The auto body repair business has history that extends back more than a century. Horseless carriages were initially reserved for the wealthy, and chauffeurs doubled as mechanics. After the introduction of the Ford Model-T in 1913, parts became accessible, and car owners started to perform repairs themselves. Eventually, auto centers opened in blacksmith shops and liveries. In the 1920s, trade schools formed to educate workers, and independent shops became more common. The rise of the middle class in the 1950s prompted an increase in demand for automobiles, and a greater need for all kinds of service followed.
In 1972, following a stint in the military, Gene Crozat returned to his hometown of Santa Rosa with a pack of smokes and $1.40 in his pocket. He learned car painting and auto repair skills in the Air Force, and sensing a prosperous opportunity, Gene set up an auto repair body shop with partner Leo Gassel.
Though Gassel retired three years later, Gassel and Crozat Auto Body, better known as G&C Auto Body, was born. Together with his family, Crozat expanded the business to create a multi-million dollar operation with 15 locations in five counties, extending from Ukiah to the East Bay. Gene unexpectedly passed away in 2016, leaving a legacy of philanthropy and a business known for exceptional customer service. Members of the Crozat family continue to focus on those ideals.
Teri, Gene’s widow, is president of the company. Shawn, the eldest of the children, is chief executive officer. Brother Patrick is chief operating officer, Josh is vice president of operations and Jamie Crozat-Keck, with two young children, works part time. They’re all members of the the board, along with chief financial officer, Philip Hays. Teri is majority shareholder. “We’re fortunate,” Shawn says. “Not only are we family, but we’re good friends and we work well as a team.”
Growing up with the business
Nepotism can disrupt a family business. There’s none of that at G&C. The siblings began learning the trade as teenagers. At age 16, Shawn worked in customer service and was eventually appointed manager of the San Rafael location. He worked his way up to COO and was prepared to step in as CEO when Gene passed away. During the final years of his life, Gene initiated a succession plan to maintain the next generation of the family business.
“Backed by private equity, the industry is consolidating rapidly,” says Shawn. “Being a smaller, family-owned operation, we’re more flexible and can outperform the big guys. Industry turnaround for vehicle repair is 11 days. Our average is six days.” Much of G&C’s business comes from word-of-mouth and insurance industry referrals from well-known companies such as GEICO, USAA and Allstate. “Insurance companies send their customers to us because of our excellent work. Cars are returned sooner and costs are reasonable. We call customers ‘guests,’ and that’s how they’re treated,” Shawn says.
G&C has 275 employees; approximately 70 percent are involved in repair work and the rest are in administration. “Hiring, training and retention are among our biggest challenges. We don’t require prior experience. If someone has a strong work ethic, we can teach them the rest.” G&C recently invested $1.7 million in new equipment. “With rapid advances in automobile technology, it’s important we stay ahead of the curve.” Along with technology, G&C works hard to maintain its edge, repairing 1,600 to 1,700 vehicles per month. The company is on track for $68 million in revenues in 2019, up $6 million from a year ago.
When Shawn became CEO, Patrick Crozat moved into the COO position. “Growing up, our dad taught us the value of hard work,” Patrick says. “After finishing our homework, we would do chores on the ranch. He’d pay us an allowance for mowing the lawn, taking care of the horses and stacking firewood. During the summer months we’d work at the business, sweeping floors and doing administration.”
After graduating from high school, Patrick began working full time at the Santa Rosa shop. With six paint booths and 36 repair bays, it’s the largest of the company’s 15 locations. From there, he became office manager in San Rafael, then a service writer, a general manager, and eventually relocated back to Santa Rosa. “I’ve done just about every job in the office,” he says.
Quality and service
G&C always looks for new opportunities, though sites must make sense from an economic standpoint. Dependent on size, the cost to outfit a shop can cost roughly $500,000 or more. “We try to stagger locations so, if one shop has more jobs than it can handle, the workload can easily be shifted,” says Patrick. Equipment purchasing and budgeting is a COO’s responsibility. “It’s important that our technicians have the best equipment and tools to work with. At the same time, they can be expensive. Prior to purchasing, new equipment is evaluated at the shop in Santa Rosa as to effectiveness and ROI (return on investment).”
Like his brothers, Josh Crozat, vice president of operations and current manager of the Sonoma location, has done many different jobs within the company. “In addition to managing the Sonoma shop, I go wherever there’s a problem or a need,” Josh says.
G&C strives to maintain a car’s value by restoring it to its pre-accident appearance. Technicians are careful to ensure the alignment of seams between the hood, fenders, grill and bumpers so they conform to factory specifications. Paint is applied using advanced color matching technology. “There are almost 10,000 automobile paint codes. Though we have a computer to sort through that, matching still requires an experienced eye.” In instances where there’s no code or the color is unusual, G&C uses a special high tech camera. “One of our employees, Sergio Garcia, has a great eye for color and for controlling costs,” says Shawn. “He’s the company paint troubleshooter and a mentor for new hires. When one of the paint specialists goes on vacation, he fills in.” Two years ago, Sergio was promoted to corporate refinish manager.
