Intro to Wheel Repair

Dec 3, 2009

For restylers looking to break into the reconditioning business, wheel repair has a lot of attractive qualities to get things rolling. Techs can learn the necessary skills quickly. There’s also little competition, and a huge potential market to tap.

Wheel repair, which has grown in popularity in the last five years, is the newest [and very likely the last] major service to be introduced in the auto reconditioning market, according to sources in the industry.

The process is fairly simple. The damage, which most often includes a gouge or rash around the bead area of a steel or alumninum wheel, is ground down and smoothed out as much as possible. Then an epoxy is used to fill any gaps. Finally, the wheel is repainted and clear-coated.

The process generally takes between 30 and 45 minutes per wheel, and the cost of the service provides valuable profits for techs while saving the end-user a considerable amount of money in comparison to replacing the wheel.

And the best part? There’s not an excessive number of people who know about the service, lessening competition for techs and providing a huge, untapped market of potential customers.

“The service itself is probably the newest of all the [mobile reconditioning services,]” says Jeff Smith of Kwicksilver, a Washington, Va.-based wheel repair franchisor. “Very few people know that their rims can even be repaired, so when they curb one of their rims, they just assume that they have to either live with it or buy a new one. But that’s generally not the case anymore.”

System Choices

In fact, even severe damage such as bent wheels can be repaired with some of the more extensive systems on the market, including Kwicksilver’s, which includes a wheel-straightening machine as part of its franchise package.

But even the basic systems can sufficiently repair gouges up to approximately an inch long, and curb rash anywhere on the wheel, says Ashley Hall, owner of wheel repair system manufacturer RIMGUARD, Clayton, N.C.

“You’d be surprised by how severe that damage can be and still have the ability to bring it back to like-new condition,” says Hall. “The part of the tire where you’ll find the worst damage is along the bead, the outer edge of the rim, where there will often be a chunk taken out of it.

“If that damage is between a half-inch to just under one-inch long, you can generally repair it,” he adds. “Anything more than that [and] you’d probably turn away, because it more than likely needs to be welded back or replaced.”

Whether an aspiring wheel repair tech is a mobile operator or part of an existing restyling shop, entry into the market can occur in many different forms, each with its corresponding price tag.

That price might run anywhere from around $3,000 for a stand-alone system, up to a $19,000 fee for franchise designation. Within that range, systems vary greatly in terms of the machinery and tools that are supplied, the duration and depth of training, and the amount of marketing and advertising support provided.

The appropriate level of involvement for any one individual or restyling company depends on their business model, but what is true for each system is that there are opportunities within this growing market.

Kwicksilver’s Smith notes that his company encourages new buyers, many of which are restyling shops, to incorporate the system into their existing list of services and capitalize on the obvious crossover business that exists.

“If you’ve got a customer who is very interested in their vehicle and buying aftermarket accessories, then they’re more than likely going to have aftermarket rims and want to keep them looking good,” he says. “That is going to create a lot of crossover business for a shop.”

RIMGUARD’s Hall agrees, and adds that the skills themselves are easy to learn, regardless of the tech’s background with reconditioning services. While many of his customers have existing businesses, others had no prior experience in the automotive market whatsoever.

“It’s very easy to learn,” he says. “Compared with something like interior repair, you can get up to speed on wheel repair very quickly. You can do some wheel repair training and some trial-and-error on your own and, after about three weeks, you’ve got it down.”

John Davidson, president of Sacramento, Calif.-based Superior Restoration Products, says that while each system is different, they all feature a wide range of tools that may include straight and angled grinders, buffers, face masks, gloves, sledgehammers and a paint touch-up kit with airbrush.

Many also include extension cords, hoses and air compressor adaptors, as well as the chemicals necessary to get started.

Service for Everyone

Like the systems themselves, training programs can also differ greatly. Programs range from a single day to a full week, and vary significantly in terms of the topics covered. Again, each potential company or technician should find which program best suits their specific requirements.

Regardless of the differences in training or tools, most reputable manufacturers in the wheel repair market offer some form of ongoing technical support, most often via email or through a tech support phone line.

“Wheels are changing very quickly-there are all kinds of different finishes and colors-and you really have to stay up-to-date on all of those aspects,” says Smith. “One of the things we do to help our techs is offer ongoing consultation so they can get advice when they need it. They can call us and email us at any time, and we can answer questions about wheel finishes or techniques, that sort of thing.”

Like other reconditioning services, wheel repair is a business with opportunities both at the retail level and targeted toward large wholesale operations, including new- and used-car dealerships.

While the percentage between retail and wholesale work depends on how much pre-existing business a tech has or the way a new business is marketed, Superior Restoration’s Davidson says a vast majority of wheel repair jobs are performed for wholesale clients.

“Wholesale work is probably about 90 percent of the work for most of our guys,” he says.

And while the work itself is the same, there are subtle differences in how to do business with retail versus wholesale customers, he says.

“Retail customers want a car to be completely perfect, which isn’t always possible,” he says. “A person who’s buying a car isn’t going to see some repaired damage on the wheel. They didn’t know it was there to begin with. But, if it is someone’s personal car, they’re going to be looking for that repair and can become upset if it doesn’t disappear completely.”

Unfortunately, sometimes the only way to make damage disappear completely is to buy a new wheel-for a couple hundred dollars, he adds.

“But we can fix almost anything to near-perfect for $50, and there’s a lot of potential market for that,” he says.

In addition to car dealerships, RV dealerships, rental car agencies, auto auctions, limousine companies, car washes and body shops are all potential customers for a wheel repair business.

While Kwicksilver’s Smith agrees the vast majority of business in the wheel repair market is performed for wholesale operations, he adds that there are considerable opportunities at retail as well.

“In terms of the retail marketplace, it’s just wide open,” he says. “For about the past six years, wheel repair has been done strictly at car dealerships and some tire dealers, but really there’s a much larger marketplace than that.

“How the company’s business will break down between retail and wholesale work depends completely on how they market the business,” he adds. “In the past, most guys have just gone to the high-end car dealers, and that’s been their bread and butter. If you don’t market to retail customers, they won’t know about it. Retail customers are your higher-dollar customers, and we are really trying to show our people that there is money to be made in serving them.”

Potential Challenges

According to our sources, the wheel repair process itself is remarkably void of significant challenges. In fact, the only real obstacles to finding success in the business might be those that techs place on themselves.

“There isn’t much to it that’s challenging,” says Davidson. “There are not many people doing it, so the competition isn’t as heavy. The reconditioning industry on the whole is smothered with interior repair guys, paintless dent guys, bumper guys-”but it isn’t like that with wheel repair.”

RIMGUARD’s Hall aggress that the skills are accessible to anyone, but concedes that some people will find it challenging to approach wholesale clients in an effort to establish an account.

“The biggest challenge is just getting accounts established to begin with,” he says. “But if you can just get in at a dealership and do a free demo for them, then you have a great chance to get that customer and build repeat business.

“You are your biggest obstacle,” he adds. “You have to get out there and pound the pavement every day, and not get discouraged when you get turned down once or twice. If you go out there and you’re confident in yourself and your work, that will come through when you go in to talk to a body shop manager or manager at a dealership.”

Kwicksilver’s Smith says the most significant challenge is maintaining the level of quality the market requires.

“Anyone can be taught to do this, but you really need to have the right tools and the right knowledge to do it right,” he says. “You need to do a professional job and insurance-quality work. A high-end car dealership or a body shop that is getting paid by the insurance company needs that level of quality.”

But with such a large potential market, taking the time to get to that high-level of quality in the wheel repair market just might be worth it.