Rebel with a Cause
Bob Juniper's radio attacks on the car-insurance industry raised hell -- and made his body shop the market leader
Back in 1992 Bob Juniper Jr. was just another bright, hardworking guy in a tough industry -- in this case, the unsexy, nonillustrious auto-body-repair business. "Then one day it hit me like a piano," he says. "I wouldn't be able to stay in business."
The collision-repair industry has always been a peculiar one: customers -- car owners -- want their cars fixed to the magically high standard of "pre-accident" conditions, while bill payers -- insurers -- want to keep costs down to magically low levels. The body-shop owner has to balance those two competing interests: fix the car the way the owner expects, and make sure the insurer will pay the full bill.
In the early 1990s a new wrinkle was added. Insurers began launching formal programs aligning themselves with a handful of body shops in each market. Shops that agreed to play by certain rules were in. Shops that didn't like the rules -- no matter what the quality of their work -- weren't, and they began to see their business siphoned away.
That's what Juniper saw happening to his Three-C Body Shop. To his mind, the choice he faced was this: either he could agree to make concessions in the way he serviced cars and get into bed with the insurers, or he could figure out a new way to find business.
He took his own way. Three years ago he began a marketing campaign that had at its center a for-the-jugular assault on the very alliances that he was being left out of. He launched his attack through ads on radio, billboards, and even hot-air balloons. The campaign not only set out to educate car owners about the collision-repair industry but also positioned his company as the ultimate oxymoron: the auto-body shop as consumer advocate.
It worked.* * *
In some ways Bob Juniper Jr. looks the role of the auto-body guy. He has an eight-inch tattoo on his left forearm -- a dagger and a snake, just like his father's -- and another tattoo, of barbed wire and roses, that wraps around his upper right arm and over his shoulder. ("Whenever I'm depressed I add on to that one -- it brings me up," he says.) He usually dresses in jeans, work boots, and neat sweatshirts, and has a walkie-talkie at his hip.
But that's about all that's usual. His high-ceilinged office has a fireplace, a couch, a coffee table, and an eight-foot-long fish tank stocked with exotic varieties like dog-faced puffers and Picasso triggers; a full picture window looks out across a manicured front lawn toward the main garage. Juniper sits next to this window, surrounded on three sides by desks, which hold crammed Rolodexes, a computer and a printer, and a datebook the size of an unabridged dictionary, in which he carefully plans out all his time.
He has a ferocious type-A personality: he says he's up at 3:30 most mornings, at work by 5 or 5:30, and there for 12 hours. He works a few more hours at home, reading, for instance, all the day's mail. "I'm a stickler for it -- I know what information's being requested, how many bounced checks are coming in, what some of the insurance-industry estimates are," he says. "Consultants I've had in here critique this, but I'm the first to notice any unusual amounts of anything, and I'm real, real uncomfortable about letting go of it." He says he's exacting and can be short-tempered, but his energy isn't manic.
For the most part, Juniper's energy is channeled toward driving himself and his staff hard, getting increasingly record numbers of cars moved through the Three-C operation quickly and properly and profitably. Revenues grew from $1.2 million in 1992, before the aggressive marketing started, to $6.1 million last year, making Three-C one of the largest shops in the country. And as production manager Chris Sexton puts it, the Columbus, Ohio, company has positioned itself so that it now "draws the pickiest people in the city."
But get Juniper started about the state of the collision-repair industry, and he throws himself into a bitterly angry take on why body shops and insurance companies are at such odds. "In my experience, insurance companies offer to pay for just 60% of the work that really needs to be done," he says. "If you ask for the full amount, they'll negotiate the full amount with you. But initially they try to settle for about 60%. And I have a big problem with that -- I feel it's fraud."
He didn't always feel like that; on the other hand, the industry wasn't always the way it is today. Now 37, Juniper is like most body-shop guys: he grew up in the business. Three-C was founded by his uncle and then bought by his father, who made a nice living fixing cars in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, it was a typical operation: a single, cinder-block building alongside the "3C" highway that stretches through Ohio from Cleveland to Columbus to Cincinnati. It made enough money to give Bob Juniper Sr. a living wage. When he was busy he would put out a sign: "No estimates today." He was a former army sergeant, and it was enough to do good, disciplined work.
Bob Juniper Jr. began working elbow to elbow with his dad when he was 15, coming on board full-time after graduating from high school. He had a rebellious period in his early twenties but took over the then-$104,000 business in 1984, at age 25, when his father retired.
