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Crash-course pioneer still beats industry drum

Flagstaff Team

Along with running his own car-repair businesses, Rex Crowther led an industry overhaul. Recently honoured for his contribution, he tells Helen Vause about his passion for turning panel beaters into business owners.

“Every industry has a bloke who stands out in front and does all the talking. And thatbloke has been me,” says Rex Crowther, stillfeeling more than a little humble about his recent Queen’s Birthday honour for services to the motor-vehicle industry .

“But it doesn’t mean I did all the work allby myself,” says Crowther, deflecting someof the glare of his shiny new medal for his tireless efforts leading the trade association of collision repairers, and his work in edu- cation, processes and national representation of the industry.

Crowther was made an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

“When I first heard about this award Ialmost felt I shouldn’t be accepting it. But then I thought it would be good for the in-dustry,” he says.

It has been quite a journey – with plenty of road trips – from the panel-beating appren- ticeship he began in 1967 to the success and recent accolade the 70-something Crowtherfinds himself reflecting on with the Flagstaff.

“Who would have known where it wouldall lead,” says Crowther, from his little office‘bolthole’ above Victoria Rd, Devonport.

“I think I was a bit of a pain in the neck to everyone as a kid. And school and I justdidn’t gel at all.”

Growing up in Mt Roskill without much of a plan for his future, a panel-beating apprenticeship looked like an okay sort of place to start a life outside school.

“I was mad about cars, but I really wasn’tmuch good at panel beating.”

But what did fire him up was the businessend of the panel-beating shop he was work-ing in. Or rather, how that business might runand the potential for driving it better.

“I saw the need in the industry and I’ve loved being part of bringing us up to world standards.”

“I’d figured out I wasn’t much good atthe hands-on side of panel beating, and that it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. By the time I was 21, I was running the business and really enjoying improving the process. Thatwas where I could see my future.”

One of the better things about schooldays in his part of Auckland was meeting his future wife Lynn, who took a punt on the reluctant Crowther by inviting him to her school ball, and later by backing his business dream.

They married in the 70s, and a house and family soon followed. Then they madethe first big move that would later lead toCrowther becoming the owner of one of the country’s largest collision-repair operations.

“We sold our house, our cars, and webought a panel-beating business in One- hunga. We had two little kids and a whole lot of risk. I look back now and I laugh atwhat we took on.”

But it all worked out so well they bought a second business in Grey Lynn in 1984.

“I guess that was pretty much unheard of at the time, but I was right into processes andmaking those businesses work.”

It was a new approach in the panel-beat- ing sector, and a few years later Crowther found himself sharing what he was fastfiguring out with the Collision Repair As- sociation and its members.

Panel beating was a dusty, dirty line of work, with noise and nasty spray-paint chemicals. They were the days of practical men physically repairing cars. They could bash out the dings, shine up the chrome and beat vehicles back into shape again with sheer hard work and some skill.

But they were also the days when vehi- cles, and the way they were put together, were changing fast.

Along with computerised systems, cars were being made of many different mate- rials, and were lighter, stronger and faster. Getting all the bits to join together after accidents became more of a challenge, pre- senting problems that could be beyond the capacity of old-school workshops.

“It was getting harder and harder to fixcars, and safety was at stake. People’s lives could have been at stake without big chang-es,” Crowther recalls.

“All round the world, there were horrorstories of vehicles that hadn’t been fixed properly.”

He cites numerous examples of repair bungles that could have led to loss of life, such as faulty indicators or airbags failing to inflate at the right moment.

The sector was in obvious need of an overhaul, including in the education sphere. And Crowther couldn’t resist getting amongst it, even with two thriving busi- nesses to run.

He started with local committees and progressed fast to national representation and becoming president of the New Zealand Collision Repair Association (NZCRA) from 1999 to 2004. For a further 10 years, he was on the board of the Motor IndustryTraining Organisation.

Crowther is proud of the sector’s five-yearrestructure he’s credited with leading, aim- ing to meet modern consumer expectations for a safe vehicle repair after a collision.

Much of that work was without remuner- ation and with the support of volunteers.

Crowther also developed better relation- ships with other stakeholders, like insurers. The workforce needed upskilling fast, and the business owners needed to boost their business skills. All of this would need solid, recognised training courses.

Crowther researched what the rest of the world was doing, and regularly travelled on roadshows around the country, making presentations to the nation’s car repairers and their staff, persuading them of the need to get on board with changing times.

In 2017, the NZCRA made him a life member.

“I was lucky to find the right fit for me.I saw the need in the industry and I’ve loved being part of bringing us up to world standards. We now have highly skilled tech-nicians we can be very proud of.”

If you have a serious prang in this country,he says, you can be confident your car willbe in the best hands with Kiwi technicians.

Crowther grew up with a generation of car-crazy boys and says he’s owned morethan his share of great cars. “My passion,” he says “I’ve spent a lot of money on cars.”

Boys today, he says, have long lost interest in tinkering with old cars.

“It’s not a bad thing. Who would want them driving around in the old cars we allhad at their age?”

It’s now much tougher to attract appren- tices, in the North Island at least. Southland, he notes, is more fertile ground for appren- ticeships because there’s still a thriving car culture there.

Crowther sold his Auckland Panel and Paint Group in 2008, and plunged into the dream retirement of travelling, golf, fishing and leisure.

Within two years, he tired of that life and set about revamping the industry magazine, Panel Talk. These days, he’s often found inhis local office, coaxing out the latest issueand writing editorials. But lately, he’s had cause for another of those national road trips.

Post-lockdown, Crowther is well out of retirement and driving around the country doing what he loves best with his ‘Covid Roadshows’ .

With few cars on the road for many weeks, accident rates came to a near stand- still. The collision-repair business went very quiet, with the months ahead looking very slow.

Crowther says his roadshow gatherings in the regions have had big turnouts as busi-nesses try to figure out what to do.

“The business owners everywhere want to get together and talk so they’re coming out to meet us in big numbers. No one knows where it’s all going, but most are much more worried about their staff than themselves.Our message to these businesses is aboutbeing transparent. I tell them they need to get talking to staff right now, and keep talkingto them about the situation.”

“My challenge and passion is aboutturning people who fix cars into businessowners. And it’s been about safety andsaving lives too.”

Concern about safety prompts a warning about the vehicles young people drive: “We have to get our kids out of old cars. Don’t let them drive the sort of cars we drove”

This article originally appeared in the 3 July 2020 edition of the Flagstaff. Read online here.

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