When the Collision Repair Education Foundation (CREF) erased Destiny Potter’s student debt in 2017, it did not erase every challenge she would face while pursuing a career in the collision repair industry. However, with the support of CREF, a solid education, devotion to the industry and some good old-fashioned determination, Potter is jumping every hurdle in her path – and gaining a lot of experience along the way.
Sparking an Interest
A mixture of factors sparked Potter’s interest in the collision repair industry. At age five, she helped her father with small repairs on his vehicles. They watched automotive TV shows together, and he helped her begin a Hot Wheels collection.
“When dad passed away, I started to look up to my Grandpa, who works at a GM plant, and my uncle, who owned his own shop for motorcycles, scooters and ATVs,” says Potter. “Without my mom, though, I would have given up on my dreams. She’s always had my back and would never let me give up.
“Granted, I still never fully decided I wanted to be in this industry until about the end of middle school. I lost interest in my other hobbies, but my interest in cars never died. So, I decided that I would dedicate my high school years to automotive, design and business management classes.”
Time for School
After high school, Potter attended the Lincoln College of Technology in Indianapolis, pursuing an associate degree in service management and an I-CAR certification. During her senior year in 2016, Potter became acquainted with CREF and met CREF Director of Development Brandon Eckenrode when the foundation awarded her a $2,000 Lon Baudoux Memorial Scholarship.
That fall, during her senior year, Potter drove over two hours to Louisville, Ky., where CREF was holding its board meeting.
“I felt the need to go and express my thanks to them for the bright doors that they had opened for me,” says Potter. “Every bone in my body and every ounce of my heart told me that it was the right thing to do. All I could offer them was to be sincere and grateful for their help. Without it, I wouldn’t even know where I’d be in life and my career, but it definitely wouldn’t be as far as I am today.”
When Eckenrode invited Potter to be a guest speaker to share her story as a female in the industry and a scholarship winner at the 2016 I-CAR Conference, she jumped at the chance.
“How was I going to say no?” she says. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Potter’s story was so compelling that CREF also invited her to speak at the 2017 I-CAR Conference, but that wasn’t all the event held in store for her. After Potter spoke, Eckenrode explored the challenges of young people starting a career with college debt hanging over their heads.
On a dry erase board, Eckenrode demonstrated that $8,400 worth of debt, repaid at $100 monthly, would be paid off in 84 months. Turning to Potter, he explained, “We have one final gift for you. These numbers up here are actually your numbers when it comes to the student debt you’re going to owe this year.” Stacy Bartnik, who was chair of CREF’s board of trustees at the time, presented Potter with an eraser, and the crowd cheered as she “erased her student debt” through CREF’s Lon Baudox Memorial Scholarship Fund.
“I stepped off the stage with the entire audience cheering for my success,” Potter says. “In the moment, I had no idea if that had really happened – and to me of all people! The weight of it didn’t sink in until I called my mom after the conference and broke down in tears. After everything my family and I have gone through, I never believed I would get this lucky.
“Even now, everything that CREF, WIN and I-CAR have done for me and my career is absolutely unbelievable. Besides the peace of mind that comes from not having all that debt hanging over my head, the support I’ve received has caused me to become a more positive person and to be more passionate about my career and my customers.”
Learning It All
During her senior year, Potter also became an ABRA Auto Body & Glass part-time employee, detailing cars for nine months. She originally planned to become a painter, but when ABRA offered the opportunity to become the youngest estimator in the Indiana market, Potter saw it as a step closer to her ultimate goal: becoming a “Jill-of-all-trades” in the shop environment.
“My main goal is to really familiarize myself with every position in a collision shop and continue to learn and grow,” she says. “I want to be able to explain each phase of repairs, be able to make the repairs myself and effectively teach each customer about these phases. I should be the person the customer can trust in the repair process. Eventually, I will become strong enough to be a shop manager or own my own shop based on the values I have gained and the mistakes I have learned from.”
Upset and Lost
Potter’s estimating skills grew at ABRA for four years until February 2020, when she found herself unemployed due to COVID-related downsizing.
“I was upset and felt lost – I’d thought my position was secure, but we all know 2020 was not a good year,” Potter says. “No one in the local industry was hiring, and I didn’t want to take a temporary job outside collision because I’m so passionate about this industry. I’ve seen how car accidents change people’s lives, and though not every customer experience is sunshine and rainbows, I know I’ve personally helped a few customers feel better about their situation just by listening to them and going the extra mile. This is where I belong.”
After a few months, a vendor informed her of a position at a local independent shop, where Potter became the production manager. During her tenure there, she implemented several process improvements, but she missed working at an “actual high production shop where I am best,” so she started looking for new opportunities at the end of 2020, resulting in two offers: as a service advisor for a mechanical shop or as an estimator at a collision shop.
“Both places were interested in me due to the knowledge and the customer service skills that I have developed, but I accepted the estimating position at Andy Mohr Collision Center,” says Potter. “I anticipate increasing my skills and knowledge in my new position. I chose to stay in the collision industry because this industry just has so much more to offer and learn. It is comprised of a larger variety of career paths tied together as a team system that is always advancing and growing.
“My vocational teacher, Edward Callico, always told us that we should learn something new every day. Since then, I have always told myself and others, ‘If you aren’t learning something new every day, then you aren’t really living.’ Being in the collision industry makes it more interesting to learn new things. All the hurdles I faced last year were rough, but I stuck it out and now I have a better opportunity.”
CREF: Another Family
In addition to her vo-tech teacher Mr. Callico, Potter credits CREF with changing her life for the better by supporting her collision repair career.
“Since I met the members of CREF, WIN and I-CAR, my life has changed for the very best. All that they have done and continue to do for our industry and its next leaders is absolutely beautiful. The impact they’ve had on me alone has been tremendous. CREF has been there for me since the end of high school, and they have given me many opportunities to travel, share my experience and be a part of the industry in a larger way.
“Yes, they cleared my shoulders of a huge financial burden, but they did more than just that – the scholarship was just the beginning. CREF opens up opportunities for me all the time; they have linked me to several other organizations, events and people in the industry. CREF continues to be my biggest supporter in the industry – I can go to them for questions and advice when I need it, and they have always kept up with me to see where I am at in my career and life. Their support and encouragement have gone a very long way and changed my life for the better. Honestly, they have become like another family.”
In fact, Potter invited Eckenrode to her college graduation, and she expressed, “Brandon is an amazing mentor, inspiration and industry leader. He and the foundation motivate our industry and inspire those who need it most to keep our industry going. I want you to know that your hard work does not go unnoticed.”
Potter added, “Thanks to everyone that I have met in this industry, I have been able to share my experiences with others, live with enthusiasm and courage, and continue to do the best job I can. I can’t thank this industry enough for everything that it has done. My experiences and journey in collision repair will continue to grow, and eventually, my career will fully bloom. I will continue to learn from the industry and strive to be the very best that I can be. I’ve worked too hard to let anyone else determine who I can be and how good I can get at my job.”
Industry members looking to invest in the future of the collision industry should email [email protected] to be connected to local high school and college collision repair programs, students and instructors.