Hitting the Hail Trail

Dec 3, 2009

In 1990, I was a mechanic at a Ford dealership in Orlando, Fla., when a storm dropped golf ball-sized hail on all the cars on the lot. A few days later, a couple of guys were set up in our service department repairing the damaged vehicles.

These guys wouldn’t let anyone watch them work-in fact they pulled a big tarp around their work area to keep everyone from seeing what they did. One by one they brought hail damaged cars into the shop and later returned them to the lot, dent-free. It was all very mysterious, and it was my introduction to paintless dent repair.

Five years later, I entered the PDR field.

After training and practicing for the better part of a year, I began to secure dealership accounts for a mobile door ding route. But there was way more competition for the work than I had anticipated, and it was always a struggle to keep moving forward.

I kept hearing stories about the crazy money guys were making from chasing hail. So, after seven years of running all over Houston, I said goodbye to my door ding route and decided to try the hail trail.

Life on the Hail Trail

The life of a hail chaser is by no means a gravy train. To the contrary, it is at times very hectic and frustrating.

The old saying: hurry up and wait is a pretty fitting slogan for the business. But that’s just the beginning of what it takes to chase hail.

First of all, you need weather. Bad weather. In the United States, the hail-producing thunderstorms generally begin in the spring.

You’ve spent the winter organizing your tools and keeping in contact with other technicians and PDR companies, piddling around the house, and getting to know your family again. Maybe you’re getting a little crazy with cabin fever. Believe me when I say winter lasts a long time.

But the storms finally begin. You’ve been in front of the computer for days, watching every little developing cell. You know more about storm formation than your local meteorologist. You are calling everyone you know and they are all calling you. The big question is, who’s got the work?

Much has changed since the early days of PDR hail chasing. In the old days [by old, I mean the late 1980s and early ’90s], a technician could pull into a town and rent any empty building with an overhead door and set up shop.

If someone had hail damage on a vehicle, their insurance company had written them a check for a conventional body shop repair-enough money to replace the damaged panels and paint the whole thing. A PDR technician could fix the vehicle for perhaps half of the amount paid by the insurance company.

The vehicle owner got his or her car repaired in a day or two and put a couple thousand dollars in the bank. The technician made a couple thousand dollars per day. It was an easy sell, and everyone was happy.

My, how things change.

These days, there are thousands of PDR technicians chasing hail. Some work independently, and some work for the numerous large and small hail companies.

The independent technicians must try to be a step ahead of everyone else. Getting to the storm first is key. Getting there late might mean leaving again real soon. All the vacant shop spaces will have been rented out and all the body shops will already have a Hail Repair banner hanging out front.

The Insurance Factor

One of the main reasons for the change in the market is the auto insurance industry. In the past few years, insurance companies have familiarized and aligned themselves with paintless dent repair.

Gone are the days when an insurance company wrote a check to a customer and it was more than enough to cover the cost of PDR repairs. Today, the check is much smaller, and the customer is often told where to take the vehicle to be repaired.

A handful of the bigger PDR companies have established relationships with insurance companies. These relationships give those businesses a great amount of leverage-they are able to set up and work in the body shops that have Direct Repair [DRP] agreements with the insurance companies.

The body shops give up a few stalls in exchange for perhaps 25-30 percent of the repair order ticket. The PDR company or broker who sets up the deal usually takes another 30 percent. That usually leaves around 40 percent of the ticket for the technician.

And the insurance companies have established their own systems of determining the price they pay for repairs-a price that is much, much lower than they used to pay for conventional body shop repairs.

Add up all of these factors and it’s easy to see why today’s hail technician doesn’t earn nearly as much as those 10 years ago.

It was under these conditions that I trotted out into the hail repair market. I had a newborn daughter, and my wife left her job as a schoolteacher to stay at home with her.

Neither of us liked the idea of me being gone all the time, but we needed more money than I was able to earn with my door ding route. Plus, I liked the idea that I could work maybe six months on the road and take the rest of the year off.

I made a few phone calls and landed a job with a pretty big hail company from my hometown. They sent me to work at a large dealership about five hours away. I worked very long hours on some very beat-up cars.

I stayed at the dealership for weeks-all the other techs except the lead tech had moved on to the next storm-taking care of the last few jobs that trickled in. I wanted to prove my loyalty.

Finally, I finished my last car and loaded my tools and called the owner of the hail company to find out where I was to go next. They had gone to Chicago and didn’t have a spot for me yet.

I went home and they mailed me my last check, shorting me a little over a thousand dollars. I never heard from them again. Welcome to the hail trail.

Going it Alone

By my second year, I had figured out that I would never be able to make any real money working for hail brokers.

In my experience, the average broker keeps 30 percent of every vehicle repaired. If he has a dozen techs working for him, he’s making more than any three of them put together.

But, you know what they say-if you don’t like it, go work on your own. So that’s what I did.

Maps. I bought a lot of maps. And a lot of gasoline. I spent hours in front of my computer, watching the weather radar and waiting for the storm reports. I started trying to predict where hail was going to fall before it fell.

My suitcase was packed and my tools loaded in the van. And it was always hailing at 2 a.m. somewhere. It became routine for me to leave my house in the middle of the night to race to some town I had never heard of before.

More often than not, I would pull into some tiny town before dawn and drive around, looking for cars with hail damage. I carried a squeegee so I could jump out of the van and wipe the rain off of a car to squint in the dark, trying to find dents.

I went on quite a few wild goose chases that second year, and on the occasions when I did find hail damage, most often a bunch of other guys had found it first. But I stayed my course and after a while, I started to find some work.

I called in some of the friends I had made to share the work when I could. I never took a percentage of the money they made, although this is what is commonly done.

The way I see it, I’d rather have someone I know and trust helping me hold down the fort, and make good money while doing so. When they got on a storm down the road, I hoped they would return the favor. And they almost always did. If they didn’t, then I knew I wouldn’t be calling them next time. I did it then, and I still do it now.

The past two years I have been fortunate enough to get a storm in my hometown, where I have my own retail shop. I’ve brought my friends in to help with the extra work and I’ve always paid them a minimum 80 percent of their billings.

After paying the rent and advertising and other expenses, I make very little profit off of what my techs do. My income comes from the vehicles I repair myself. But I can get the best technicians available, and I expect-and get-their best efforts.

I don’t worry about a car coming back after being repaired by anyone in the shop, and I know they have my back if I get a little burned out and have to take a quick emergency fishing trip.

Moving Forward

I manage a storm the way I do in reaction to the direction I believe this business is headed across the country. I see dozens upon dozens of excellent technicians losing their passion for the trade as their earnings decrease and they continue to compete with the hail brokers and each other.

The hail repair industry is in a curious place today, I believe. It has been on a serious downward swing for several years due to the influx of new technicians, and the greed and shortsightedness of an unfortunate few looking to make a quick buck.

But the bottom line is that there simply isn’t an unlimited supply of top-shelf technicians, and sub-par techs and companies will never be able to completely corner the market.

It’s my hope that if enough good techs finally get tired of seeing their industry deteriorate, perhaps there will be a shift in the balance of things. It may be a long and slow change, but we’ll do it like we do our work, one dent at a time.