By Robert Bravender
Have you ever walked into a shop to find it’s been open only a week? Well, in this new facility, at least, that was the case.
Joe Hudson’s Collision Center, Inc., is actually a regional chain of state-of-the-art body shops that’s been around since 1989. Based out of Montgomery, Ala., they currently have 113 stores in eleven states, and recently expanded into the Tri-Cities region of Tennessee.
“I think they moved into the area at the first of this year with the Kingsport store,” said shop manager Jason Sutherland. “Around that same time they also bought the Johnson City one.” Eventually a store in Bristol was purchased, making a clean sweep of the Tri-Cities.
As it happened, the store in Johnson City was a package deal; besides the original shop, located in a cove off the municipality’s Motor Mile, the previous owner had also recently bought an empty lot right on the road itself.
“He already had plans to build a new shop here, and that just rolled over to Joe Hudson’s as part of the sale,” reported Sutherland.
The staff also rolled over in what amounted to a turnkey operation.
“They kept a lot of the people from the original shop, and that helps,” noted Sutherland. “They just retrained the personnel on Joe Hudson’s way of doing things.”
For the I-CAR-certified technicians, a lot of that involved documentation.
“For instance, if you weld a quarter panel on a car, we take pictures of all the welds before they’re roughed up or anything, to document what we did,” he cited. “If we’re bondo-ing a panel, we’ll actually get a picture of it going together, and then a picture of the bonding material that we’re using. We use AllData, and it will give us the exact locations of each weld, and what of materials to use.”
They also use an integrated program called RTS, which Joe Hudson’s had custom-made for the company.
“Say a body technician logs onto a car when they start on it, and log off when it goes to the paint department,” Sutherland said. “Then the painter does the same, logging on and off the car as they work on it. That way we can tell a car spent X amount of time in this or that department, X amount of time being put back together.”
And each time a car moves from body to paint, then to reassembly, finally to detail, a notification is sent to the customer, keeping them in the loop.
“Then we’ve got a call list like every two days, telling us what customers to call so when can tell where their vehicle is at, what we’re doing, etc.,” Sutherland said.
The jobs in the shop break down into four body men, a detailer, and one painter. Up front there’s an office manager, an estimator, a parts manager, and Sutherland. For his part, Sutherland wasn’t with the shop those first few months in Johnson City. He was working at the Kingsport store when Joe Hudson’s bought it, but then the Covid-19 quarantine was enforced, and he was temporarily furloughed.
“We slowed down when it first hit, but now we’re picking back up to pre-Covid levels,” he explained. “And when they brought me back I made the jump to Johnson City. I came in at the end of April as an estimator/manager, then became the shop manager.”
Sutherland’s own professional career in the industry began in 1997, when he started at a dealership as a detailer. Working his way up through the ranks, his most pertinent experience was as a service advisor and body shop manager, but this still didn’t quite prepare him for overseeing the move from the old shop to the brand new one.
“It was a stressful few days,” Sutherland said, laughing. “We actually did it the week before last. Had to make sure everything was working like it needed to be, and get everybody set up in their space. Of course Joe Hudson’s had some people up here to help pack equipment.”
Corporate muscle — literally. And there’s the equipment itself.
“Anything that we might possibly need, Joe Hudson’s makes sure we have it,” he proclaimed. “The pinch welder, for example; that was a major investment. Like if you’re putting a roof skin on a car, that’s the tool you need. The frame machine, of course, a Chief.”
At 18,000 square feet, the new facility is probably twice the size of the old shop.
“And it’s laid out quite a bit differently,” Sutherland commented. “Everything here is wide open; the other shop was cut up into little sections where they had added on here and there over the years — it was like a puzzle. You were running all around to get stuff done. Now everybody’s in one space and there’s great work flow.”
With this clean slate, Sutherland and his crew were able to set up the shop the way they wanted.
“Me, the painters and the body men, we all got together and decided where to put the frame machine, where to put the lifts, where their stalls were going to be, the paint booth, all that stuff. I can take one look out my window and see what everybody’s doing.”
While Joe Hudson’s presence on the Motor Mile puts them in proximity to some of the city’s bigger dealerships, Sutherland reported that most of the corporation’s business comes from being a direct repair shop for nearly all the major insurance companies. One exception is a Nissan dealer, for whom they’ve started doing warranty work.
“I worked with them in the past, and once they found out I was here, they started sending work down here to us,” he admitted. “But I think it all works the same; you try to get the car in, get it fixed right, and out the door, as quickly as possible.”
While a big company like Joe Hudson’s can’t build that kind a local reputation overnight, they do have resources most shops only dream of, like a regional review board which functions essentially as a buffer between the shop and the insurance companies.
“When we write an estimate,” explained Sutherland, “before it goes to the insurance company, it goes to actual Joe Hudson people who have worked for the insurance companies, like adjustors, etc. They go through and double check our estimates and make sure that we got everything right for the insurance companies.
“They’ll send it back to us, and they’ll say ‘correct this,’ or ‘great job,’ or ‘get better photographs,’ stuff you wouldn’t have thought of when you’re an independent,” he continued. “That team double checks everything we do, which is a great resource, because it helps us know we’re doing it right.”
And since there’s no waiting for an adjustor to come out, this helps speed up the process for the customer.
“On every repair we have a pre-repair stand and a post-repair stand,” Sutherland explained. “That will tell us is there is any kind of trouble codes in the vehicle before we start, and then when we’re done it will help us see if there was something we caused, or something wreck-related that we wouldn’t have seen because there were no trouble lights on, but there was a trouble code in the vehicle. That’s a big help with safety, and it’ll tell us if any cameras need to be calibrated.”
Such calibration still has to be done through the dealerships, however.
“You’ve got to have like 40 feet of space around the vehicle to set up the targets for these cameras,” noted Sutherland. “I try to keep a good working relationship with all the dealers because of that. We can get a backlog sometimes, and I’ll call them up and say ‘we’re hurtin’.”
The company they use for the post repair stands also has a mobile calibration unit in the Knoxville market.
“And supposedly they’re getting one together in this area where we could call them and have them come out and aim whatever needs to be aimed, calibrated, etc. Then we wouldn’t have to be dependent on the dealers to get them in and out, and help our cycle time.”
In the meantime, Sutherland feels confident with the resources at his disposal.
“The biggest thing here is I’ve got an army behind me,” he emphasized. “If I run into a problem car, I can call one of the guys that do the reviews and he’ll call the insurance company and say ‘Hey, this is what we’ve got.’ Or if the insurance company wants us to repair something versus replacing it, we’ve got the muscle behind us to get done what needs to be done for the repair of the vehicle.” •