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“There’s a what living in this car…?

  • “There’s a what living in this car…?

40 years, 40 locations and more than a few highlights for Craftsman Collision, Canada’s largest privately owned bodyshop chain

Weird and wonderful moments abound in any upstart organization, and after 40 years and literally millions of customers, bodyshop chain Craftsman Collision has certainly had its share. Since opening on Vancouver’s Cambie Street in 1977, Craftsman has experienced everything from fires to a missing promotional blimp to… well, a cheetah.

That’s right, a cheetah. For whatever reason, a customer who performed as an exotic dancer with her pet cheetah allowed the wildcat to take up residence in one of Craftsman’s customer replacement vehicles (formerly known as ‘courtesy cars’) – turning a formerly pristine interior into a tangled mess of fabric, foam and wires garnished with the ineffable aroma of feral sweat and excrement. Then there was the not-too-brilliant customer who made a large unauthorized withdrawal from an unsuspecting bank on Main Street – using a Craftsman replacement vehicle emblazoned with the distinctive red, white and blue Craftsman livery as a getaway vehicle. It didn’t take long for the Vancouver police
to track him down and haul him in.

And that car wasn’t even the first Craftsman car used in a bank job, recalls company Chief Operating Officer Rick Hatswell (son of founder and owner Bill Hatswell). One of them had to be shipped back from Knoxville, Tennessee.

As you might expect from a bodyshop chain marked by consistent and successful expansion to 40 locations in three countries (including China), Craftsman is generally a very buttoned-down operation. So it was genuine news, one windy day in 2006, when Craftsman’s advertising blimp was found missing from its Maple Ridge shop on Lougheed Highway. Arriving to open in the
morning, the shop manager was aghast to see half of a frayed rope where the 20-foot, helium-filled behemoth had been anchored. Craftsman head office immediately issued a press release offering $1000 reward for its safe return, but despite widespread exposure in the major papers and on the 6:00 TV news that night, the blimp was never found, and the reward never claimed.

On another bad weather day in December, 1986, a gust of wind took out some of the roof supports at Craftsman’s Main Street location. The heavy roof overhang landed right on top of Bill Hatswell’s Jaguar XJS parked in front, writing off the nearly new vehicle.

Over the years, Craftsman has given away several news cars in promotions. In Craftsman’s 2005 Take a Spin contest, the winner of a new Mini (apparently a rodeo fan) was delighted with her prize, but asked for one custom modification: full-size, 3-D Texas-style bull horns. The job required a grimacing Craftsman body technician to take a drill and welding equipment to the Mini’s virgin hood to mount the two giant fibreglass appendages.

Expecting the unexpected is part of what keeps collision repair interesting to founder and still-owner and president Hatswell, even after 40 years. And it must be said that today’s customers expect a much loftier level of service than they would have received 40 years ago – thanks in large part to Hatswell’s pioneering efforts. He is widely recognized in Western Canada for taking the industry from rag-tag storefronts thick with cigarette smoke and pin-up calendars to the clean, friendly, shirt-and-tie environments that are pretty much the norm in the best bodyshops today.

Craftsman employs more than 600 staff under the banners of Craftsman Collision and Distinctive Auto Works, managed by professionals and tooled with equipment that would have seemed like science fiction 40 years ago, from antistatic surface preparation devices to and heated-nitrogen spraypainting and computer-guided frame straightening systems. Most employees participate in a generous array of company-sponsored social events: annual boat cruises, golf tournaments, ski trips, family days and gala Christmas parties at premium venues including, for employees working in BC’s Lower Mainland, the swanky Pan Pacific Hotel ballroom.

“Employees who genuinely enjoy themselves on social outings bring a greater sense of caring to the workplace – to one another and to customers, and to doing a better job,” says Bill Hatswell. “By continually aiming to create a work environment that feels like one big, happy family, we set new sales records every year, and keep winning all the top consumer awards.”

Also playing a pivotal role in Craftsman’s ascent to the summit of the Canadian autobody industry are smart marketing decisions. From the earliest days, Craftsman’s sparkling fleet of ‘free rental cars’ were often more clean and comfortable than the vehicles being repaired. Intrusive ad campaigns including the popular ‘Bad Driver Award’ radio spots earned chuckles from commuting
drivers. Participation in the Air Miles rewards program from its beginning in the early 1990s is yet another reason for customers to smile when picking up their repaired vehicles – while continuing to be a unique advantage in a mature, ultra competitive industry.

Craftsman’s success has trickled down to the community at large, with more than $2 million in donations to dozens of charitable causes through the years. Among the most prominent are the Salvation Army (whose food bank is replenished by Craftsman’s annual Making a Dent food drive), the Heart & Stroke Foundation, the BCIT Foundation and School of Transportation, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the Vancouver Symphony, and the Lions Gate Hospital Foundation, to which Craftsman has donated more than $1 million and helped create the hospital’s Craftsman Collision Cast Clinic.

“Creating a successful business and building stronger communities go hand in hand,” says Stacey Cook, Marketing Manager for the Craftsman Group of Companies. “Our corporate charitable ventures are often paralleled by our shop managers also getting involved in charities, sports or volunteer efforts in their local communities. Giving back is as important to us as financial growth.”

Most recently, Craftsman has paid $150,000 to sponsor the Craftsman Collision Signature Aquarium – a 14-foot, 3-tonne acrylic structure soon to be towering over the new Gibsons Public Market on BC’s Sunshine Coast.

Notwithstanding the many speed bumps, early struggles with ICBC, two fires, sluggish economic times, expansion hiccups and other temporary setbacks, Bill Hatswell says he has enjoyed every moment.

“I could write a book on the many things that have happened in the last 40 years,” he smiles from the North Vancouver head office. “Sad things, exciting things, disappointments and fun. They are all part of the Craftsman success story, and have helped us make our mark, make Craftsman a household name, and create the great working environment we enjoy today. But with our continuing rapid growth, expansion into new markets, acquisitions, real estate developments and other successful ventures, it would be a bit premature. The book is still being written.”

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