Home Profiles Servicing the Cars of Today and Tomorrow

Servicing the Cars of Today and Tomorrow

CMD CARSTAR Group celebrates 15 years of success

Photo by Riverwood Photography

Oh how the times have changed. In the early days of motorized vehicles, they were considered a more environmentally-friendly option than the alternative – horses. It was a dirty story, so to speak, one about how the clean up and impact of horse waste weighed against the innovation of clean cars.

As automobiles were introduced to the market in the early years of the 20th century, it was a given that if you owned one, you had to learn to fix it. Repair shops simply didn’t exist.

Fast forward to the 1920s. Motorized vehicles had become commonplace. Manufacturers started using standardized parts giving rise to a sector we so heavily rely on today – the auto repair industry. With the increased complexity of modern-day vehicles, performing do-it-yourself repairs is no longer an option for the average Joe.

Enter CARSTAR. The North American company offers some of the highest-quality repairs and customer satisfaction in the collision industry for all makes and models of vehicles. The shops feature state-of-the-art unibody and frame repair equipment, quality parts replacement, expert colour matching and thorough quality post-repair inspection.

Chris, Matthew and Dave are the trio behind the CMD portion of Calgary’s CARSTAR CMD Group. The industry aces know a thing or two about the technology and the importance of looking to the future. They’re forward-thinkers when it comes to refining their business strategy, and ensuring the business is evolving with modern customers and new technologies. It’s safe to say that without technology, cars would still be primitive, motorized boxes on top of steel frames.

David Stretz, the D in the Group, got his start in the industry more than four decades ago. Shortly after high school, the self-proclaimed “army brat” got his feet wet and his head under the hood. He was naturally disciplined and determined. As his friends all flocked to the construction industry, Dave went straight to the auto repair trade. It was during his 18 years of wearing a variety of hats and learning the ins and outs at Jack Carter Chevrolet Olds that he was given the opportunity to run a body shop.

“I knew nothing about it, so I learned on my own with the help of my assistant manager at the time,” says Dave. “I stayed with that for about six years until I was actually headhunted by CARSTAR to run their flagship downtown shop in 2001.”

In addition to thanking his brother-in-law Alex Connolly, Dave acknowledges Peter McKeen of Jack Carter’s fame for playing a role in his entrepreneurial success. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it were not for him,” he says. “When I decided to go out into the auto-body world, Peter was 100 per cent supportive. He said, ‘If it doesn’t work out, give me a call.’”

With a lot of hard work and perseverance, it did work out. A few years later, Dave was propositioned with an offer to buy the very shop he was running. But admittedly, he wasn’t a natural-born entrepreneur or risk taker. “I straight up said ‘No,’” Dave says. “And then I was introduced to two guys who wanted to be a part of the deal – Chris and Matthew.”

The father-and-son team were no strangers to auto body. Chris Stathonikos had been in the industry for more than 30 years. At the age of 15, he started working in an auto body shop during the day and attending high school at night.

“The reason I got into the trade is because I needed a job,” Chris chuckles. “But from the moment I started, all I thought about was opening my own shop.”

After apprenticing at SAIT, Chris got a job at Custom Auto Body Shop in Inglewood. A handful of years later, in 1978, he purchased the building that housed Custom Auto Body and opened Arrow Auto Body with a partner.

“When we first got the business going, neither my partner nor I knew how to estimate,” says Chris. “We only knew how to fix cars. I remember the first customer who came in and asked for a quote to fix his fender. After considering a couple of factors, I told him it would cost $21. It should have been more like $55!”

In 2014, Chris was honoured with the Matthew Ohrnstein Lifetime Achievement Award. It acknowledged his entrepreneurship, his business leadership and his dedication to the industry. He says one of the most pivotal moves he made was joining the CARSTAR network in 1999.

After nearly selling his location at the time, he is thankful he decided to persevere. Chris says he saw that the industry was going to change, and knew his business would thrive by joining the CARSTAR network.

The change he predicted can be attributed to technology, manufacturing, safety and the environment. Even in the last 10 years, there’s been significant advancements and improvements in the way car troubles are diagnosed. The cars of today can tell you when a tire’s pressure is low, how much gas you have in the tank or if you left your trunk open. Some can parallel park themselves. Bluetooth allows you to pair your phone and contact list so you can communicate hands-free while driving. Voice commands mean you can give directions to your car, and your car will respond to them. Ten years ago, it was a luxury if your vehicle was equipped with an auxiliary port to plug in your iPod.

With the evolution of computerized vehicles, today’s mechanics diagnose problems and estimate electronically. That’s the side of the business Matthew Stathonikos took the helm on. When he graduated from high school, Matthew started washing and prepping cars at his father’s shop. “My father approached me and asked if I wanted to work in the business – learn how to estimate, do the office stuff, etc.,” says Matthew. “I ended up going to Mount Royal College to do business administration and SAIT to study estimating.

“Coming into it, I really knew nothing about the business side of things even though I grew up in it,” says Matthew. “My first years were very focused on watching my father. I believe the best classroom is in the body shop where you can see what’s going on and ask questions to understand.”

