John Willis Of National Dent Works
Always Takes A Leadership Role In The Growing PDR Industry
Always Takes A Leadership Role In The Growing PDR Industry
When John Willis of National Dent Works in Raleigh, North Carolina speaks, people tend to listen. He has a prolific resume in the PDR industry. He was a founding member and first vice president of the National Alliance of Paintless Dent Repair Technicians (NAPDRT); he was named 2015’s PDR Person of the Year by the Mobile Tech Expo; he has managed and coordinated the popular Dent Olympics for the past five years; and has been one of the industry’s most successful PDR companies, if not the largest and most successful in the state of North Carolina with a physical shop and six mobile units servicing all of Eastern N.C.
His philosophy for success is an inspiring one. “We have built our business with well-trained, capable mobile techs with whom our customers respect and trust,” he says. “Some companies resent writing their technicians big checks, and many try to break up lucrative routes because the tech is making what they feel is too much money.
I’m just the opposite. When I write big checks, I see it as a celebration of their success, my success, and the success of the industry itself.” Willis got started in the PDR business in 1995 while working as a service representative for a water treatment company. One of his clients was the largest automotive dent repair franchise in North Carolina who was impressed by his mechanical knowledge, his excellent customer service skills, and punctuality. Thinking John would be an excellent candidate for a position as a mobile dent tech, they recruited him away from his current position.
His wife, Hollie was close to graduating from nursing school, so right about the time she finished, John began dent school training. “There were a lot of much younger guys in school with me who hadn’t yet been out in the business world. Many of them were more or less being paid to be there because their companies were paying for their training, and they didn’t recognize the opportunity ahead of them,”
Willis recalls. “I was 27, married, had always had a good paying job and an instinctive entrepreneurial spirit. I was very self-motivated – a sort of man on a mission.” After two weeks, Willis was well ahead of the rest of his class, graduating at the top. “It wasn’t easy, but I was motivated and I pushed myself, listening and studying hard, which helped me to pick
up the art of dent repair relatively quickly. When training was over, I got to choose where I wanted to go,” he says. “Hollie, who has always believed in me and stood behind me in anything I wanted to do, had an offer from a dialysis clinic in Greenville. In 1997, that is where I went, spending the next four years traveling and working for the company who trained me.” He quickly moved up to a supervisory role and later, district manager for the state of N.C.
In April 2001, he met Jared Gobrecht, now with his own company, Big Biscuit PDR in Hanover, PA. “Jared is a great person and phenomenal technician and I have to include him as one of the reasons for National Dent Works’ early success,” Willis says. The two went on the Hail Trail in 2001 but life on the road is difficult when married and raising a family so when he came off the road in 2004, he started National Dent Works in Raleigh and brought Gobrecht with him.
“We both worked hard to build up our routes and we were very successful with it,” Willis says. “Later Jared wanted to move back home to Pennsylvania, but we remain close friends. He competes in the Dent Olympics at the Mobile Tech Expo every year and has placed second the last two years in a row.”
In 2009, President Obama’s Cash for Clunkers program wiped out the wholesale PDR market and the result had longer-term effects. “That program took 2 million used cars out of the market. Many techs were dropping their pants and giving away their labor, accepting jobs at $35 a car. The problem with that is that once you give away business, you can never get it back. Even as the industry began to slowly recover over the next few years, they were stuck fixing dents at $35
a car. At that price, you can’t make enough profit to survive.”
Again, Willis took an entirely different approach. His adherence to quality over price paid off. “Even now we are not the cheapest, but our clientele is willing to pay a little more for quality work. It changed things — we were servicing 75 car dealerships and used car lots and today we have seven. Ninety-five percent of our business
today is retail body shops and reconditioning shops.”
He says there are basically two philosophies in the PDR industry: sell to the masses or sell to the classes.“When we couldn’t make a profit on used cars, which are the masses, we turned to the classes — in short, body shops and reconditioning shops where you have to be proficient and capable at the same time. It weeded out the dent hacks who could sell on site by giving away their work, but who couldn’t do the work.”
