (seats, carpeting, dash, center console, door panels, etc.), and the exterior (paint, tires and trim, glass, chrome, etc.). Regular vehicle washing is another service that can be provided either as an adjunct to a detailing operation or as a business unto itself. For example, dealer lots and fleet vehicles are usually washed several times per week.

Restoration and repair services are provided in those situations in which there is actual damage to the vehicle surface. Generally, these services save the customer the expense and inconvenience of traditional replacement and full-service repairs by offering a service that takes care of the problem on a smaller scale at a fraction of the cost and time requirement. For example, bumper scuffs, key scratches, and stone chips in the paint can be taken care of using established professional touch-up and spot paint repair techniques. These repairs generally take less than two hours and cost the customer hundreds less than traditional body shop repairs, which also usually require that the customer be without the vehicle for several days.

Paintless dent removal (PDR) is akin to minor paint repair techniques in that it affords the customer another option from the typically expensive body shop bill. PDR tools and processes allow the trained technician to massage out minor dings and dents that have no paint damage.

Another example is professional windshield repair. Windshield damage such as bulls-eyes, star cracks, and some long cracks can be effectively repaired at a fraction of the cost of replacement.

Interior repair techniques allow the trained professional to repair leather, vinyl, hard plastic, dashboards, and carpeting in the interior of the vehicle. Again, this saves the customer time and money over full replacement of the damaged surfaces. Carpet dyeing is another way to restore the beauty of the interior of the vehicle, by re-coloring faded, worn, and stained carpeting, giving the carpet, and indeed the entire vehicle interior, a like-new appearance.

Appearance and Functional Enhancements
These services customize the vehicle with aftermarket additions such as window tinting, gold plating, graphics, interior trim enhancements, sprayed-on bed liners, and a myriad of custom accessories, some of which have functional enhancement. Some of these services require specialized training while others can be accomplished by simply reading the directions.

Each of these services has tremendous earnings potential. Each has its own specialized set of equipment, supplies, and chemicals. And as with any new profession, training and education are key to producing high-quality repairs that command a fair market payment from the customer. There are several top-notch "schools" in the country that have put together complete kits as well as hands-on or video training programs for each of the services. It is strongly recommended that the prospective automotive reconditioning specialist invest the time and money to learn the trade. It is a relatively small investment when considering the potential earnings over the life of an automotive reconditioning career.

You can start with one service, establish yourself as a professional operator with a set of loyal customers, and then drop in another service. Or you can start with multiple services and create a complete automotive reconditioning and customizing operation right off the bat.

Start-up costs range from $500 for the simplest windshield repair kits or carpet-dyeing kits to $15,000 for a complete professional detailing outfit. And there is a complete range in-between.

ISSUE 3:
CHOOSING A VEHICLE

Of course, being mobile means you have to have some sort of transportation. Some of the services require minimal space. For example, most windshield repair and interior repair kits can fit into the trunk of a sedan. A full set of paintless dent repair tools or a paint repair kit can usually fit in the back of a minivan or station wagon.

A complete professional detailing operation or a multiple-service operation may require a full-size van, trailer, or even a utility truck. The advantage of a trailer is that you can use a personal vehicle to tow it and regain use of that vehicle simply by unhitching the trailer. As such, it is not necessary to purchase a separate business vehicle when you have a trailer. The disadvantage of a trailer is that a two-part vehicle may not fit into all parking situations.

In general, a smaller vehicle will involve less up-front cost, lower operational cost, and allow for greater accessibility into more parking situations. It is not necessary to start out with the most expensive, newest vehicle, but make sure that whatever you are working with is clean, free of extensive external damage, and runs reliably.

ISSUE 4:
SELECTING A TARGET MARKET


Mobile automotive reconditioning and enhancement services can be offered to both the retail market of private vehicle owners and to the wholesale market of vehicle dealerships and any business that uses a fleet of vehicles. Retail work generally commands a higher per vehicle rate but requires higher quality work that takes more time. Wholesale work usually involves a lower per vehicle rate that is made up in volume and by completing more jobs per day. The approach to each market will be somewhat different, but a comfortable living can be made by servicing either one. Operators who take advantage of both markets find that the wholesale side provides an excellent "bread-and-butter" baseline salary while the retail market yields the "frosting-on-the-cake" bonus that adds to a comfortable lifestyle.

SUMMARY

There are a number of automotive reconditioning services that can be offered on a mobile basis. With the correct marketing and professional operation, each service individually can provide a career for the dedicated, properly trained technician, whereas combining services can create a one-stop operation whose convenience is attractive to time-starved customers. The keys to success in any mobile operation is correct training, quality equipment and
supplies, professional operation, good marketing, and dedication to your customers.

Prentice St. Clair owns and operates Detail in Progress, an automotive reconditioning brokerage and consulting firm. He is the author of several training videos and also is the lead trainer at Rightlook.com in San Diego, CA. He is available for questions or comments at (619) 701-1100.

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