This is a transcript of an interview between AutoMobile Technologies and Nathane Vanhoose, owner of SkratchHouse Auto Restoration Services in Columbus, Ohio. The full recording from which this edited version was written can be found in the Podcast section of this site.
AMT: We’re speaking today with Nathane Vanhoose of SkratchHouse Auto Restoration Services in Columbus, Ohio. I’m Ted Gaines with AMT and today we want to talk to Nathane a little bit about his experience in the industry, how he got his start, and where he sees the industry going in the future. So, without further ado, welcome Nathane. Thanks for joining us this afternoon!
Nathane: Thank You! Good afternoon to you, as well.
AMT: Thanks. First off, you have SkratchHouse Auto Reconditioning Services in Columbus, Ohio. We’re curious, how long have you been working in the industry?
Nathane: Well, I’m 41 as of now and I really started out as a big hometown dealership and in 1995, I started my first detail shop out of high school and never really quit being in the car business since. In the last 8 – 9 years, I really picked it up with SkratchHouse and we have a pretty good footprint in the Columbus, Ohio market.
We work with 40 – 45 dealer recon accounts on a regular basis and it varies anywhere from paint touch-ups, scratch removal, clear coat reconditioning, and windshield repair. We also do some side services like odor treatment and headlight restoration. All that started in about 2011 and it definitely has felt like we’re going in the right direction. We’re growing every year, adding more employees. We have a good reputation and that’s how it’s working.
AMT: That sounds terrific! So, it’s a good long history. What do you see as some of the obstacles to working in the auto reconditioning recon industry?
Nathane: I mean, it’s generally people. You know, the biggest thing is keeping your accounts and having good customer service. The number one thing when someone calls you, is that you need to get there, take care of it, and have a smile on your face. It helps you get paid a little bit more money, and keeps them coming back the next time around.
The number one problem right now is when managers change. You know, you’re always digging for big relationships and trying to make friends with everybody. But everything always changes. So, you have to be able to roll with it. You might lose an account for some reason, but it’s not in your control on that day. You have to be able to get up and go get another one the next day– which isn’t too difficult. You just have to get out there and do it, you know?
AMT: And do you have a sales force that does that? Or is that really just all you?
Nathane: It’s really just us. Off of what you guys might want to hear, I do think about things a little bit differently. I’ve had a bunch of business every year and I’ve been trying to hone in on something that makes good money with less customer service demand, less issues, and problems.
To achieve that, I’ve made sure I’ve hired people that I’ve known or worked with. We own an MMA gym, as well. So, it’s a real good thing to get to know somebody in the gym– you get to know their true personality really quick and weed out some of the people who are just going to cause problems and waste your time. So, I’ve pinned that down to some real good people and we’ve built some great relationships by doing that.
I set them up with their tools and supplies, put them out there for a little bit to get them grooved into the account, and then we let them go. But I pay them 75% of their income. Most of them are employees and some of them are 1099s, but they basically pay for their own supplies, have their own vehicles– but we do it up so it’s look like a SkratchHouse vehicle for them. And out there, they are making good money for the day.
I don’t have to babysit or manage them and they just take care of it like it’s their own business and accounts. So, it really seems to work out well and it’s a building process you don’t have to change all the time because of the way some people are these days. It’s rough to gauge what you’re putting effort into and by paying them well, it works out for them and I.
AMT: It sounds like you’re talking about relationships on both sides, right? You’re also making sure the relationship with your team is good. In addition to teaching them the work, you’re also teaching them how to develop and maintain relationships with customers. That’s great! So, you were saying SkratchHouse enjoys a good footprint around Columbus. I’m curious about what’s the competition like? What’s the competitive landscape look like there? How do you compete? How do you go about winning business over the competitors?
