Wayne and Claudia Smolda, the husband and wife team who co-founded The CEI Group, officially retired from the company Nov. 30, 2018, capping a 35-year career in the third-party fleet safety and accident management industry. The two were pioneers in this industry segment, founding one of the early fleet accident management companies in 1983, which later branched into fleet safety management.
Claudia grew up in the accident repair business working as the office manager and treasurer of a body shop owned by her father, Frank Brigidi, Sr., and her older brother, Frank Brigidi, Jr.
The seminal event that ultimately led to the creation of The CEI Group occurred in 1973 when Claudia’s family explored the idea of selling the body shop business. This was when she first met Wayne, who was representing a prospective buyer. Wayne, a 1969 graduate of LaSalle University with a degree in business administration, was working as a financial analyst and business consultant. The sale was consummated, and shortly thereafter, Claudia and her younger brother, Rich Brigidi, became co-owners of a second Philadelphia body shop. This became their first Collex (short for Collision Experts) franchise location.
A romance ultimately blossomed between Wayne and Claudia, and the two married in 1976. Wayne joined the business full-time that same year with the goal of generating more business.
Starting in a 10-by-10 Office
The birth of what would become The CEI Group was in 1983, taking place in a 10-foot by 10-foot office above the body shop when Wayne decided to target Philadelphia area businesses with a novel turnkey fleet collision repair service. The first claim came from Scott Paper Company.
But Wayne had a bigger vision. His goal was to develop a coast-to-coast network of body shops to handle corporate fleet accident repairs throughout the U.S. While the concept of third-party accident management was new, it fulfilled a growing need among corporate fleets and fleet management companies.
Within three years, The CEI Group developed new services that define third-party collision management: taking First Notice of Loss reports, arranging for temporary rental cars, and a subrogation service to collect damage payments from third parties.
As the scope of services expanded, it wanted to avoid being perceived by prospective clients as merely a collision repair specialist company and changed its company name to The CEI Group, Inc.
In the late 1980s, The CEI Group built alliances with the three top fleet leasing companies as well as some insurance companies as a private-label collision management and claims services provider. Soon, the Smoldas built the largest accident management business in the industry.
In 2004, the company experienced explosive growth, nearly doubling its employee base and growing to $100 million. Five years later, it achieved $200 million in annual revenue. Wayne Smolda was inducted into the Fleet Hall of Fame in 2010.
In three-and-a-half decades, The CEI Group grew to become the largest provider of collision management services in North America, headquartered in Trevose, Pa.
On Dec. 16, 2016, Element Fleet Management purchased The CEI Group. “The two companies operate as separate entities, with the Element accident risk and safety team merged into CEI, which now has 900,000 units under management, representing more than 1,300 accounts,” said CEI co-founder Wayne Smolda.
The CEI Group has a network of over 4,000 collision repair shops across North America, including more than 1,000 repair facilities to service medium- and heavy-duty trucks.
As co-founder, vice president, Human Resources, and ultimately, chief of staff, for The CEI Group, Claudia cites the unique CEI culture as another key factor in the company’s success: “We are one family of highly engaged members. We speak as one family, and we move forward as one. That trust and loyalty are big reasons CEI remained No. 1 in our field after all these years.”
As the company grew beyond a handful of family members, Claudia said the new managers and the new hires adopted the same culture, creating a company that, despite its size of 370 employees, still felt like a family. That culture, Claudia said, has been key to CEI’s success. “You take care of the employees, the employee takes care of the client,” she said. Two-thirds of employees who have joined CEI were referred to the company by other employees, and the company boasts a turnover rate of less than 15%, compared to 30% to 60% in the call center industry as a whole.
Introduction of New Services
The CEI Group’s customers primarily consist of self-insured commercial, institutional, and governmental fleets, directly and through alliances with fleet leasing companies. CEI also provides vehicle direct repair program outsourcing to leading property and casualty insurance companies. In addition, The CEI Group offers claims and automotive repair services, and web-based risk solutions for driver training and safety.
In the early 1990s, CEI established itself as technology leader with the introduction of IntelliClaim.
Later, CEI began to focus on fleet safety management, introducing DriverCare in 2002, which is an online service for fleets that utilizes key indicators of risk, identifies at-risk drivers, and automatically assigns remedial training. Services include consulting, MVRs, online training, accident history, telematics, and prescriptive analytics. Today, the DriverCare program provides safety services for more than 250,000 drivers.
According to Wayne, the biggest difference between the CEI of the past and the CEI of today was its entry into the driver safety and risk management business. “Accident management is still the foundation this company is built upon, but our fastest growth were in services that prevent accidents,” he says.
Another area of expansion was to focus on fleets outside of North America. CEI Europe was launched in 2004. Although the European business was sold during the 2008 recession, it led to a relationship with CEPA International, a major fleet safety company based in Uruguay, and to the 2016 start-up of the Global SafeDrive Alliance, whose mission is to provide a total global fleet safety solution for multinational fleets.
In 2015, CEI management developed a strategic plan that focused on its core competency of integrated fleet accident management and driver safety services and obtained a trademark for “Fleet Driver Management” to describe its core competency of integrated fleet accident management and prevention services.
Assessing the Journey
Looking back on their careers, both Wayne and Claudia consider their top personal achievements as the creation of a family enterprise from very humble beginnings and developing a family workplace environment and culture. Wayne added that his most interesting experience in life was being able to work with his wife, children, and family partners in a common work endeavor.
When asked what advice someone would have given him before he entered the fleet business, Wayne replied: “I actually like the idea that no one gave me his or her perspective. It would have been limiting. Starting with a ‘blank page’ helped foster the process of discovery and innovation that brought greater value creation for those who depended on our enterprise for employment, services, and partnering opportunities.”
Wayne and Claudia have worked together for 40 years. During this time, they developed three major businesses, spread across 12 locations in two states, employing at one time more than 450 employees in 13 distinct corporations or partnerships. Ultimately, they sold all of the businesses by time they retired last November. “But I have to confess that while the businesses were all acquired by suitors, it was not our ambition to sell,” said Wayne. “It just happened.”