In this five-part series, five former shop owners tell us where they are now. From a slick-talking hustler with no regrets to a man whose greed ruined him to a legend who sold his empire – only to buy it back – each story has a moral, if you wish to hear it.
Hello. I’m Barney Slifer, your host. Welcome to “Bondo Tales.”
I know I certainly wonder where these business people have gone off to. If you do too, bring along your curiosity, and let’s go off in search of a few of these former shop owners.For our first stop on the quest to locate former body shop owners, let’s travel high into the Ozarks and pay a visit to “Bondo” Bob Knight. No, not the loud ex-Indiana University basketball coach (besides, I doubt Coach Knight ever owned a collision shop). Rather, I speak of former shop owner Bob Knight of Mountain View, Ark.
Unlike some of the other shop owners (still to come) who I interviewed for this series, Knight ran a quality operation and performed quality repairs. And when he began getting pressured to cut corners by the insurance company whose direct-repair program he was on, he chose to get out of the business rather than compromise his integrity.
What’s his story? Well, Knight didn’t always live on the side of a tall hill, south of the Mason-Dixon line. Actually, he spent a good portion of his earlier life on the flat terrain of Northwest Indiana. A young Knight began his vocational career serving as a train engineer for the Rock Island railroad, while doing body work and painting used cars at his home garage. When Knight wasn’t on railroad duty or doing used car work, he was building hot rods and customs.
Then one day the Rock Island railroad filed for bankruptcy and shut down the system, and Knight suddenly found himself without an engineer’s job. So what did he do? He turned his home garage part-time business interest and hobby into his main endeavor.
Like many shop owners who dream of owning their own business, Knight started out small. Leasing a small service building located on the grounds of an abandoned foundry – along with bringing in Larry Planer, his first technician employee and longtime pal – “Classic Auto Body” was ready for anything and everything.
Trouble was, the insurance work wasn’t coming in fast enough, so Knight got by doing body and paint work on used cars for a lot owner. To fill in those slow spots between bill-paying commercial work, Knight and Planer turned to the latest rod – custom or old-car – restoration project sitting in the corner of the shop.
When the insurance work stream was finally realized, Knight knew he had to expand his operation. He purchased a much larger storefront building in Glen Park, Ind., and then bought and remodeled another building next door. He’d quadrupled Classic Auto Body’s original floor space, along with adding several more line technicians and office personnel. Shortly afterward, Knight signed on with a DRP and had more backlogged work than he knew what to do with.
Now here’s a shop owner who had plenty of wrecks to fix, along with specialized rod/custom/restoration work. The profits were rolling in, and Knight should’ve been pleased with his success. But he wasn’t.Slifer: Sounds as if you were on top of the world. Why did you sell and leave the profession?
Knight: “Too much insurance politics, such as that major DRP I did business with for five years. Sometimes they’d come in here and would let me fix a customer’s car the correct way. Other times, they’d hammer on me, wanting to know why I replaced a part when it could’ve been repaired, why didn’t I purchase used parts instead of new. The DRP relationship seemed good in the beginning, but then later, they wanted to start cheating the customer. I couldn’t do that. I worked for the vehicle owner.” Slifer: Did you go back and complain, and try and negotiate a better, more equitable agreement?
Knight: “I wanted to give the best repair possible on each and every one, but the insurance DRP eventually wouldn’t let me do that. I took a lot of pride in my work, but the insurance company was breathing down my neck, dictating to me how they felt I should be running my shop.
“You know the insurance companies. They don’t care about people or how big of an investment those folks make in their cars. All they care about is how to save money and short-change the customer. Not all the companies were like that, but a couple major ones were large pains to work with.
“To answer your question, yes, I did talk to the heads of insurance companies to get a better deal for my customers and for myself. The answer they gave was, “This is our policy and if you don’t like it, other shops would love to be in your place.’ So one day, I gave my competitors the chance to fill my coming vacancy. I knew the situation wasn’t going to improve, so I decided to sell the business and move to Arkansas.” Slifer: A change in business lifestyle, yes?
Knight: “My accountant told me that I was crazy for selling my shop, but the daily stress of fighting with the insurance companies over repair liability and worrying about keeping my customers and employees happy was tearing me up. Sure, I was making a lot of money, but I couldn’t do it anymore. It wasn’t worth risking dying from a heart attack, which is what my doctor said [would happen] if I didn’t change my business life and do something much less stressful.”Slifer: After spending 18 years in a profession that served as your means of financial support, what did your family have to say about your decision to sell the body shop?
Knight: “My wife, Lisa, was very supportive of my decision, as were my daughters, Sarah and Samantha. Slifer: So what are you doing today?
Knight: “Why, I’m back to my old rod and custom beginnings. Now I buy, sell and build street rods. My new business is doing wonderful. … I’ve built and sold cars to people living all over the United States, even to a fellow in Australia.
“Not only do I have my home hidden away on a mountain, but I also have two fully equipped shops on my property where I build the cars. It’s a casual profession, and I can again take a lot of pride in my finished product. Most important of all, I’m independent, I’m doing well and I’m happy.”Slifer: Based on your experience owning and running a body shop, any regrets or fond memories?
Knight: “No regrets, but sometimes it hits me when I read the past local newspaper articles written about us, telling of the pride and workmanship we put into our customers’ cars and trucks. It does make me sad because Classic played a major role in all our lives. We all had good and bad experiences, and we learned from most of them.
“Another aspect I miss is when people give you a pat on back and say ‘job well done’ when you finished and delivered their vehicle. This made it all worthwhile. We’d take in a wreck, and the owner would believe it could never be a car again. But we had the skills and resources to make believers of those who saw our excellent workmanship. That’s what I miss Ñ all of us working together as a team, helping each other and not keeping score. The money in later years was good but not when it takes away the pride and joy we had before I let insurers take the figurative steering wheel.
“Sometimes I also miss the mainstream activity of it all – my loyal customers and my employees. What made Classic Auto Body such a great place were my skilled and talented craftsmen, the backbone that made it all possible. Without my guys, it wouldn’t have worked because they took pride in their craft and in the shop. They also stood by me instead of walking out when I was acting like a jackass.
“Stress turns you into a raving monster, a behavior that’s not my natural behavior. Thank goodness I sold and got away from the hectic trade. Once again, I’m the nice, easy-going fellow I used to be.”
Writer Barney M. Slifer is a practicing collision repair technician of 30 years experience. He can be contacted at (219) 922-9886.