Bob Juniper bought Three-C Body Shops Inc. from his father, who originally got it from his brother. The first six years of his leadership as president and CEO saw annual growth around 15 to 20 percent, but in the early 1990s, everything changed.
Insurance companies came out with preferred shop programs. However, Juniper wasn’t willing to use non-original parts or follow other practices that pointed to low-quality work, and his shop wasn’t put on the list. By 1991, sales were down 15 percent.
Juniper traced the problem back when customers complained about a color match or the way a new fender fit. When he’d ask “Why didn’t you bring it to me? I fixed your car the last time,” many said insurers had told them they had to choose from a list of repair shops.
Even after regulation made it clear insurers couldn’t direct people to certain shops, they could still infer — and Three-C’s business continued to decline.
An upset Juniper tried radio commercials to improve his business. The drop slowed, but the business was still in trouble. So, he decided to be candidly honest about what he felt was going on.
“I had four or five people I used as advisers, where I’d bounce ideas off people about my business, and I said, ‘What do you think if I would do this?’ Every one of my advisers, in this particular case, said ‘Don’t do that — that would be business suicide, or the equivalent,’” he says.
His advisers felt the insurance companies might try to blackball the shop, but as a self-confessed contrarian, Juniper went ahead with his plan.
Over the first few months, not much changed. It was complicated to explain over a 60-second radio commercial. After six or eight months, though, Three-C’s sales took off.
Insurance companies pushed back, but that validated what Juniper was saying.
“They were going to try to put me out of business and they tried so hard that it worked against them,” he says.
Away from the herd
Today, 58 people work at the company, which has about $12 million in annual revenue.
“We came from a small four-bay body shop that was a front business for a gambling operation to one of the largest collision shops in the country today, and it was because we went against the grain,” Juniper says.
Not only did Three-C carve out a niche — people who didn’t want to go where their insurance company tells them to get their car fixed — its story spread to other body shops. Juniper co-founded a marketing company that helped more than 100 others follow a similar path before it was dissolved.
“Many times, following the herd is not the right way to go because all you’re doing is turning yourself into a commodity,” he says.
It’s often worth it to take a calculated risk sooner and be different. In the case of Three-C, Juniper felt he had a good chance for success. Plus, doing nothing probably meant the company would be gone in a few years anyway.
“Sometimes you’ve got to be honest with yourself and say, ‘Do I really have anything to lose here in the situation that I have?’” Juniper says. “Because I think all industries have things like this happen; it’s not unique to the collision business.”
Juniper’s authentic message won people over.
“All I’m doing is telling the truth. Now, the truth is ugly, but it is the truth. Then the customers have the opportunity to make their own decision,” he says. “By no means do I think it was a stroke of genius, it was anger combined with truth that really made it happen.”
Three-C still advertises a lot and it has a strong brand. Strong enough, in fact, that it’s able to support a satellite office in Worthington. The storefront location is a drop-off point and a place for estimates, but the main location in southwest Columbus does the repair work.
A new ballgame
Today, the collision industry is swinging the other way. Vehicles are high-tech with as many as 14 sensors; it’s almost like driving a computer. That requires a high level of quality and accuracy for repairs.
Juniper says insurance companies, just in the last year, started shutting down those original preferred shop programs.
Manufacturers want shops to become certified, but the training and equipment can be as much as $250,000 per manufacturer, which is why some shops specialize and only certify in a few brands. Preferred shops can’t charge as much for repairs. They haven’t set money aside for development and now many can’t afford the certification process.
Three-C is already certified in about a dozen brands, and work is being sent to the certified shops by the manufacturers.
“The old paradigm now is shifting to a whole new ballgame,” Juniper says.
As more shops certify, business may thin out a bit. But many manufacturers only want to certify a limited number of shops, he says. For example, Honda expects to certify 900 shops in an industry that has 70,000 body shops across the country.
“We’re potentially becoming hooked on the workflow from the manufacturers and we don’t know what that holds for the future,” Juniper says.
But if Juniper faces a similar situation to what he did in the 1990s, he knows what to do.