Brad McAnally saw it coming and knew it was going to be good. At least, that is, for him and his kind. It was July 11 and he’d been up in Sylvan Lake airing out his swing in a long-drive golf competition. He’s been a long driver for two years now, and this was an effort to qualify for the Re/Max World Long Drive Championship that was held in Mesquite, Nevada, this past November.
McAnally, who hails from Desoto, Missouri, had been temporarily working in Billings, Montana, when he heard about the Sylvan Lake qualifier for the Re/Max championship, one that boasts a US$150,000 first prize. He drove the 10 hours to Alberta, swung like never before, drove a golf ball 389 yards, “and out of about 200 guys, I finished second.”
Now he was heading back for work in Billings, tired but pumped when, driving into Red Deer, he noticed the sky. Everyone from Red Deer south to Calgary who wasn’t holed up in a curtained house or windowless office was probably looking at the sky as well. It looked, well, pissed off. It swirled slowly, brooded menacingly, grew dark with heavy-bellied clouds promising something bad, according to McAnally’s attuned eye. It promised him lots of work, too.
“Tall clouds – the hail has to form ice,” explains McAnally, “and the taller it gets, the more layers of ice are piled onto a seed, then a stone, then, dammit, sometimes a ball. This cloud was just growin’ and growin’ and growin’. It was actually the one that hit Strathmore, even Red Deer, and when I was coming into Calgary, I saw this storm over here, that one over there, and they kind of met, and I went ‘Wow!’ And it was a big one.”
It was the big one. The following day, July 12, the most expensive hailstorm in Canadian history hammered Calgary and close surrounding areas. The Insurance Bureau of Canada pegs the total damage at $400 million, much of that to cars. Intact Insurance, Canada’s largest auto insurer, says that it alone had about 8,500 auto claims within days of the storm. But it’s just one of about 50 insurance companies that handled claims in and around Calgary last summer.
Although the Insurance Bureau of Canada hasn’t tallied vehicular damage, it’s safe to say that tens of thousands of cars were dinged, dented and damaged by the storm. McAnally, a 33-year-old paintless dent removal (PDR) technician – specifically one of those rare and coveted-by-the-insurance-industry breed known as hail chasers – would wind up working on many of them within a week or so of the storm.
Maybe, even, on Beth Thompson’s car. A fundraiser for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Thompson was in her downtown office July 12 when she heard the rat-a-tat of hail and looked out a window. Out in the parking lot was her Kia Rondo. “I had just bought the car two weeks before. I actually went to go outside so I could move my car underground because I didn’t want it to be totally destroyed. It was bad hail. Literally my arm just got out the door and I was pelted and I came back in.” Her arm wound up with welts. The hail was “like golf balls being thrown at my car.”
Intact Insurance, which had set up two emergency claim/repair centres in Calgary combining appraisers, rental car agencies and PDR techs in each location, quickly assessed Thompson’s damage at $6,500. Many vehicles had $10,000 or more in damage. Intact told Thompson it would take about three days to repair her car. Looking around at the hundreds of cars sardined in the parking lot outside the northeast claim centre Intact had set up, Thompson figured correctly that this estimate was wildly optimistic. She would end up getting her car back a month later, on October 18. But were it not for Intact’s hail team, including McAnally, she might have been waiting much, much longer.
Catastrophe Solutions International (CSI) was Intact Insurance’s point-man for auto damage after the storm. The Oakville, Ontario, company, headed by Robert Pietrantonio, wrangled together about 40 roving PDR techs to help Intact deal with its share of the storm’s vehicular damage.
“A hailstorm hits, and all of a sudden you have thousands and thousands of claims,” says Pietrantonio. “There is no way that the existing PDR technicians in Calgary could ever handle that kind of work.” Pietrantonio is sitting in his plain and makeshift office in a large grey modern-looking warehouse building in Calgary’s industrial northeast. Emptied by the recession, it served as base for a courier company before Intact temporarily leased it. Noises periodically flare up from the warehouse’s cavernous main room hall.
Photo by Anthony A. Davis
It’s not the clanging and hammering one might expect from a hail-repair operation. There are the occasional tap-taps. But, really, the place is more akin to a metallic massage parlour than a hammer and drill auto-body operation. Out in the dim light of the garage area, 33-year-old Mike Nosker is one of the masseurs. Dressed in comfortable shorts and the grey T-shirts that all the PDRs on the CSI hail team are wearing, the Dublin, Ohio-based tech is working on a white Pontiac G6 that, were it not for its heavily pockmarked panels, would look minty. The trunk is off. The headliner, with red and black wires trailing like blood vessels, hangs down atop the seats like it was just scalped from the car.
Nosker adjusts a fluorescent light on a stand, and as the wide, pallid beam grazes the rooftop the hail dents become readily apparent. He holds a hand tool called a hail bar and pokes it through an O-ring hanging from a short strap wedged at the top of the door jam. It gives him the leverage he needs to work the hail bar underneath the metal skin of the rooftop. He begins – and there’s probably no better word for this – to caress a particular dent from underneath. He starts at the dent’s centre, and applying even pressure, spirals the hard, small, rounded tip of the hail bar outward. After 30 seconds or so, in a kind of David Copperfield moment, it … disappears. It’s a bit magical, really, the tedious beauty of paintless dent removal.