The first thing he did was throw away the "No estimates today" sign. He started taking every job that came in and worked whatever hours were needed to move cars through. He wasn't advertising, but the business started growing -- 15% one year, 25% the next. Juniper was getting by, and he likened the work he did to that of an artist or a custom manufacturer. But cost cutting and efficiency measures had begun working their way through the economy, and a lot of businesses were changing. Collision repair was one of them.
In 1989 insurers began setting up something now referred to in the industry as "direct repair programs," or DRPs; today insurers writing 70% to 80% of the car insurance in the country have some variation of a DRP. Although they vary by company, state, and even individual insurance office, in general the programs involve setting up relationships with repair shops whose names insurers pass on to customers. It was a formalization of an already existing "good ole boy" network -- the "I'll-send-you-work-if-you-buy-me-baseball-tickets" way of doing business, says Sheila Loftus, who for 20 years has published an industry trade magazine, Hammer and Dolly.
In 1990 Juniper noticed that something funny was afoot: "About once a week I'd get a call from someone who'd say, 'You fixed my car four years ago. I need another repair, but my insurer is telling me to go to one of its recommended shops.' Those are people who I worked hard to make customers for life! And they were being made to feel that they didn't have a choice."
Car owners, in fact, aren't required to go to a shop in the program -- they pay the same deductible no matter where they go -- but the average car owner needs collision-repair services so infrequently that any endorsement carries a lot of weight. DRP shops offer one big advantage: the authority to make an estimate without having to confirm it with the insurer's own adjuster. Ordinarily, insurers and shops negotiate a price for the service on each car, so DRPs mean less time and less hassle for customers.
But insurers didn't embrace the concept just because it would make for faster turnaround time; their incentive also was to make cuts in costs. In return for having more work herded to them, shops make financial concessions: elimination of storage fees, lower prices per worker hour, a commitment to try to use generic parts instead of the more expensive original manufacturers' parts, and even agreements not to do certain cosmetic work. (The agreements run the gamut, and some shop owners say that demands for deep concessions are not universal. Roger Lindeman, who runs an $8-million shop, Roger's Body Shop, in Minneapolis, is a fan of Juniper's but also a defender of alliances with insurers, saying that he's been asked to forgo only storage fees and that his customers, who consistently give the company satisfaction ratings in the 97%-to-99% range, are well served. "Our strategy is to help insurers achieve their goals and ours -- which is to stay in business.")
But in 1991, when Juniper was approached by a number of insurance companies to be in their programs, they'd visit, tell him they liked Three-C, and then ask about price concessions. He told them he couldn't do it: "You can't charge 20% less without taking shortcuts. The consumer would be losing."
He figured that if he gave in, insurance companies would increasingly begin to control the prices he could set, and he'd slowly lose financial autonomy. All around the country, small shops without the cash flow to invest in new equipment were being bought out or quietly shut down, and Juniper believed he probably couldn't survive if he stayed the size he was. But he didn't want to grow the industry's way. "I think he was early to see that DRPs would be the death of the collision-repair industry as we know it," says Hammer and Dolly's Loftus. "He also," she adds, "saw a marketing opportunity."* * *
Over the next year Juniper's anxiety grew -- as did his anger. Other body shops were silent about what was going on, but he finally figured he'd use his passion as a marketing tool.
Three-C had begun running radio ads in February 1992, using a jingle a local radio-station ad salesman , Tom Hughes, brought to it. The ads were standard increase-the-name-recognition spots, with a singsong tag line: "Three-C Bo-dy Shop, the fi-nest in col-lision repaiiiir . . . " In December 1992 Juniper went on the air in a holiday spot about drunken driving -- it was the first time his voice was heard on the radio. It also was the same month that the lid blew on his tolerance for DRPs.
"He sent me a real rough draft of the commercial he decided to run about it," recalls Hughes, "and it made no sense to me whatsoever -- it was gibberish, a foreign language. Plus he was naming names, things you just get sued up the ying-yang for. The tone, the content -- this was a big change. I said, 'What does this mean?' And he explained what direct repair meant, and I said, 'You can't say this on the radio,' and he said, 'Well, write it so I can.' "
Juniper had built the Three-C name in the marketplace and established a reputation, but people didn't really know what he stood for. The next month, they did.