John Willis has attended every Mobile Tech Expo except two. During the second year, Kevin Halewood held a PDR roundtable. It was clear there was a lot of animosity in the industry with dent techs complaining that untrained and inexperienced PDR techs were hurting the industry. “Let’s face it, when entrepreneurial types and people looking for work see a lucrative industry, they flock to it. Unfortunately, there are many among them who come into it without a business mindset or any path for the future. Those people will give it away.”
That’s when Willis and several other industry professionals saw a need for leadership in the PDR industry, complete with industry standards. NAPDRT was born from that roundtable. “Kevin Halewood has done so much for the PDR business,” Willis says. “The Mobile Tech Expo is the first time the PDR industry had a place where techs and suppliers could meet to discuss what they needed, and where suppliers could share their tools and product lines. It changed the business because it brings everyone together to share ideas and look for solutions to make the industry better.”
The Dent Olympics competition is another area where Willis has stepped up in a leadership capacity.“I competed in the second ever Dent Olympics. The competition was new and with anything new, it needed to evolve,” he says. “Few people
knew about the competition until they got to the show, so people like me didn’t bring any of our own tools, which makes a difference.“Also, winning was somewhat the luck of the draw. Dents were placed all over the car rather than just the quarter panels and doors, so if you got a dent by the quarter panel, you had a lot more leverage. Fixing that dent was easier than fixing some other dents. They only awarded three places and there weren’t any prizes to speak of. I think I placed fourth or fifth that year.”
John says he wanted to show his gratitude for the show by getting involved in the management of the Dent Olympics. He remained on the periphery for a couple of years before taking over running the show alongside Andrew Kinsey of Superior Impressions for the past five years. He has actively overseen a lot of changes and improvements that have not only made it better and more fair, but that have introduced more new technicians to the fun.
“I think things are much more organized, more fair, and it has become so popular, most PDR techs know ahead of time they can bring their own tools to the competition,” he says. “Now we do two rows of dents on the front and rear door panels on both sides of the car and we have a limit of 70-75 dents available so companies cannot buy up a bunch of dents and enter multiple times. There are no re-dos and it opens up the competition to more people. Not only that but the prizes are significant to the top six positions and first, second, and third place receive huge trophies that are quite impressive in a dent company’s trophy case.”
Finally, he says tools and lighting have been a driving force in the success of PDR.“When I started in PDR, I worked with a florescent shop light and a reflector and that was it. Now there are all types of lights and tools. I work mostly on large dents so I move them around more than most techs. That is brutal, especially on the connections. I have to have durable lighting and I don’t mind paying for it.”
He says he uses lighting from Ultra Dent Tools and Elim A Dent, as well as Pro PDR Solutions’ HD fatheads, excellent lights by Carl Stuckey, and PDR light boards by Bill Hewlett. “They are all top of the line, rather pricey lighting systems, but they last a long time and endure my rough handling.”
In terms of tools, Willis says he still uses some tools he started with 19 years ago, and few he even made himself, but he is partial to Dentcraft’s whale tail paddle tools. “Probably the tool that has had the biggest impact on the industry is Ike Rhoades’ Ratchet Handle tool from PDR Finesse,” he says. “It used to be that if you were left- handed, you bought a left-handed tool. If you were right-handed, bought a right-handed tool. The Ratchet Handle makes it interchangeable and removes the stress on your elbows while trying to get into difficult areas.”In conclusion, Willis says he approaches allbusiness with respect for both his business and the customer.“I’m a firm believer that not all business is good business. Ten percent of your customers will take 90 percent of your time if you
let them. We concentrate on those who appreciate what we do for them. They have a lot of options … believe me … there are plenty of dent techs out there trying to take business away from us all the time, but I always say we don’t have competition when it comes to quality.
We haven’t had price increase since 2006 because we know our niche
and I encourage others to do the same.”
For more info: John Willis
National Dent Works
4524 Clear Cut Court
Wake Forest, NC 27587
Tel: 919 878-4448
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