New Englanders Prove to be Heavyweights at NORTHEAST 2024

by Chasidy Rae Sisk

Boasting a supercard that featured over a dozen informative educational sessions on the industry’s most pressing topics taught by some of the industry’s favorite trainers in addition to a trade show floor packed with the latest and greatest tools and equipment showcased by more than 100 exhibitors from all over the world – plus the Second Annual Bodywork Bowl Collision Repair Skills Competition and so much more – there’s no doubt that NORTHEAST® 2024 Automotive Services Show delivered everything automotive and collision repair professionals could possibly need to jump in the ring and deliver a knockout for their businesses.

Year after year, NORTHEAST reigns as the heavyweight champion of regional industry trade shows…and the New Englanders who made the trip to the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus, NJ on March 15-17 proved to be heavyweights in their own right! 

AASP/MA Executive Director Lucky Papageorg served as a panelist, Rick Starbard (Rick’s Auto Collision; Revere) offered some insights on getting involved with technical education, and Doug Begin (Vendetti Motors; Franklin, RI) took the gold in the estimating portion of the Second Annual Bodywork Bowl Collision Repair Skills Competition. 

There’s so much for shops to stay on top of these days! During “Survivor: Exploring Trends that Will Shape the Next Decade & Beyond,” panelists shared insights on what shops need to pay attention to if they plan to be successful now and in the future, covering everything from EVs and ADAS to specialization, certification and more.

On the topic of EVs, Dave Gruskos (Reliable Automotive Equipment) indicated that opportunities for shops are growing, and Jerry McNee (Ultimate Collision Repair; Edison, NJ) agreed, “Everyone is on an EV kick, especially when the government offers tax credits and incentives. It’s going to grow in the future; I don’t see it going away, but outfitting your facility for EVs is an expensive little venture.” Panelists also stressed the need for proper training and to address the challenges caused by a lack of infrastructure.

Referencing a report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), moderator Joel Gausten asked why the industry is doing such a horrible job with calibrating ADAS and how it can be rectified. “It all boils down to training,” stressed Mike Anderson (Collision Advice). “We’ve done ourselves a disservice and failed the consumer by buying equipment without learning how to use it.”

“Shops need to understand what’s on the car, and the industry needs to properly test these systems after repairing them,” offered Frank Terlep (Opus IVS), adding, “If a mobile calibration tech performs a calibration in your parking lot or on the street, fire them…No OEM allows that!”

Ultimately, it all falls to the repairer, according to Papageorg. “This industry needs to catch up to technology. It comes really fast, so we need to speed up our approach to accepting technological advances.” Reminding attendees that their shop still holds the liability for the calibration even if they sublet it, he added, “You may have a partner in a lawsuit, but you’re the one they’re going to come after because YOU handed those keys back to the customer, which essentially means you told them the vehicle is safe.”

While OEM certification offers a way for shops to differentiate themselves from the competition, panelists seemed to agree that specialization is likely to be the way of the future. “The certifications work when you take the time and think them through to understand how to make them work for you,” Gruskos said. “But you should be fixing the car the right way to begin with, not just because you’re certified.” 

“The complexity of today’s vehicles and those of the future is going to drive the industry to specialize,” Terlep suggested. “Cars are becoming too complicated and too technologically driven for any individual business to be able to fix all of them properly.”

“We need to look at it like we are the doctors for the vehicles; doctors specialize,” Papageorg suggested. “If shops try to be everything to every car out there, they are shooting themselves in the foot. You cannot repair enough cars to see a return on investment if you have 13 certifications. Specializing results in a higher ROI, plus it helps with workflow and cycle time since the shop’s technicians become more familiar with specific makes and models.”

As technology continues to increase, artificial intelligence (AI) is making an appearance in various ways. “AI is coming like a freight train,” Anderson predicted. “It’s best to embrace it, so we have a seat at the table and can acknowledge the things we don’t like and use it for our benefit.”

“Don’t be afraid of it; change can be good,” Papageorg insisted. “But if we’re not part of the discussion, it will run over us.”

For years, the talent shortage has been running over the industry, and Michael Bonsanto (Passaic County Technical-Vocational School; Wayne, NJ) offered some suggestions for combating the struggle. “Get to know your local vo-tech school. Join their advisory boards and get involved. We also need to promote the many opportunities in the industry to young people who have the perception that all we do is bang fenders in some dungeon we call a shop. Reach out to local instructors and offer to visit the school and work with them. We need to keep these programs alive.”

Gausten turned to Starbard, who was attending the session, for additional insights from someone “very active on this topic.” 

Having spent 14 years as a vo-tech instructor, Starbard noted, “It’s very rewarding to teach if you have the opportunity;” however, he observed that the number of students pursuing auto body classes has seen a significant decrease in recent years. “It used to be one of the most sought after programs at the school, thanks to the exploratory teacher who made it fun and really sold the class. Kids wanted to take auto body, and we had a lot of success with students pursuing industry careers and even opening their own shops.

“But this past year, only four of the 22 students selected auto body as their first choice,” he continued. “That means 18 of those kids didn’t want to be there, so imagine what happens not just to them but also to the four who DID want to be in that class! Our businesses rely on the vo-techs to farm new talent, yet these schools are shutting down their auto body programs because kids don’t want to be in these programs and their parents don’t want them in these programs. Auto body is expensive to set up and maintain, so once the schools remove them, they’re gone for good.”

“When those programs die, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to resurrect them,” Gruskos added. “Those kids are our future, and getting involved with the schools is a great way to tap into new talent.”

Recognizing existing talent is the name of the game at the NORTHEAST Bodywork Bowl Collision Repair Skills Competition…This fun and friendly competition once again exceeded expectations, drawing in 70 competitors who showcased their skills in welding, painting and estimating while attracting crowds of spectators all weekend! 

Begin walked away from his first trip to NORTHEAST with a first place title in the estimating competition, taking home the top prize of $500 cash. “I learned about the competition while taking an educational class, and I figured why not sign up. A lot of people competed, so I was really surprised and happy to find out I won!” 

“NORTHEAST 2024 was our best show yet, but that’s only until NORTHEAST 2025!” promises AASP/NJ President Ken Miller. “Be sure to mark your calendars now; you won’t want to miss it!”

AASP/NJ is already working diligently on the plans for NORTHEAST 2025, scheduled to take place March 14-16, 2025 at the Meadowlands Exposition Center. Visit for updates on next year’s event as they become available.

Want more? Check out the May 2024 issue of New England Automotive Report!