Talking Shop

How one repair shop is set on a new automotive horizon

Repair workshops face new challenges every day but the tide of change, with new powertrains and technology, appears to be accelerating.

Repair workshops face new challenges every day but the tide of change, with new powertrains and technology, appears to be accelerating. For Western General Bodyworks Maribyrnong, meeting this change is all about having the right skills
to remain flexible.

The team at Western General Bodyworks have little doubt that the automotive industry will see sweeping change in
the coming years. That is why they are already equipping themselves with the skills needed to evolve their business for a new, electrical future.

But in meeting the changing landscape, the team at Western General Bodyworks in Maribyrnong also want
to ensure excellence and quality of service for their customers which is one of the constants they are renowned for.

Driven by passion

Western General Bodyworks Group is a collective of collision repair shops across Australia. With nine shops spread across Victoria, two shops in Queensland and one in New South Wales, Western General Bodyworks has their sights firmly set on the future. The Maribyrnong workshop is known as the flagship store amongst the group and was the founding shop which opened in 1975.

The team across Western General Bodyworks Group repair around 5,000 cars a year and has 200 employees across Australia.

But speaking with chief financial officer and director at the Western General Bodyworks Group, Nathan Thai, and the managing director and owner of the Western General Bodyworks Group, Danny Buzadzic, it is clear their operation is less about the numbers and more about passion as a key driver to their continuing success.

Image: Western General Bodyworks

“We’re a family run business. So, we always differentiate by the fact that we’re an MSO, in the sense that we’re large, but we’re still family run,” Thai says.

“It’s a strength in the sense that most of our workers, the average tenure for each manager is around 15 years.”

“Every individual up to the detailer, the apprentice, everyone here is treated like a family member. We really pride ourselves on that. That will be a key trend throughout each one of our stores including Maribyrnong,” he says.

Thai and Buzadzic believe that their business model sets them apart from the competition. Each Western General Bodyworks shop has its own specialisation and business model.

“The biggest strength for us is every shop has its own business model. It’s not run as a corporate enterprise,” Thai says.

For example, the Maribyrnong Shop is accredited to repair electric vehicles, whereas the Western General Bodyworks Bundoora shop is a fixed cost business model.

The diverse nature of each shop under the Western General Bodyworks Group allows for each shop’s strength to reach its full potential.

“We have diversity within body repairs, but also diversity in terms of revenue shrinks,” Thai says. “We extract every value from a damaged vehicle. That’s one of our key strengths. And by doing that, we’re able to have different markets.”

Being an MSO, the Group often share resources.

“The good thing about being an MSO is that we have a nice set of shops. If certain shops are struggling to find a panel beater or spray painter, we can share employees,” Thai says.

“For us to share resources, and have everything centralised with the insurance and accounting, we are then able to plug in when we buy new shops. That’s the beauty about being an MSO.”

Training as a priority

For Maribyrnong shop, being one step ahead of the competition meant acquiring the I-CAR Gold Class Collision Status in 2023. They join three other Western General Bodyworks Groups, Northern General Bodyworks in Bundoora, Belmont Smash Repairs and the Geelong Collision Centre with the accreditation. It is a major step forward for not only the Maribyrnong Shop, but the automotive industry as an entity.

The I-CAR Gold Class Status is the highest training accreditation recognised in Australia’s collision repair industry.

In March, Northern General Bodyworks, another member of the group also joined the elite training category.

“Getting the gold class status was a great achievement. Convincing all the workers to do all the training courses was also an achievement,” Thai says.

“Everyone worked hard on gaining the I-CAR Gold Class status. Everyone from management to the owner, to the guys on the floor, everyone had a great attitude,” Buzadzic says.

“The Gold Class accreditation represents a quality control procedure, making sure everything is done right,” Buzadzic says.

The Maribyrnong shop is always chasing excellence, and the Gold Class Collision Status reflects that notion.

“We are really keen on excellence,” Buzadzic says.

