by Sean Preston
I love solving big hairy problems, and we’ve got one!
I returned to Massachusetts about 18 months ago. I hit a deer in Montana during the 3,000-mile trip from Washington state. A tire shop’s pry bar helped pull the left front bumper off my tire and I finished the remaining 2,200 miles to rejoin my wife and kids in Wareham, MA. Home.
My wife has graciously supported my career as an international corporate lawyer for most of the last decade. Our three children were born in Boston, Berlin (Germany) and Washington state, respectively. This final move to Massachusetts, her home state, was well-earned and well-deserved.
After wrapping up our matters out west, I needed a body shop to get my truck looking just as “cherry” as before. My first shock was just how hard it was to choose the local shop I already had in mind. In fact, the only thing harder was later choosing a locally owned glass shop when the family minivan got a chip in the windshield. Something was funny about these insurance claims.
Luckily, I made instant friends with AASP/MA member, Robertson’s Auto Body (Wareham) – and thankfully I did. I’ve been serving shops with another local attorney ever since, and I’ve had my eyes opened to some of the creative tactics employed by a handful of Massachusetts insurers hoping to reduce their contractual responsibility to their own customers.
If you have seen me at an AASP/MA chapter meeting or statewide event, you have likely noticed me taking notes and digesting industry knowledge as efficiently as I can. I do not consider this to be your industry and fight but OUR industry and fight! I am drinking from a firehose because I am seeing something troubling, and it’s the same thing that many of you can feel: our industry is being squeezed from our neighbors on every side (legislature, insurers and consumers).
Over the past 30 years, I have seen this twice before, however with different neighbors bearing down. I grew up in my family’s accounting office, serving many business owners but largely the timber industry in eastern Washington. The squeeze came from environmental policies in the 1990s changing the economics of that industry and the way land was owned and managed. Timber began coming from outside the United States, and recent years have given us the hottest and most devastating forest fires in recorded history.
My other experience of an industry being squeezed was in aerospace. While serving Rolls-Royce over in Europe, I was astonished to learn that manufacturers were forced to sell products at (or slightly below) cost. Without it you had no sales, but if you had some sales, you could hopefully make it up down the road with parts and service. It was a business model that turned my stomach, being squeezed by price sensitivity among each party. The industry stood no chance against a pandemic, and more than a half-million people lost their jobs.
The neighboring forces pushing in on us are (1) our customers who are unprepared to pay out of pocket for our services, (2) their insurers guarding their own profits and (3) our legislature who may be naive to the harsh reality of today’s small business ownership – trying to keep up with the rising costs and technical standards of an industry leaping into the future.
There are two important truths for us to recognize. First, as you likely know, our industry is changing, and our businesses must change with it. But second, and more troubling, is this: when an industry gets squeezed, many do not survive. That is why I have been dedicating myself to serving our industry and our shops.
I created a new law firm this year to do just that: Coverall Law. Many of the legal services I am providing are the same as I have provided over the past 10 years. Prior to that, in 2012, I was assistant attorney general in Delaware. I spent my time in consumer protection and white-collar crime, but I knew I belonged back with business owners – like those my family has been serving since the 1960s.
By early 2014, I helped launch Legal Operations Management, serving small and medium-sized businesses in areas including regulatory compliance, contract review and drafting, risk mitigation, internal policy review, IP management and litigation management.
I have served dozens of industries, from tech-start-ups to breweries, and I spent years serving engine manufacturers – brands like John Deere and Kubota. Now, by focusing solely on the collision repair industry, and on our Massachusetts body shops, I have already been able to see trends and more effectively advise my shop clients.
Today, Coverall Law has two departments: Legal operations management and strategic litigation. Whether I am personalizing forms for one of our shops, helping with insurer conflicts or even assisting vehicle owners in understanding their own policies and claims, each offering is designed around the same idea: good fences make good neighbors.
Your company or corporation needs to serve the purpose of containing liability, in addition to completing the work and creating jobs. Your forms need to do more than follow the CMRs; they should write the rules of the relationship and consider Massachusetts case law. And every person reading this magazine deserves to have access to an attorney who is learning and growing with this industry.
All these “good fences” will make for “good neighbors,” and help ensure a healthy future for us and our neighbors. Together, we can help the legislature see the big picture. We can educate our customers to better understand the intricacies of their repair and their claim. Most insurers are great to work with, but a couple of them seem a little confused. Maybe we can help bring them back to the table.
In my short time back, I am indebted to this industry for the warm welcome I have already received. A huge thank you goes out to Executive Director Lucky Papageorg and former AASP/MA attorney Jim Castleman for the hours spent over phone and email answering all my historical questions. I am a very lucky man, and I could not be more excited to be sitting right where I am today.
I hope the readers of New England Automotive Report will feel invited to reach out to me with any thoughts, questions or words of wisdom. You can contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or (508) 635-5329. Onward and upward!
Want more? Check out the August 2023 issue of New England Automotive Report!