Do you ever wonder what happens to body shop owners who sell their businesses? Where do they go? What are they doing now? Perhaps more importantly, what led these folks to put their shops on the market and are they happy now?
Hello. I’m Barney Slifer, your host. Welcome to the second part in our five-part series of “Bondo Tales.”
My second interview subject started out doing body work and painting right after he got out of high school. Because I promised not to reveal his real name, we’ll call him Sam.
Sam’s definitely no poster child for the industry, but he and others like him were – and are – a part of it that we can’t afford to ignore.
During this interview, it occurred to me that Sam’s the last of a dying breed. The visible slick-talking hustler who’ll veil his contempt for humanity while reaching for another’s wallet by skillfully pandering to one’s heart and base needs. Oh, such people are still around today (we call ’em telemarketers), but Sam is old-school flashy cornpone. He’s representative of a politically incorrect vanishing breed and of how they do business. Yet he seems to be doing very well with his current enterprise, a field where one doesn’t need to act PC to attract and take the shopper’s money. (More on Sam’s current enterprise later.)
A bit of topical explanation is needed before we get started. The 1950s- to-1970s-Northwest-Indiana area I grew up in was thick with vice and syndicated rackets – which also meant stealing cars and chopping them into valuable parts. Lake and Porter counties were awash in such activities, long before the word “chop-shop” was on the lips of Americans everywhere. The working class knew what went on and eventually became acclimated to such crime – and spoke little of it.
Sam played a small part in this crime order. No, he never told me, nor would I ever ask of his involvement. I just know of the rumors that Sam used to cut up stolen cars while maintaining a “legitimate” body shop front. Although he himself was never busted, I heard that he knocked off the shadow activities when the Feds came to town and made all of the suspected chop-shop operators very nervous.
So he concentrated on being a nice boy – which I suppose conflicted badly with his larcenous streak. And when he grew tired of working with insurer demands, he bailed out of collision repair altogether, following a new money trail to riches.
Today, the neighborhood environments that spawned the likes of Sam are gone, along with the scores of ticky-tacky collision shops that used to keep the Midnight Auto Supply chain well-stocked. Those body shop owners who were never busted but elected to remain and go legit – like Sam – combed their hair, put on a Sunday suit and went wooing for insurance partners. Yet with the growing area consolidator activity, even these places are closing up and leaving town. Those who’ve chosen to remain and stuck with it are doing well financially by assuming a submissive insurance/collision-repair partner stance.Slifer: Why body work?
Sam: “I wasn’t interested in going to college, but fixing wrecked cars? Now that’s where the good money was at – and I didn’t need to bother with earning a college degree.
“You talked and watched the older graybeards, the 50-50 commissioned men who consistently earned the big paychecks week in and week out. Those were the guys who made the most money, had the classy rides, the plushest houses, the cool, expensive stuff. They had the same things I wanted for myself. [They were where] I wanted to go in life.
“So I learned the shortcut cheats and could slam cars together and have them out the door in record time. I was making boffo bread every week. Within a year, I could bang out a repair just as quick as the old guys, if not faster. The guys I worked for didn’t give a rat’s behind if I did a good repair or if the color didn’t match or rolled down the road sideways. The guys I worked for just wanted them done fast.
“I learned from the best of the worst, I did.”Slifer: What about the vehicle customers? Didn’t people complain about your shoddy workmanship? With your blazing working speed, you must have had a backload of vehicle comebacks to redo.
Sam: “Customer attitudes were different back in those days. Anyone who wrecked their car already seemed to know they weren’t gonna get a perfect job when they picked it up because no one for miles around did near-flawless craftsmanship work. Oh, every now and then, you’d get some spoiled crybaby griping about a chrome molding not lining up or jumping up and down over the waves and pinholes in my plastic filler work. But the guy I worked for? Let me tell you, he knew how to work a customer! A real Vegas smoothie, that man could skillfully redirect a customer’s expectations away from the gripe and put the blame on something else. More times than not when a customer hopped back in his car and drove away, my boss had him convinced that it was the fault of the company who made the car and not us who screwed up while fixing it.”
Slifer: What led you to body shop ownership?
Sam: “The money, baby! That’s where the big money was made – owning your own shop. You could tell people that you did the best body work and paint in town, but it didn’t mean you actually delivered a quality service – you just gave the impression that you did. Customers didn’t know any better, so I’d sell the sizzle instead of the steak, see? But if you could pump a lot of cars out the door, and do it consistently on a monthly basis? Ka-CHING! And if you got in tight with a few insurance adjusters who didn’t mind having their palms greased with, shall we say, a few Ôfavors of appreciation,’ you were on your way to living on Easy Street.”
Slifer: So why did you sell your shop and bail out of the collision repair profession?
Sam: “I’ve got lots of reasons, reasons that didn’t used to exist back when I was making piles of money. I like to think the body shop biz went legit – and made it harder to do what I did. Insurance companies getting rid of adjusters I could work with, dumping the practice of salvaging damaged parts when they wrote for new stuff. Today’s car owners are fussier about the finished repair job and threatened to put the screws to us if our work didn’t meet their expectations. Then you’ve got these big body shop chains coming into the area, and this ‘diminished value’ issue that more people are finding out about. Who wants to deal with all that aggravation? I no longer saw a future for my style of body shop operation, which was fine by me, because I had already made my money. It was time to sell the biz and move my main focus on to something that was even more profitable than owning and running a shop.”
Writer’s note: Sam sold his property and equipment to another who operated it as a third-rate used car lot that also did light mechanical and collision repair. Being that Sam’s shop was in an area that was rapidly becoming economically depressed, the new owner did poorly and was out of business within two years. Today the property sits abandoned.)
Slifer: What are you doing today?
Sam: (Smiles as his eyes move and scan his surroundings,) “Come around to the back of my car.” (He unlocks the deck lid and swings it up just high enough for me to see a trunk load of adult novelties.) “Picked up some new inventory from my distributor. I own an adult bookstore. I bought it while I had the shop. Today the adult entertainment business is mainstream legitimate and is nearly recession proof. This sort of merchandise always moves. I mean, you wouldn’t believe the fantastic profit margins.
“If you really want know, my adult video and novelty shop for dollar-to-dollar has always outperformed my body shop in regard to return of investment. So it wasn’t a hard decision to forget about the hassles of owning the body shop and dumping it. Besides, the body shop racket is really an unhappy business. But the adult entertainment business? It’s a happy racket! I love making people happy, and happy people enjoy spending money with me. Which keeps me in the high lifestyle that I’m used to.”
Slifer: Thank you for your story. Any chance of you giving me a few free samples?
There are two emotional flows of conflict at play when you hang and talk with a man like Sam – one is of utter disgust, and the other is awe and respect. I guess it’s comparable to having a gangster like Al Capone as an acquaintance. You’re repulsed at the evil he’s done and is capable of, yet you’re fascinated with his flashy self-importance, money and influence. Other than holding Sam’s body shop business ethics and below-baseline craftsmanship skills in utter contempt, I neither frown upon nor condone what Sam is or what he’s done. For he’s just another humanoid character following his internal programming.
Writer Barney M. Slifer is a practicing collision-repair technician of 30 years experience. He can be contacted at (219) 922-9886.