Nathane: Yeah. Here in town, there’s some out there, but we just do what we do in a little bit of a better way and have a better service plan. By doing better work, it keeps us secured in the there because no one can do touch ups in house and have it done right like us. And scratch removal, it’s not just paint alone. So, if you’re trying to stay competitive, stay on top of the technology because everything is always changing.
There’s always new stuff out there that makes it easier and better. Things of this nature keep us on top. The competition is a little bit corporate and watered down. They have regular guys that may not be making what they should and don’t have their heart in it as much. So, the service, love for the job, and good work isn’t really there. We stay on top by taking care of relationships and accounts and staying competitive with the pricing. That’s where we are growing and we’ve never slowed down.
AMT: That’s terrific! So, yeah, you pretty much covered how you find your clients, is it entirely wholesale or do you get some retail accounts, as well?
Nathane: That’s a funny category. We have done some retail, but we definitely don’t advertise it by any means. We do a lot of service appointments at our dealerships, so, you get the retail clientele. But just to maximize profits, I don’t focus on it. We’ll do it, but because everyone has their own ideas about what they want, but we don’t go out of our way to do it.
AMT: yeah, well, that sounds good! When you mentioned the industry was changing, where do you go to get your information? What kind of business advice do you find yourself searching for online? How do you search for ways to grow the business? Is it software? You mentioned the technology. Where do you look to stay informed and current?
Nathane: I’m very observant. So, whenever I’m out on the field, I always talk to people I’m interacting with. I started my detail shop 23 years ago now. It’s all the same people that have been around in the area and I’ve had a good relationship with them. I have a huge amount of intel from them, but more importantly, I focus on the business first and use the best resources with the least amount of time involved and get the work done right for the people. I’m trying to do good and keep it that way.
AMT: I’m reaching back 23 years for you, but what do you wish you had known about SMART repair business when you started?
Nathane: That’s a question I ask myself all the time. I started the detail shop at 18, which was cool. But when you’re just out of school, you’re not thinking about what makes you the most money for the least work, but still gives a good business. As one guy, you’re trying to do 3 or so cars on your own, getting help, and building the business. The profit margin for that is ridiculously low and time consuming. If I had to to know something back then, it would have been to definitely stay in the paint game.
Will the way we sell cars always be the same? I highly doubt it. And the problem is there are five or six ways it could go. No one can really call it until it starts to happen. As far as dealerships go, they’re all just sitting back and seeing where things go and then putting the money in after. From a recon perspective, the cars are always going to be done somewhere and fixed up no matter who is selling them. SkratchHouse is my rock and it will always have work somewhere. We will always be around.
AMT: Of course. As long as people keep driving and wanting cars that aren’t brand spanking new, there will always be business.
Nathane: It’s solid in that way as opposed to a car lot where it’s always iffy. You’re going to go to a new car dealership if you’re buying a new car. You may test drive the model you’re looking for, but you’re going to o home, look at your options online, and go back to the dealership only for the service and to pick up the car. The sales force might not exist for much longer.
From my experience, that’s the biggest problem. Sales is a huge cost to the car lot business. It’s hard to tell what’s going to happen with used vehicles and what the clientele will look like. There’s so many variables in the car business coming up. Scratches will always need to be fixed, windows repaired, headlights turning yellow, and the car stinking. That work will always be somewhere.
AMT: That’s right. You mentioned you got into detailing shortly after school. Did you take any formal programs to learn the craft?
Nathane: I’m a self-taught guy, but yeah, I went to community college for a couple of years for business. The formal side isn’t the most appealing. Getting out there, working, and trying to make things happen. The rewards from that are what I enjoy. I do like learning and researching, though. For instance, I saw a guy walk around and do some stuff to a car for 20 minutes and he made $400 – $500 in that time.
So, I looked up how to do it and bought a repair kit. Now, no one in town can do windshield repair better than us. I teach all my techs the way I carved out what works the best. I’m repairing windshields all day long and people can barely see where I the damage was. That’s just how I learn things– hands on.
