Larry’s lessons from half a century in collision repair

Two men, Larry and Frank Napoli, are seen in a car repair shop, holding a tablet.

It’s not just the cars that are different, even the skill set required to repair them is unrecognisable from the trade Larry learned in the early 1970s.

Larry Napoli has seen a lot of change in his fifty years in the smash repair business in South Australia. 

“Years ago we’d repair a lot of stuff—we’d repair panels, repair bumper bars and get them chromed—but now it’s more about the replacement of parts,” Larry said. “There are more plastic components and steel compositions that you can’t repair. A lot more cars are getting written off these days because it’s not viable to repair them. And every year you’re just seeing more complex technology in cars, which has increased the cost of repairs dramatically.”

Larry and his two brothers, Frank and Eddie, are the directors of SA’s largest group of independent repair businesses: Smithfield Collision Repair Centre, Carisbrook Collision Repair Centre and Pooraka Collision Repair Centre. The group has about 85 staff, sees about 150 vehicles a week across the three sites and does everything from retail mechanical repairs for the general public to both light and heavy crash repairs for the insurance industry.

The Smithfield business had been operating since the mid-1960s and the Napoli brothers bought it about 38 years ago. They bought the Carisbrook business, which had also been running since the ’60s, about 12 years ago, and the Pooraka site about nine years ago.

Like other Capricorn Members in the panel and paint side of the aftermarket, in recent years the Napoli brothers have had to cope with the rising costs of parts, the changing business practices of the insurance industry, and the struggle to find skilled labour.

“We’re our own worst enemy because there are a lot in the industry who can’t be bothered training apprentices anymore,” Larry said.

That might be changing. The State of the Nation Special Report: The Skills Shortage found that 83 per cent of panel and paint workshops had employed an apprentice. That’s compared to 76 per cent a year ago and is 10 percentage points higher than the aftermarket average. Although he employs 14 apprentices himself, Larry said he sympathises with those who don’t.

“I’ve turned over a lot of apprentices that haven’t even made the three months’ probation,” he said. He recommended choosing apprentices who had completed a pre-apprenticeship at TAFE as they “had shown a commitment” to the industry.

Larry has had success with sponsored immigration—something considered by 48 per cent of panel and paint businesses in the past year, as they struggle to fill vacancies.

“It’s not a cheap exercise but sponsored workers are a different breed because they’re committed to the cause,” he said. “They’ve got good reasons to hang around and do the right thing, so their whole culture and outlook is totally different.”

Larry said he’d sponsored perhaps 10 skilled workers over the years, from all over the world— England, Philippines, South Africa and Fiji.

Working alongside Larry’s apprentices and sponsored workers are the next generation of the Napoli family, including his daughter Danielle and five of his nephews: Ben, Jason, Jamie, Eddie and Nathan. Jason’s wife, Krystal, is also in the business.

Larry’s top 3 pieces of business advice:

  1. Treat your customers well and with respect. Do the right thing by them, even if it costs you. The investment will reward you in the long term.

  2. Look after and engage with your staff. Be more than just an employer; treat them like family.

  3. Run a clean premise. Make sure your staff are well-dressed, the floor is swept, the lawns mowed and the office and workshop are organised and tidy.

This article was published 11/10/2023 and the content is current as at the date of publication.