PPG Automotive Refinish & Commercial Coatings


By the time he was 10, Ken Friesen had three jobs—one in a restaurant, one at the grocery store, and one delivering newspapers. In his spare time, he picked up empty bottles from the ditch or washed cars. Not surprisingly, Friesen’s natural entrepreneurial spirit soon propelled him toward his other passion—cars—landing him a job at a collision center, where he refinished his first Corvette at the age of 17. Back then, Friesen could not have imagined how many 18- to 20-year-olds would ultimately attend the “Ken Friesen school of thought,” a hands-on, living laboratory in which process improvement practices are lived and taught.

“Probably no one trains more young people in the industry than us,” says Friesen. “We tell them, ‘Here, you start at the beginning, not at the bottom,’ because none of us ever stops learning. It’s a great feeling knowing that you’ve helped someone get off to a great start in this business.”

Now 60, Friesen owns three collision centers in Calgary, Alberta. As testament to his successful enterprise, Concours Collision Centres was recently honored as 2013 Bodyshop of the Year by Canada’s Bodyshop magazine.

Friesen is recognized across Canada as a leader in the industry, and a sought-after speaker on how to use lean strategies to improve shop profitability. “We were ‘lean’ before the word had its meaning,” says Friesen. A lifelong “neat freak,” Friesen started to implement small changes long before he started studying the theories behind lean practices. Simple measures— four distinct zones in the shop, color-coded, with brooms and shovels striped to match and placed within each zone—made the work environment at Concours more efficient. Extension cords were hung at a height of x, and air hoses at a height of y. Tie straps secured certain things so they didn’t disappear from their designated area.

But progress wasn’t always orderly.

In November of 2003, following intense discussions with friends and advisors, Ken undertook an overhaul of his flagship facility, a 26,000-square-foot shop. In week one, they started with a process improvement event, held employee meetings so people would understand the need to change, conducted planning sessions, and gave the facility a thorough scrubbing. At the start of the second week, employees who had previously been paid on a flat-rate basis were converted to hourly compensation, and the grand experiment was off and running.

The first store, previously profitable, started barely breaking even. At the second store, the ink began to run red to the tune of $20,000 to $30,000 per month. Finally, a holiday weekend arrived and Ken and his wife, an accountant, headed into the shop to consider their options.

“There were so many good things happening we just knew we couldn’t go back,” Friesen recalls. “So I walked the shop floor for a while and came to the realization, ‘If it’s going to be, it’s up to me.’” He changed several things that did not lend themselves to their particular scenario and immediately put them into play.

Soon, the collision centers were back in the black, hitting the 3% profitability mark. A month later, the number was 6% and by two months out, they reached 12%. “It was like an airplane taxiing,” says Friesen. “It starts going faster and faster and shaking more and more until you reach that point where you lift off and things get quiet and calm again, and you’re back in control.”

Today, thanks to his own good instincts, great mentors, lots of reading, and PPG’s MVP Green Belt Training sessions, Ken is now a veritable “guru” of process improvement.

Ken applied everything he’s learned about lean when designing his newest collision center, a 16,500-square-foot facility that opened in May 2012. After coming up with initial floor plan ideas, he scheduled an all-day retreat with PPG’s MVP Facility Layout and Design expert, Tom Nicholas, along with Jim Berkey, director, and Randy Dewing, senior manager, MVP Business Solutions. “Their suggestions were invaluable,” says Friesen.

Conspicuously absent from the Concours shops are large tool collections. Instead, Friesen has implemented a “point-of-use” tools strategy, so workers have just what they need, when and where they need it. Instead of a storeroom, Ken utilizes a material replenishment system developed in conjunction with their local PPG Platinum Distributor, Advanced Coatings Technologies. A wall contains only the bare minimum of back-up supplies. All items needed for the day’s work are delivered each morning. There is not so much as a single piece of paper out of place.

Friesen switched to PPG about 13 years ago after conducting a search for a supplier that offered not only great products, but also the “personal touch” that he felt was lacking at other companies. Naturally, his was among the first shops to convert to a waterborne basecoat—the Envirobase® High Performance system—well in advance of the VOC limits implemented in Canada in 2009.

Today, the application of those lean principles has impacted more than profitability. It’s affected employee retention and satisfaction levels. Friesen has had several employees leave, only to return to the relatively low stress level at Concours. Following in Friesen’s footsteps, two of the current managers started at Concours as young men.

Process improvement has also had a positive impact on quality of life and standard of living. “We want our technicians to be able to work an eight-hour day, five days a week, and get paid properly,” Friesen explain. “Having that balance is important.”

Recently, the company began doing repairs of accident-related, light mechanical problems in order to minimize throughput time. They even have full-time technicians dedicated to paintless dent repair since Calgary is the hail capital of the world. For Ken Friesen and Concours Collision Centres, breakthroughs in thinking are just part of the process.