In January 1993 -- against the recommendations of everyone, including his father, who thought his son was about to commit business hara-kiri -- he went on the air and explained the industry as he saw it. "This is Bob Juniper," he began. "There's a growing problem in the collision-repair industry that seriously affects every vehicle owner in central Ohio. What is it? Quality collision-repair standards are being systematically destroyed by insurance direct repair programs. . . . These programs, which encourage the use of imitation parts, cheap labor, and other concessions, were designed by insurance companies for their own benefit, to keep their costs down, not yours. We have never participated in any of these 'cheapest way possible' programs, and we never will. Why? Because when it comes to repairing your car, we will never compromise the safety and quality of your repairs. After all, you're the customer, not the insurance company. . . . "
Hughes says, "I figured this: If the insurance companies didn't squash him like a bug out of the gate, then they blinked. And if they blinked, we got 'em."
The reaction was immediate. Insurance agents called, saying things along the lines of "I'll see to it no one goes to you ever again." Competing body shops called the radio stations demanding equal time to respond to Juniper's "editorial." (They didn't get it.) Among customers, though, the ads had resonance. Car owners may not have a great opinion of body shops, but they don't exactly love insurance companies, either. Three-C's name recognition soared -- as did its business. In June the company added a second shift and was in operation around the clock; by year-end, sales had more than doubled, to $2.7 million. Seventy percent of customers said they'd heard about the company on the radio.
Juniper and Hughes would blitz the market on nine radio stations with 36 spots for a week. Then they'd be silent, and then they'd return a month later with a new ad and a new blitz. During those weeks, "we hit 76% of the Columbus radio audience three times or more," Juniper says.
And instead of backing off, his ads became more aggressive. In one, he read from a direct-repair-program contract and offered to fax a copy to anyone who wanted to see it; he got 300 requests. He used words like kickback and lie, and in a calm, even voice, skewered the insurance industry relentlessly. He counseled listeners not to make "the mistake of believing for a minute that the insurance providers care about anything other than the almighty dollar. . . . "
One of Juniper's favorite ads went this way: "This is Bob Juniper with Three-C Body Shop. Recently, we interviewed a candidate for a management position. One of the reasons he gave for leaving his current job at a well-known local collision-repair shop -- and by the way, one the insurance companies recommend -- was that he or his staff had to wash the adjusters' cars when they came in to look at customer cars. As you probably know, we do top-quality work, the finest in Columbus, and yet the insurance companies and adjusters still don't recommend us. Well, now I think I know why. It's so simple. Why didn't I see this before? We don't wash their cars when they come to Three-C. So the next time an insurer tells you where to have your vehicle repaired, think about it. Maybe they just need their car washed. . . . "
Bob Juniper, who had spent 20 years reconstructing smashed pieces of metal, turned out to be a marketing pro. He wrote the ads by hand in the evenings at home, recorded them at a radio-station studio, made decisions about where to place them.
Radio, though, was just part of the assault. Juniper and Hughes developed a hot-pink ("burn your retina" fluorescent) logo and bought ad space on one of the fully painted city buses that debuted in 1993. The same neon graphic graced 12 to 15 billboard ads that rotated to different parts of the city every 30 days. At large city events and Ohio State football games, the company flew hot-air balloons and airplane banners with the Three-C logo. It printed brochures, including Ten Things to Know Before Having Your Car Repaired, and produced a Collision Survival Kit, which was packed with Three-C literature, for glove compartments. Earlier this year Three-C launched a new campaign on the sides of 40 city buses, featuring a photo of Juniper, in a leather jacket, with glowing neon eyes. The tag line: " 'Auto insurers make me see pink.' "
The marketing he was doing -- in both its breadth and its vitriol -- was unprecedented in the industry. "Virtually no one" is as vocal as Juniper about the DRP issue, says Henry Blake, director of marketing at Roger's Body Shop: "He's a real pioneer -- and a renegade, too. He definitely made himself a brand name in the industry." Sheila Loftus describes Juniper as "visionary," and Charlie Barone, the technical editor for Automotive Body Repair News, says that "in some circles, Bob Juniper's a folk hero." Folk hero at a cost: in 1993 advertising expenses were $425,000; in 1994 and in 1995 they ran at $575,000 and $518,000, respectively.
Some competitors fought back. About a year after the Three-C ads began, Dennis AutoPoint, also in Columbus, took out radio ads for a couple of months saying that the majority of insurance companies and their employees don't take shortcuts on cars -- they're your neighbors and friends. Says owner Keith Dennis, "We felt he was using scare tactics to make people feel that he was the only one willing to do any kind of ethical repair job."
