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Montana-based MSO Big Sky Collision invests in staff to foster growth

Tuesday, July 3, 2018 - 06:00
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Everything in Montana is vast, and the state’s biggest family-owned multi-shop collision repair companies has to cover a big area. Big Sky Collision operates three stores in Billings, Bozeman and Livingston, Montana, but its service area stretches for hundreds of miles. The Livingston location is 120 miles away from Billings; the Bozeman store is 150 miles from the headquarters.

Montana is the fourth largest state, but third most sparsely populated, so expansion into new markets can spread an owner thin. According to Big Sky owner Matthew McDonnell, investing in his staff and focusing on customer service has helped keep the company’s growth manageable.

At a Glance:
Big Sky Collision Center
Billings, Montana
States served
$12 million
Spies Hecker/Axalta
Paint supplier
Management software
CCC, Mitchell, Audatex
Estimating software

McDonnell is a second-generation owner. His father started the business in 1978, but the younger McDonnell didn’t really join the family business until later in life. “I swept floors there when I was younger, but I actually went away, went to school and worked in the restaurant industry,” McDonnel says.

While his two brothers did work with his father, McDonnell didn’t join the fold until he was in his thirties. “I was golfing with my dad and he just asked me to come back and work for him,” McDonnell says. “He wanted me to handle insurance relations.”

His introduction to shop-insurer relations was eye opening, to say the least. “My dad is pretty old-school, and the first week I was here I saw him yelling at an insurance adjuster,” McDonnell says. “My jaw was on the ground. That’s how you do business with each other?”

The insurance company reps weren’t any better, at least at first. “I became an estimator, and if I made a mistake I would get browbeaten over the phone,” McDonnell says. “We had 12 different DRPs to satisfy, there were all these demands, and it was just absolutely stupid. Except for one thing – that was when we delivered a car back to the customer, and they were thrilled. That’s what kept me going.”

McDonnell says he is a stickler for repair procedures, as well as pre- and post-scanning. “Over time we got kicked off all but two DRPs,” McDonnell says. “What I learned was that you have to find people who want to do things right, and partner with them. If the other ones aren’t focused on that, I’m not interested in what they’re selling.”

The fact that his background is outside of the collision industry has helped make insurer relations more business-like, McDonnell says. “I run a business, and there are customers and employees who I need to take care of and protect,” McDonnell says. “I care about my people, and they care about our customers. I tell the insurance companies, if I don’t like what you’re selling to me, I’m not going to buy it. It has nothing to do with liking or not liking them. We are transparent on our invoices, and I give them everything they need to make the right decision to pay the full bill. I want to deal with people who can say yes. If you can’t say yes, then I need to get to a person who can.”

Big Sky now works with three DRPs, and McDonnell says they have developed good partnerships with those companies.

Rapid Growth

As his responsibilities grew at Big Sky, McDonnell bought his brothers out, took over the company, and applied his experience in running restaurants and bars to the body shop. In 2014, he took part in the Discover Leadership Training program, which he credits with helping him lead the company into new growth areas.

“It really opened my eyes,” McDonnell says. “So many people in this industry play the victim card. They can’t do something because of the insurance company, or their employees won’t go for it. They make up their mind they can’t do something before they try. We changed that, and in 2015 we started a whole new adventure here.”

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