“I began with G&C in Santa Rosa in 1994,” Garcia says. “I started out cleaning, prepping and detailing cars. I became attracted to the painting side of the business and took a job with an independent contractor responsible for G&C’s automotive paintwork. When painting was brought in-house, I rejoined G&C.”
G&C uses PPG Paint’s waterborne product to restore a car’s finish. The paint is not harmful to employees or the environment. Waterborne paint contains lower volatile organic compounds than those with solvents. Air quality inside shops is easier to control, eliminating harsh odors. “PPG paint provides luster, shine, depth and is more weather resistant than other types,” Garcia says. G&C offers a lifetime warranty on all painting and body repair work.
Training is an important aspect of the business. Apprentice technicians work on-site with a journeyman for several years to get hands-on experience before working independently.
Patrick’s wife, Tara Crozat, manages the service writer training program. The term ‘service writer’ is unique to the automobile repair industry. The job is more commonly known as estimator. Tara began with G&C in 2007 as a guest service representative. She was eventually promoted to office manager, then quality control, which led to a service writer position in Petaluma. In 2012, she took over management of the training program. Service writers have the most direct contact with the customer. From the time the customer arrives with their damaged vehicle, the service writer takes charge.
“The vision for our team starts with our hiring process,” says Tara. “Most of our service writers are hired from outside the industry and must be hard-wired with ‘heart and hustle.’ The guest’s experience always comes first.” Trainees spend three weeks learning estimating software and the company’s standard operating procedures. From there, they work for about five months with an on-site mentor. There are eight service writers at the Santa Rosa location, but that number varies depending on shop size.
In addition to managing service writer training, Tara’s responsible for G&C’s annual charity drives. One of those is organizing a team for The Human Race. Since 2015, employee participants have raised $83,000, including matched funds from G&C. Additionally, the Employee Food Drive has filled 273 barrels with donations since its start in 2014, equating to approximately 47,000 pounds of edible goods. The company added a donation of $100 per barrel, totaling $27,300. Over the holiday season, employees donate their time to prepare thousands of Secret Santa hearts for volunteers to hang on Christmas trees distributed throughout the community. Separately, 150 bikes are assembled as part of the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County’s Secret Santa outreach program. G&C is a proud corporate sponsor for the volunteer center and The Redwood Empire Food Bank.
During his years in business, Gene supported the community wholeheartedly. He donated to charities and personally helped needy families find employment, locate housing and buy food. He encouraged the business community and other organizations to join him. Gene also started a car giveaway program for families who had experienced an unforeseen tragedy. Upon reading letters that nominated families in need, he empathized with their plight, and wanting to do even more, he established The Crozat Family Foundation.
Teri Crozat and Carlynn Tocchini, community outreach coordinator, continue to carry out the foundation’s mission to provide cars to those who need them. Since its inception in 2014, 144 cars have been donated. Recipients have encountered an unavoidable tragedy or health issue—they’re not in need because of a lack of responsibility. “Gene was a man with a big heart,” Tocchini said. “He would say that he prayed God would bring him someone to help everyday.”
Cars are provided by the National Auto Body Council’s Recycled Rides program, a bridge between insurance companies and nonprofits. Insurance companies donate vehicles for families in need and Recycled Rides distributes them to nonprofit programs. Of the total number of automobiles awarded by the Crozat Family Foundation, half come from Recycled Rides and the rest are purchased.
Recipients are nominated online, with approximately 80 nominations received monthly. Crozat and Tocchini meet with many of the applicants, selecting five finalists. Each month, two winners are announced on the radio, either on 97.7 The River or Froggy 92.9. Recipients also receive six months full insurance coverage, six months of gas, and Safeway gift cards. And the program doesn’t end there. It keeps on giving, providing a stopgap so families have a chance to get their lives back in order. At Thanksgiving, there are per-household Safeway gift cards for food, and at Christmas, Target gift cards are donated. Last year, G&C helped 22 families buy presents for more than 50 children.
The Crozat family knows hardship first hand, as well. Patrick, Shawn, Josh, Jamie and their mother Teri all lost their homes during the Tubbs Fire. Teri had recently purchased her home to be near her children and grandchildren. She never had a chance to live there. “It’s hard to believe all five homes just went up in smoke,” Shawn said. “Fortunately we were all safe. Thirteen of us camped out in our mother’s other home until we could get the situation sorted out. Thankfully all our employees were okay and none of the repair shops were threatened.”
Even in the midst of their own tragedy, the Crozat Family and their foundation took action. Employees gathered at a 22,000-sq-ft. warehouse to collect, sort and dispense supplies. The foundation assisted 122 families with essentials during the first 90 days after the disaster—and donated seven cars to families who lost their vehicles.
Starting with Gene’s $1.40, family owned G&C Auto Body took on every challenge and bucked the odds. According to The Family Firm Institute, only about 30 percent of family businesses survive into the second generation. The statistic for the third generation is even lower, at 12 percent, though that’s a ways from being tested at G&C. At 13 years of age, Shawn’s daughter, Maddie is the oldest of Gene and Teri’s nine grandchildren. And the second generation of the Crozat family is thriving in their mission to carry on the family tradition, having learned from Gene the immense value of quality service and care for their customers and the community at large.
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