Nosker has been a hail-chasing PDR for 12 years.Before that he was a country-club golf pro. One of his golf clients had a PDR franchise and asked if he was interested in working in the industry. Though “pushing dents” in a dim garage hardly seems as enticing as teaching a golf swing to a wealthy trophy wife on a sunny morning, Nosker was ready for a change. PDR offered the promise of extensive travel and better pay. Pay is a guarded subject in this industry – Pietrantonio refused to talk about it. But according to a PDR training website, an average tech working locally at a PDR shop on things such as door dents can make $1,000 a day. Hail chasers like Nosker do even better. Working 10- to 12-hour days after a big storm like the one in Calgary, they can – paid by a combination of the panels they do and an hourly wage – pull in $3,000 or more for a day’s work.
Many of the hail chasers who rushed to Calgary in the wake of the storm put themselves up in swanky executive suites on the banks of the Bow River while there. A quarter million a year income for seven months of work (hailstorms tend to be seasonal) is not uncommon.
To the insurance companies – and to their clients like Beth Thompson – the PDRs are well worth their wages. Their process actually saves money over the old hammer and Bondo methods of the past. One car, depending on damage, can take a PDR one to three days to repair. A week or two would have been common with auto-body techniques. PDR means original panels, like the roof, don’t have to be cut out and replaced, which can weaken the body structure and create leak and squeak spots.
“PDR is extremely important to us,” says Gordon Mansfield, Intact’s vice-president of claims. “Having that readily available for these sorts of events is pretty important because the process to repair hail traditionally would have included a much more laborious and long-term repair approach. For our customers it shortens the length of time that vehicles are repaired and given back. It’s fairly significant change to the way we respond to hail, for auto damage.”
They’re not just saving the insurance industry money, either. “It’s a very green technology,” says Mansfield. “There is no toxic substance used in the process.” Though the trade – it is more technique than technology – has been in the U.S. since the mid-’80s, Canadian insurance companies have only turned to hail chasers in the last few years. Intact, for example, began using them three years ago.
The hail chasers, says CSI’s Pietrantonio, are the Michelangelos of PDR technicians. Most need three to four years minimum of intensive experience before they are ready to chase hail. “Ninety-five per cent of what we are doing is hand-eye co-ordination,” says Nosker, pausing by the Pontiac. Behind him, taking a break from working on an SUV, is McAnally, swishing a “swing through,” a fan-bladed device to build up his shoulder and back muscles for that long-drive championship. Typical auto-body guys, says Nosker, used to working with hammers, drills, “mud” and brawn, “may actually make the worst PDR technicians. Because when they are sitting there using feel, we are not. All of ours is hand-eye co-ordination and depth perception using these lights.” It takes honed skills and abundant concentration, he says, “to actually move the metal back without cracking the paint, after the metal has already been damaged.”
But the tedium? Nosker replies that every car is a new challenge, every model presents new puzzles in how to get underneath a dent whose backside might be obscured by bracing, the frame or other components. His tool kit looks like a medieval surgical table. There are whaletails, hail bars with flattened ends that he’ll twist rather than push in narrow areas to apply the right spiralling pressure to a dent. There are glue tabs that can be stuck to the concave surface of some dents, then pulled out with a slide hammer to create a metal pimple which is then tapped down to perfection with a plastic punch. A bit of rubbing alcohol and, presto, the gummy glue comes off, leaving the paint surprisingly intact.
“I know when we first start training people, one of the things we’re looking for is to see if they can think for themselves,” says Nosker, stressing the intellectual component of the work. When he first started the two- to three- month training, McAnally fretted he didn’t have what it takes. “It’s pretty difficult. It takes a lot of patience. I put a lot of stress on myself. At the school we went to, we had maybe a 60 per cent pass rate. It’s hand-eye, and some people can’t see it, can’t figure how to actually work a dent out. For the first couple of weeks I was getting kind of nervous and then it just kind of hit me: this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
But despite their handsome wages, the PDR technicians who might have massaged out your dents this summer can pay a hefty personal price for careers and your car. Nosker, for example, used to be married. “Not anymore,” he says. “It’s a little tough. It can be tough to be gone so long. There will be times when you are gone two or three months at a time.” He has a four-year-old daughter, and his parents will sometimes bring her to a city where he’s working. “Like I said, it’s very tough on the home life if you’re married. I think you’ll find that half the guys in this business are probably single, and half the guys are married and shouldn’t be.”
For the young and restless, though, it’s a career with perks to match the paycheque. “A lot of times these storms will take you places that you might not have gone to on your own,” says Nosker, as he smooths out what might be his 300th dent of the day. “I’ve been in Germany for Oktoberfest. I’ve skied in the Alps.” When he chased hail damage in Paris he took time off to explore Normandy; when he was in China, he walked the Great Wall. “It’s stuff that most people would like to do, and you’re like, ‘Well, I don’t know if I’ll ever have the opportunity.’ Fortunately this job gives you that opportunity. That’s kind of the nice side of the business.”
And, for McAnally, it gave him the flexibility – and the affordability – to dash off to Nevada and whack some golf balls far into a clear, sunny sky, aiming for the $150,000 prize money and wondering as well where in the world he’ll cash in on the next big hailstorm.