Just because I don’t have a formal education, it doesn’t mean I’m not the best at it it. I went back and got a few certifications just because it helps with the insurance side. I’m self-taught, but I will go to others or get formal education to do it. The best way I learn is by going out there and figuring it out on my own dime and time. Then, I apply it to my other resources to perfect it and get it going.
AMT: Sounds like it works for you. So, I can see you have a team, you’ve trained them, and you let them loose on the market to work with you. Would you have any advice for other independent SMART repair folks that are looking to either get into the business or grow their business?
Nathane: The biggest thing that works for me is screening people I bring on. I could do it all day for the rest of my life until I’m too old to do it anymore. The biggest key is to screen people. You don’t get a guy from Craigslist or one asking for a job, but really, taking the time to get to know someone first. It’s not easy to train people the way we do, but we do it.
Before I put that investment in, I bring them into the MMA gym and roll around a bit and do a little boxing to see what they are really like. Find the right people, train them up, spend the time, and pay them very well. The more you pay, the more they appreciate you. Take care of them, treat them like family– that’s your best bet.
AMT: Sounds like sage advice to me. So, we’re delighted you’ve chosen to use ReconPro in your business. We talked briefly earlier and you mentioned you’ve been using our software managing your company. Was there an impact you can point to and say, “You know, I’m better at doing this now because of the product than I was before?”
Nathane: As far as the product goes, everything I’ll say will be completely honest. I won’t hold any punches and you guys aren’t paying me do this or anything like that. I’m not even getting a free month or anything. What I will say, from 2011 to the beginning of 2018, we were keeping track of paperwork by hand.
I’m the type of guy that likes to see it, know where everything is, and where everything is growing. It’s how I track my business and what I need to do to get where we’re going. After the first few years we opened, we kept getting new workers and subcontractors. Over the years, we’ve gotten quite a few employees and my wife and I would log all them in every night on a spreadsheet.
Every single invoice, which you know can be just as many employees as we have rolling. So, it would be a couple of hours a night. That has become non-existent. Now that employees put in each car with their phones, I don’t have to do anything like put in invoices. With ReconPro, it totally eliminates that.
Secondly, one of my favorite parts of ReconPro is that it’s easy to access all of my information. If someone calls me in, I have a lot of things going on between windshield repair, replacement, touch up crews, and the dealerships that I run. It takes a lot of my time and there are distractions there. All of that stuff is happening whenever someone calls and they have questions about a particular invoice or issue.
If one does arise, it’s easy for me to pull everything up. We don’t always use all the notes, but when we know a situation that might be a “situation,” you can attach the pictures very easily, the tech brings up the order and all that stuff, and I can pull it up anywhere I’m at, my phone included, and just get access to all that information.
So, it saves your time on trying to find that stuff and get the “situation” taken care of. And it also makes me look professional to my clients when I can pull that information up on demand. So, that’s one of the other great parts about it.
The Third best thing about ReconPro from AMT is when techs come in, I don’t have to spend as much time going through all that handwritten stuff we used to do looking for them and making sure they’re paid and filing them away. All that comes in and it’s easy as sitting down.
And what used to take me an hour and a half, I can do so in 5 – 10 minutes and it’s done and I’m on to the next thing. It’s all so organized and locked in. I couldn’t Imagine working without it at this point. We’ve been on it since about March this year, and in a second, I’ll tell you how many invoices we’ve actually done, and that number would basically equate the fact that we would do all those by hand if it wasn’t for this program that we ran into.
Lastly, on the point of why it’s the best, I would say it’s because I literally went through every program I could find. No different than the windshield repair, it’s how I learn stuff, how i figure it out. I went through every program, it was a nightmare trying to go from one to the other. One might have something that works for me. I used a lot of different programs that weren’t specific to our industry. I tried 20 different setups. I tried to use them a couple of weeks and go through them and see what happens and see what worked out. All of them had their perks, but none of them hit a home run. Once I got used to your system, and got into it– it was everything I needed.
