Some see competitive edge in investing early in equipment, training

Ford dealers will gear up to fix new F-150

Some see competitive edge in investing early in equipment, training

NADA attendees crowd the Ford exhibit to view service tools available to repair aluminum body panels in the new Ford F-150.

Photo credit: JOE WILSSENS
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NEW ORLEANS -- Though they waited three years to see the much-anticipated 2015 aluminum F-150, it didn't take Ford dealers Randall Reed and Jim Seavitt long to decide to invest in gearing up their body shops to repair it.

Reed: "It's a no-brainer."

"It's a no-brainer," said Reed, owner of World Class Automotive Group in Dallas, as he gathered equipment brochures at the Ford stand at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention here. After all, Reed's six Ford dealerships sold 5,000 to 6,000 pickups last year. He wants to be ready when the pickup arrives in the fourth quarter.

Seavitt, owner of Village Ford in Dearborn, Mich., said he sees a business advantage: "The nice thing is some smaller dealers won't do it, so that business will come to me. I'm going to try to get it done by March."

Reed said he's also going to act quickly. He says he will invest roughly $50,000 at each of his six body shops.

"We're going to buy this early so we're not sitting there in October taking a huge hit," he said.

Ford estimates it will cost dealers $30,000 to $50,000 to modify their body shops to handle aluminum.

The equipment will include aluminum repair stations, rivet guns, metal inert gas welders, vacuums, tools and heavy duty rubberized curtains to seal off aluminum repair areas.

Seavitt: Will outfit body shop by March

Ford is trying to encourage dealers to take the plunge by offering a 20 percent discount on equipment purchases up to $10,000. It will pay to train one technician at every dealership.

The rebate expires Oct. 31, so dealers have some time to decide.

About 20 percent of Ford's roughly 3,100 dealers have body shops. Some may decide they don't do enough truck repairs to justify the investment.

Ford is not requiring dealers to be certified to make aluminum repairs, but the company is highly recommending certification. By the time the truck launches, Ford expects to have a national network of aluminum-capable repair facilities -- both dealers and independent contractors -- in place.

Lloyd Schiller, a consultant who specializes in fixed operations, recommends that dealers don't wait around to get the tools and training.

"I would certainly want to be one of the first, rather than one of the last," said Schiller. "If I were a dealer with a for-real body shop, I'd go ahead and get the tools and equipment."

He said Ford is likely to follow the aluminum-intensive F-150 with increased use of aluminum on the "Explorer and everything else that's trucklike."

He added: "Before the equipment gets back ordered, I'd sure want to be ahead of the independents."

Ford has announced that the new F-150 will be as much as 700 pounds lighter than the outgoing pickup. When Ford executives introduced the F-150 at the Detroit auto show in January, executives said other Ford vehicles will be introduced with lightweight materials.

Massie: Curtain can isolate aluminum area

Paul Massie, Ford collision marketing manager, said that 80 percent of repairs -- the common dents and dings -- could be done by any body shop. More complicated structural repairs are the ones that need special tools and training for aluminum.

"It's when you get to that 20 percent, it's our desire that they become aluminum-capable," he said.

Aluminum and steel don't mix well. If aluminum dust comes into contact with steel parts in adjacent bays, it can cause those parts to corrode. Consequently, dealers will have to set up either permanent separate bays or temporary bays sealed off with floor-to-ceiling rubber curtains, said Massie.

So dealers have to think carefully about where to put the aluminum repair bays and how to set them up.

"Our biggest problem is: How much room do we dedicate to it?" said Seavitt. "I'll do two bays and be ready to expand. I have 15 paint stalls and 20 bump stalls."

Seavitt says he'll convert existing bays to aluminum capability rather than add more bricks and mortar. Seavitt also will pay for training for additional technicians above the one per dealership that Ford is subsidizing.

Seavitt shared another concern that was on the minds of many dealers in New Orleans: whether insurance rates will be higher for the aluminum truck, a potential deterrent to customers.

"We're holding our breath about insurance costs," he said. "If they can bring aluminum in cheaper, it will be a plus. We just don't want insurance costs to go up other than modestly."

Ford has not publicly issued an estimate of insurance costs.

Todd Citron, general manager of Hub City Ford in Lafayette, La., said a number of questions arose at Ford's make meeting at the NADA convention about insurance rates and repair costs on the new F-150.

"They think it [repair costs] will be the same or possibly less," said Citron after the meeting.

Consultant Schiller says dealers who make themselves aluminum-capable will be viewed more kindly by insurance companies.

"When you're the go-to people, you'll just get more work from the insurance companies as a result," he said. "The easier you make it for insurance companies to send you work, the more work you get."

Three training courses will be offered to Ford dealers under the aegis of the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair, known as I-CAR, a nonprofit group that trains and certifies collision repair technicians.

The courses start in May for dealers and in June for independent body shops.

Ford dealers know that between now and the Oct. 31 deadline for the 20 percent equipment rebate, they have to become aluminum-savvy.

Joe Townsend of Charles Townsend Ford in Tuscaloosa, Ala., spoke for many dealers when he said: "We've got a lot to learn about this truck."

You can reach Bradford Wernle at bwernle@crain.com.


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