China Car Crashes a Growth Opportunity

A giant inflatable banner marked the opening of Craftsman Collision’s auto body shop in Suzhou, China

B.C.-based body shop Craftsman Collision Ltd. has boldly gone where no other Canadian body shop has gone before: China. And while it’s not likely Da Shi Ban Pen (Master Body Repair) will become household words in Chinese families overnight, Craftsman has timed the move alongside an explosive growth in Chinese vehicular traffic, anticipating the growing need to repair damage to the country’s estimated 85 million cars.

Can a Canadian shop succeed in China? General manager of China operations Mark Greenberg thinks so. “Compared to our model, body shops in China are very dark and poorly lit,” he says. “Equipment is limited or non-existent, and technical training is about 15 to 20 years behind what we have in Canada. Drivers and insurance companies are desperate for a much higher standard of car repair and customer service, but not sure where it would come from or how it would look.”

The new shop in Suzhou, a city of eight million 50 km west of Shanghai, came at the suggestion of Richmond-based equipment supplier Wedge Clamp Systems. Company president Desmond Chan approached Craftsman owner (and longtime customer) Bill Hatswell about providing a state-of-the-art shop equipped with Wedge Clamp gear—lifting, measuring and straightening systems and its nitrogen-charged spray-painting system. Hatswell took two trips to Shanghai and a deal was struck.

 “We began our mission to overhaul the body shop business in Western Canada in 1977,” says Hatswell. “Now, 35 years later, we’re embarking on that same mission in China.”

 “The insurance companies in China are nervous about moving any business away from the dealerships, which represent their primary source of sales and renewals,” says Frank Liu, Craftsman’s general manager of China business development. “But there is a tremendous opportunity for a collision repair company that can create a new standard in this chaotic market. Our presence will allow insurance companies to focus more on telephone and corporate group sales of new policies and renewals. It’s a very different direction for them, and a big ship to turn around, but an exercise we are excited to be part of.”

Plans for the new 18,000-square-foot shop were patterned on the Canadian model, with the inclusion of training space for Wedge Clamp products, and corporate offices upstairs for meetings and sales. Demographically, the 288-square-kilometre Suzhou Industrial Park is ideal, boasting a bevy of high-tech schools and industries and one of China’s highest average incomes.

At the grand opening in September, the new shop sparkled with fireworks, colour, speeches and song. Joining the festivities were seven high-level insurance company executives as well as Canadian government trade representative John McDonald, Mayor Xu Feng of Wuzhong District, Craftsman’s Bill and Greg Hatswell, Liu, Greenberg and VP David Cant, and Wedge Clamp’s Chan.

The ceremony was held in the morning to symbolize the dawn of good fortune. But no sooner had the 50 assembled guests begun enjoying the traditional music and dancing dragons than a torrential downpour erupted, compete with thunder and lightning. Then just as abruptly the clouds parted and the morning sun shone anew–according to Chinese tradition, a very good omen.