Especially if you’re in the car industry. If you’re in the car industry, you don’t need to look anywhere else. Just get on it, get used to using it. That would be one of the drawbacks, I would say. But it’s the same with all the other 20. You have to get used to putting things on there and using them. You have to figure out what’s what, get into the groove. It happens, and this one is the same way.
Maybe it’s a little bit more time consuming learning it, but once you learn it, figure out the system, it’s the simplest one I could used once I figured it out. You have to stick with it for a little bit and get going. Then, everything I needed to know about my business was at the click of a button.
AMT: That’s great! We are glad about that and we’re always trying to make it a little easier to learn how to do it, but there’s a little functionality when you understand it.
Nathane: There is! If I had to give any drawback, at all, it’s not even really a drawback– but more a learning process– I would say for my business, again, I try to keep everything as simple as I can and more focused on trying to make money and not all the ways things could go.
This program does a lot more than I probably need. And I know everything on here has a value to some people and works for some purpose. But I basically learned the stuff I needed to learn to make this work great for me and that’s all I use. So, the drawback would be– let’s say on invoice editing, I know everyone is different in how they do it. It would be nice if I could call in and say, “I got work tickets, my customer service is amazing, but on problem about everything my invoices is that I can change everything, but my actual pricing.”
If something goes wrong with the job, I need to be able to change that pricing. That needs to correlate with the sales tax for retail and things like that. Literally that’s nothing and the only “problem” I have with it. The app works amazing once you get used to scanning in your vans. You can generally scan just about every car. The flow of the app is easy for my techs. I have college graduates working for me and people who are not college graduates working for me. None of them have a problem. Only thing that might miss a hair is if it were slightly tailored to me.
AMT: Well, we’ll work on it for sure.
Nathane: And that’s the other thing I want to say. Anytime I call in, I’m on a direct line with my rep and he’s amazing, Every time I text, he answers right back. He’s right on it. He’s figuring it out even if it isn’t simple. He sticks with it so it gets fixed. I’ve never had any issue with customer service. It’s on point and amazing. It’s working perfect for me. I haven’t had any problems, just a couple of things tailored to me would help smooth out little things.
AMT: We want to keep you happy. So, we will do that. The development crew is making tweaks every 4 week for functionality or improvement of fixes.
Nathane: Very good! Very good improvements and updates and letting me know what is in them. I like that. Also, all the online tutorials are great. They’ve helped me out a lot and that’s how I like to learn things. I definitely utilized those in the beginning. For about a three week period, you just need to sit down, figure out the program, and run some tests with a test company that you make up.
You have to send invoices to yourself until you’re confident with what is going on and then you start releasing it to your techs. I couldn’t imagine doing business without it, to be honest. You’re not allowed to raise my price because I said that! That’s the truth.
AMT: *laughs* Well, we’ll try to keep that in mind! I really appreciate the time today. It sounds like the most valuable thing ReconPro does for you is saving time.
Nathane: That, plus it allows me to focus on my business because I’m not caught up in back end stuff trying to make sure everything is right. We would have gone with an office staff one way or another, but this has allowed me to save money right now and become a full back office that I control with little time. It’s amazing!
AMT: Well, that’s great! Thank you very much for spending the time today!
Nathane: No problem, man! I hope it works out!
AMT: If we get more people like you, it’ll always work out for us. Continued service with SkratchHouse and with Freedom Automotive will help our business, as well. But thank you for your time today!
Nathane: All right! Thank you very much. You guys have a great day. If you need anything at all, give me a holler! It’s like what I’ve been saying this whole time. We go out and we try to do good for our clients and just do good work. You guys have a great service here, so I just want to do good by you, as well. Appreciate it! Good reviews are the best!
AMT: Thank you very much!
Nathane: Hey, you guys have a great day!
AMT: Thank you, you too, Nathan!