“We’ve got to treat customers like your mum or dad’s car, and you really want to make sure mum doesn’t scream at you. So, I like to make sure every customer is happy,” Buzadzic says.

Preparing for the future

The changing landscape of the automotive repair industry requires repair shops to shift their focus to encapsulate a broader view of the future of the industry.

Electric vehicles are no longer a thought of the future, electric vehicles are here, and the EV market is growing rapidly.

The Maribyrnong shop is successfully preparing for the prevalence of electric vehicles in the only way they know how, by jumping in the deep end.

Image: Western General Bodyworks

The Maribyrnong shop received the Tesla accreditation last October which was another milestone achievement for the Group.

“The shift to EV was a significant change for us. Dealing with EVs has a separate set of training to do in understanding how to assemble high voltages and dealing with batteries. A lot more precaution amongst the workshop floor, and we had to make a number of changes,” Thai says.

The shift to EVs wasn’t just about the mechanics and technicalities of a car, but also the changing face of the customer.

“EV customers are different. And I think that’s really important to distinguish as well. A lot of our Tesla customers are car fanatics. They know more about the car than I do,” Thai says.

“It’s encouraged all of us to really learn more about the electrical side of EVs. It’s created a positive impact and change for our business,” Thai says.

Like the Tesla and I-CAR Gold Class Collision accreditation, Maribyrnong holds themselves to an equally
high expectation to deliver for their customers.

“Learning about EVs is more than just fixing structural changes, there are components to EVs that are essential to be aware of. There is a reason why there are certain requirements to have a Tesla accreditation,” Thai says.

A great change and a positive impact, the team at Maribyrnong are happy to see EVs in their workshop.

Always room for improvement

In pursuit of excellence, the Maribyrnong shop does not shy away from addressing new and existing challenges.

“The biggest improvement for Maribyrnong is being able to be more analytical. Understanding where our faults are, and understanding where improvements can be made. We use key KPIs and benchmark operating metrics to our benefit. Not to the point of trying to penalise your workers and production efficiency, but to use it to understand where your faults are,” Thai says.

Challenges in the industry

Gaining employees in the Australian automotive industry has been a challenge for repair shops. The Western General Bodyworks Group has resorted to thinking outside the square when recruiting new talent.

“It’s tough. If you’re an MSO, or if you’re a large panel shop, as you need more staff. We are seeing from our peers, the larger corporate MSOs, they’re doing recruitments from overseas,” Thai says.

“We are going down that route as well, we find that the local talent is not there. We’re trying to find the right recruit
from overseas. South Africa, the UK has been great for us. Fiji, as of late, has been great, with similar repair training methods.”

“We’ve tried to go to schools, high schools, educating the students. Whilst it’s great, it doesn’t meet the short-term labour we need now. We are resorting to overseas talent,” Thai says.

On finding apprentices

Creating a sustainable future at the Maribyrnong shop also extends to the training of the younger generations.

“It’s very important not just for our business, but for the industry to have apprentices. It’s important that we have local talent. Where I’m able to find an apprentice, we’re 100 per cent taking them on board with the right attitude.”

“If you’re in year 11 and don’t want to do HSC? Great, we are more than happy to have you on board. We encourage that.”

“We have an apprentice for every shop, both in panel and paint. And I made sure that it’s a policy of ours that we always do. There is a commitment to train here at the Group.”

The future looks bright

The Western General Bodyworks Group has had a successful 24 months. Thai accredits that to great management, innovation and training.

“Over the last 24 months the Maribyrnong shop has been really profitable through managing our costs better, centralising costs and being smarter with our key-to-key turnover,” Thai says.

“But in terms of the Western General Bodyworks Group as a whole, I’m really proud to say that all our shops are
well positioned in terms of capacity, insurance, contracts, and staffing levels,” Thai says.

Buzadzic credits their great team for the reason behind their success.

“We have a great team and have put strong procedures in place,” Buzadzic says.

“We want to be the best repairer for the community that we’re in. For Maribyrnong, we want to be the best player within the Maribyrnong area.”

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