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
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
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"
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.