Juniper admits to staking out a role as an extremist -- but on the other hand, it has positioned him and his company in a brutally competitive business. Nationwide there are 40,000 to 50,000 body shops, according to the Automotive Service Association, and those numbers are predicted to drop to 25,000 in just four years as the amount of collision-repair work continues to fall off with the maturation of the baby boom. No one ever said Juniper wanted to be buddy-buddy with his competitors, anyway. At one point he sent to body shops in his area postcards of a tough-guy photo of himself, saying, "If you want to be number one in collision repair . . . you'll have to go through me." ("It's psychological warfare," says Juniper. "If you get people thinking about you, they're not thinking about themselves. I burned whatever bridges I still had with that.") And a banner hanging in the main garage reads, "We will work harder, smarter, and longer and anihilate the competition." He loses points for spelling but gets an A for attitude.
Savvy marketing began to show up in other parts of the company. Juniper's voice is on the automated voice system that greets customers, and when they're on hold they hear the radio ads. Three-C contracts with a company that tracks car accidents and buys from it the names of those involved for direct-mail pieces. "The people who had an accident in Columbus yesterday? This is all of them," says Juniper, holding up a stack of addressed envelopes. "Yesterday's wrecks go in today's mail." When salespeople cut deals to get a customer -- offering, say, to pick up $100 of a customer's deductible -- they expense it toward the advertising budget.
The Three-C campaign was picked up by the trade press, and soon other shops were calling, wanting to use the same material in their markets. In 1994, Juniper and Hughes started a separate company, Jupiter Marketing & Advertising ("that's Jupiter, like the largest planet, not like my name"), to copyright the material and sell the best ads -- Three-C has tried 50 so far -- and to do ad placement. Vaughn Owens, who joined the operation last year, says wryly, "We're probably the only collision-shop-focused marketing agency in the world." Some 30 shop owners in 15 states have done business with the now-$2-million marketing company. Tom Rompel, owner of Factory Paint & Body in Tucson, is one of them. He says, "The marketing approach was brilliant, I thought. Just take the issue to the consumers and let them make the choice."* * *
Determined to change the collision-repair experience for the customer, Juniper has taken the fruits of big volume and borrowed big bucks to change his facility -- not only to accommodate more cars but also to accommodate a new image. The company has expanded to the property next door and now uses an 80-year-old canary yellow cottage, decorated inside with plum-colored wallpaper and sprays of lilies, for customer-service areas and central offices. Twenty computers throughout the complex are networked, allowing service reps to update job orders from anywhere in the facility, and technicians to print out estimates and parts orders simultaneously.
A chief financial officer, Norm Hicks, joined the company at the beginning of 1995. He puts together a one-page monthly synopsis of 17 indicators for the business, including things such as profitability by job area, and average ticket price. He also helps generate stats on everything from the amount of materials each technician uses to the amount of work in process. As a result of having increased volume and understanding where the company makes its money, Three-C last year turned around two years of losses.
In the company sales office, all the walls are decorated, at first inexplicably to an observer, with photographs of the major insurance companies' buildings. Juniper uses them to legitimize his own operation. "When people say, 'Well, the insurance company told us you were really hard to work with and really expensive,' I point to the buildings and say, 'When my body shop looks like these buildings here, that's when I'm charging too much.' "* * *
Leslie Brokaw (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the senior editor of Inc. Online.* * *
BY THE NUMBERS
January 1993 marked the turning point in Bob Juniper's ad campaign
|Three-C 1992||Three-C 1995||Typical body shop, 1995*|
|Cost of goods sold (direct labor and materials)||$785,000||$3,453,000||$283,500|
|Cost of goods sold as a % of gross sales||65%||57%||63%|
|Advertising as a % of sales||9.4%||8.5%||1%|
|Pretax net profit||9.4%||3.7%||5% to 6%|
|Number of employees||11||65||5|
|Size of facility, in square feet||10,000||45,000||4,000|
|Cars serviced per week||12||80 to 90||6|
*Inc. estimates, based on information from the Automotive Service Association, a trade group; Autochex, a private company that conducts customer-service interviews and financial-data collection for body shops; and Collision Repair Industry Insight, a privately owned trade publication.
Juniper cut his budget way back for 1996: "It's like launching a rocket -- it took a lot of fuel for three years to get our presence way up, and now we need just boosters to stay there."
|Buses and taxis||32,000||50,000||70,000||30,000|
|Newspapers||0||10,000||25,000||50,000 [a] [|
|Acquiring names and doing direct mail||10,000||50,000||10,000||25,000|
[a]After acquiring a small body shop outside Columbus, in 1995, Three-C bumped up its newspaper budget