Having been born into the industry, he’s witnessed significant changes in how cars are controlled. From the steering wheel to the seats to the brakes, it’s no wonder mechanics are now more aptly referred to as “technicians.”

With his feet firmly planted in the operations side of things, Matthew and his father Chris made the decision to partner up with Dave and purchase the CARSTAR downtown store. The father-and son-team continued to run Arrow Auto Body while Dave held the fort at CARSTAR.

Then in 2007, the dynamic trio bought their third store and moved Arrow into that company. Back in those days, with minimal staff at each of the three locations, everybody did most things on their own.

“After we bought our third store, I realized that each of us were doing our own thing in three separate locations,” Matthew says. “And that wasn’t congruent to growing the business.”

So in 2009, Chris, Matthew and Dave stepped out of daily operations. They put store managers in each location and started focusing on growth. And grow they did. The CMD CARSTAR Group now operates its head office out of a 10,800-square-foot production area in Calgary East Lake. It’s one of the largest CARSTAR Collision centres in the network.

In a span of five years, the CMD Group opened the CARSTAR Meridian store, their mechanical shop in Ramsay and the newly-opened location in Royal Oak.

As they continue to grow, work-life balance becomes increasingly important. Matthew camps with his wife and three kids, skis, quads, fishes and hits the links from time to time.

Dave devotes his free time to golfing and biking. “There’s Work Dave, Golf Dave and Biker Dave,” he laughs. “I golf every weekend in Sylvan Lake during the summer months, play with a men’s league here in Calgary and take trips to my place in Phoenix to golf in the winter. Last year, I got my second hole-in-one!”

He also spends a lot of time road tripping on his Harley-Davidson and enjoying family time with his wife of 39 years, Pat, their two kids and their two grandkids.

Chris goes hunting every November. He and his wife Penny travel to different countries, sail on river cruises, tour the Okanagan wineries every year and take regular trips to visit family in Greece and their oldest son in Vancouver.

“With the CMD Group, my plan was to get out and let Matthew and Dave run it,” says Chris. “But it’s now 15 years later and I’m still involved!”

The CMD Group has driven their business through the highs and lows in the last 15 years and have come out on the other side, clearly making a mark in the industry. With long-term, dedicated staff, the CMD Group has built an all-inclusive team culture.

“We’ve just opened our sixth collision shop and we have about 100 staff now,” says Dave. “But the culture is very much the same as a family business. Our shops aren’t open to the public on the weekends, so staff get that work-life balance too.”

CARSTAR puts an emphasis on promoting within and growing their own people. What they look for when hiring is attitude and trainability, first and foremost. “We have guys who started out as detailers who are now journeymen technicians,” he adds. “My son Joel has been with us for more than a decade. He started as a detailer and has worked his way up through the company to his role as an operations manager looking after all the shops.”

One bold decision they made decades ago has certainly paid off – the decision to bring CARSTAR to Calgary. Since then, the CMD Group has been doing their thing and developing a strong following while they’re at it. Not an easy feat in this industry. With seemingly unlimited choices, vehicle owners have a lot of options when selecting an auto repair shop. They are typically not going to frequent an establishment where mechanics or “technicians” do not conduct themselves in a professional and friendly manner. That’s just one of the things CMD has mastered over the years.

“We’ve always had a customer-first approach,” Matthew says. “When a person trusts you with their vehicle, you have to deliver and live up to their expectation. They’re the reason you’re in business.”

In a 1997 profile featured in Business in Calgary magazine, Chris’s advice to his son: “Be honest. And care about the customer; if you aren’t honest and you don’t care about the customer, people can see through that. Ninety per cent of my business is repeat and referral business.”

The CMD CARSTAR Group invests in the latest repair equipment and uses environmentally-friendly business practices, body paint and recycling practices, as well as many “lean” principles to improve performance and efficiency.

When you choose CARSTAR for your vehicle repair, you’re choosing North America’s largest network collision repair facilities. That means you benefit from national training, quality standards and resources of the network, along with the personal service and community involvement of local owners like the CMD CARSTAR Group. That unique combination provides you the highest-quality vehicle repair possible and supports a vibrant locally-owned and operated business in the community.

CARSTAR and local franchisees have partnered with the Calgary Flames Foundation to raise awareness and funds for cystic fibrosis. On a national level, CARSTAR has raised more than $3 million for research and care.

Together, the group of three owns and operates six CARSTAR Collision Repair centres, as well as a mobile glass team, an Auto Select location for mechanical repair and a mobile paint protection business (Premium Paint Protection – known to some as 3M).

The partnership has been instrumental in the growth and expansion of each of their locations. They continue to work on succession planning and are taking necessary steps to ensure their success sustains over the long term.

The CMD Group is also committed to manufacturer specific certifications which raise the industry’s technical capability and business operating standards. Each manufacturer has different requirements, and some use third parties such as Certified Collision Care (CCC) which manages Fiat Chrysler and Kia. A separate body, the Canadian Collision Industry Accreditation Program (CCIAP), accredits collision repair facilities against a collection of industry standards taken from leading OEs and other stakeholders.

To meet these certifications, the CMD Group invests in collision repair training, industry-related training and CARSTAR University for their staff.