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A Big City Small Business

Gold Coast Auto Body, Chicago, IL.

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Shop Name: Gold Coast Auto Body
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Owners: Lorenzo Martino and his sons, Dominic and Mario

Location: Chicago, IL

Established: 1992

Shop Size: 49,000 square feet

No. of Employees: 32

Average Repair Volume: 250-300 cars per month

Average Repair Cost: $1,200

In any downtown area, parking is at a premium. Parking garages charge big bucks to those lucky enough to find an empty space after driving dizzily around each deck, while open parking meters (especially ones with a few already-paid-for minutes left) are coveted more than 50-yard-line seats at the Super Bowl.

So what do you do when your downtown business revolves around parked cars – some being dropped off for estimates, some awaiting the next step in the repair process and some ready to be detailed before customers pick them up? For Gold Coast Auto Body, located in downtown Chicago, it was an easy decision: Put a parking and storage lot for customers’ vehicles on the second floor of your new 49,000-square-foot facility.

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In addition to their unique vehicle storage solution, Gold Coast offers complete detailing services and an in-house upholstery shop, and facilitates car rentals with a direct line to Enterprise Rent-A-Car. The shop’s focus on customer service, quality repairs and a family atmosphere is why co-owner and general manager Dominic Martino says Gold Coast is more than just another downtown small business.

Movin’ On Up

From 1963 until 1991, Martino’s dad, Lorenzo, managed the body shop at a local Mercedes-Benz dealership. When the dealership owner decided to discontinue the body shop part of the business, he basically gave the shop to Lorenzo. Though Gold Coast Auto Body is now an independent repair shop, they’ve maintained a working relationship with the dealership, which has grown to include other high-end vehicle makes.

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The shop has also maintained the long list of customers Lorenzo built while working at the dealership shop, most of whom come from the downtown/metropolitan area. When the Martinos found it necessary to build a new facility (the old one was too small and continuous workflow was deterred by its layout), they wanted to cause as little inconvenience as possible to their loyal customers.

“We spent a lot of time searching for the right land that was within at least one mile of the old location,” says Martino. “We ended up finding one only three or four blocks away.”

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Though the U.S. economy is shaky right now, Martino isn’t worried about business. (Building a multi-million dollar facility could be reason for concern.) The shop is booked three to four weeks in advance on a regular basis, and Martino’s confident his customers will keep coming in with door dings, bumper scratches and bigger collision crises.

“The customers we deal with are a more well-to-do, more educated group of people who are more likely to drive a foreign car or finer vehicle,” he says. “They’re going to have their cars repaired regardless of the state of the economy at the time. They’re also more likely to carry better insurance and will fix their vehicles instead of taking an insurance check but not fixing their cars.”

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The population growth in the city of Chicago also gives Martino confidence. Already home to nearly 3 million people, Chicago has seen a steady growth rate during recent years. And just because people live in the city doesn’t mean they don’t have cars.

“What used to be true in the downtown area – that people who lived in the city, worked in the city – isn’t true anymore, so more people who live in the city are using their vehicles to travel to work outside the city,” says Martino. “Commuting goes both ways.”

With a long list of loyal customers and confidence in their workload, Gold Coast Auto Body doesn’t advertise. Instead, the shop relies on word-of-mouth and referrals to generate new business.

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“[Dad] has had a long relationship with many of our customers and their children,” says Martino. “Now we’re continuing that relationship with their children.”

The Fabric of Business
When Martino’s father, Lorenzo, was managing the dealership body shop, he often dealt with a local upholstery shop when customers needed interior and convertible top repairs. When the owner of the upholstery business decided to close up shop, Lorenzo saw it as an opportunity to get involved in something on his own, so he bought the business.

Because the old facility was too small and segmented, the upholstery shop wasn’t brought in-house when Lorenzo opened his own shop. Any upholstery work collision customers needed was done by the Martino’s upholstery shop, but Martino’s brother, Mario, ran the business separately.

When the family was planning the new facility, they decided to combine everything in-house to expedite any upholstery or convertible top repairs customers needed. It’s a service that Martino says isn’t common at body shops in the Chicago area.

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Gold Coast also does a lot of warranty work for the Mercedes-Benz dealership Lorenzo used to work for. A handful of customers come to the shop just for upholstery work, but like their collision repair services, the Martinos don’t advertise upholstery repairs.

Other profit centers at Gold Coast include paintless dent repair and complete detailing. The shop also offers a pickup and drop-off service and has a direct line to an Enterprise Rent-A-Car office just a few blocks away to facilitate customer rentals.

Designed for Efficiency
In addition to providing storage for customers’ cars, the second level of Gold Coast Auto Body houses the upholstery shop, a lunch room, an employee locker room and a cleanup area. On the first level, a circular workflow and a ramp to the second floor allow for the easy movement of cars through the shop.

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During the design phase of the new facility, Martino used ideas from BodyShop Business, representatives from Spraybake and consultants from BASF to develop a more efficient layout.

All cars enter the building in one area. When a car pulls in, shop employees determine what the vehicle is there for, and then porters move the cars to where they need to be. If someone comes in with a rental to pick up their newly repaired vehicle, employees help them unload, take the rental to the outside parking lot and call the rental agency. If someone comes in for an estimate, that vehicle is moved over to one side, and the estimator comes out and works with the customer.

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A wall separates the write-up area from the main body shop area, and the paint shop is housed at the other end. Work basically moves from the front of the shop to the back. Porters move in-progress vehicles to the next phase in the repair process.

Though the Martinos are thrilled with their new shop, they have a few changes in mind.

“We’re starting to get a little too much dust in our paint area, so we’re looking into a dust extraction system,” says Martino. “We wanted to have one in our original building plans, but we were getting a little over budget, so we decided to wait a year.”

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With everything running smoothly, Martino says they aren’t entertaining ideas for further expansion. The new building offers plenty of workspace and visions of multiple locations aren’t dancing in their heads.

“We’ve found that any time shops start multiple locations, there’s a correlation between a loss of quality or a loss of customer touch,” he says. “We’re a family-run business, and we plan to keep it to one location.”

An Extended Family
Though Martino says the types of repairs Gold Coast sees run the gamut, some unusual damage does come through the doors occasionally. “In the past few years, we’ve had a couple of cars come in with bullet holes,” he says. “They’re usually cars that were left in the wrong part of town.”

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But for the most part, the damage Gold Coast repairs on a daily basis isn’t that dramatic – or open to speculation and lunch room gossip. One thing the shop sees a lot of are bumper and door dings due to downtown congestion and parking.

Whether the damage is major or minor, Martino says the shop does its best to maintain a high level of quality repairs. When problems do arise – nobody’s perfect – the shop takes care of them immediately, says Martino.

“We realize we’re in a business that can’t be considered an exact science,” he says. “But our customers know they can trust us [if a problem arises] because we consider them a part of our family.”

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Writer Melissa McGee is executive editor of BodyShop Business.

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