Have you ever wondered 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 final installment in our five-part series of “Bondo Tales.”
To complete our mission, let’s figuratively step next door to Tom Seller’s place and let him have the final word.
Slifer: Many of my interviewees share the same humble body shop labor and business beginnings. How about you?
Sellers: “I worked for a Dodge dealership in Rantoul, Ill., as a clean-up boy after school hours when I was in high school. I soon became friends with one of the bodymen in the shop, and eventually I was assisting him with sanding and prepping cars for paint. This I quickly learned, so I moved on to doing the paint work by myself.
“After high school, I actually bluffed my way into the foreman job at a Chevrolet dealership body shop. And with much help from others, I learned the intricacies of the business side of the industry. I was there for a year and a half and then moved to Champaign, Ill., where I got a job as a technician at a well-established independent shop. I stayed there for a year until I was approached about a foreman job at the local Buick body shop.
“Things went well there until the owner of the dealership decided that the bodymen and I were making too much money. It was your typical dealership that considered the body shop an unwanted orphan. As I watched my technicians salaries get cut and the shop profits get converted to offset the cost of the new car sales department, I decided I’d had enough and left.
“So off I went with a few hundred dollars in my pocket and a well-stocked Mac toolbox to make my mark in the world. Keep in mind, this was back in the early ’70s when these sorts of dreams were still possible. I don’t believe those days will ever return where one can start a collision facility without strong financial backing.”
Sellers: “I began with a rented 1,500-square-foot building with a lot of promises of free work for the owner of the building and tons of youthful desire. I quickly became known for quality work and hired another technician to help me. With him, I was still putting in 20-hour days, seven days a week as our demand continued to grow. We (I say “we” because I’ve never been a boss; employees were equal to myself) soon added another tech and a young lady who did everything from answering the phone to washing customers’ cars prior to delivery. Our growth was steady, and I was doing well.
“Then one day I decided to approach the man who owned the shop and ask him about purchasing his business and building. The owner was at a point in his life when the shop meant little to him, and we struck a purchase deal for a contract sale. By this time, I’d stashed every available dollar I earned as profit and put it away in a safe place.
“Here’s a little chuckle. I was stashing those earned profits in a wooden box buried in the soil in the crawl space of my house. When we went to the closing, I brought along my little box with me wrapped in a plastic bag. When I unwrapped the box and brought out the money, it was so moldy smelling that the lawyer opened the windows.”
Slifer: At least you’d saved some money.
Sellers: “Yeah. That was in 1976. The business continued to grow to a point where I added on a 5,000-square-foot addition in the mid-’80s. We’d grown to about seven employees, and everything was going well. Or so I thought.
“Paul Tatman, an industry friend of mine who’d already had a shop in nearby Urbana decided to open a large, well-equipped shop in Champaign, which he did. Then Paul built another large shop in Urbana, as well as opening two additional shops in smaller towns in the area. At this time, there were roughly 45 shops in the Champaign/Urbana area, and Paul was really hurting some of them.
“As a large part of the collision industry is already aware, Paul’s shops were purchased by the Collision Team of America’s group. So while Paul was growing, I was planning my future strategy to survive in a market that he controlled. And my strategy got a large boost of pure luck when I decided to go to NACE and attended a mini-conference known as ‘Brainstorm,’ organized by Jim Lynas.
“That weekend in Las Vegas was truly an eye opener. Not only did I get to meet with and listen to Lynas, I met many other shop owners who, like myself, were facing the same challenges – those challenges being the advent of consolidators, the growing DRP movement, increased competition and, most importantly, being told by the insurance profession that ‘you are the only one.’ ”
Slifer: And a seed was planted?
Sellers: “While I admired Jim Lynas as well as all the others, I flew home with his competitor’s program. I was now an official Accident Check operator. … But what I really got that weekend didn’t cost anything. I got to meet a group of caring, intelligent and thoughtful industry giants who I came to rely on for advice…
“I’d never coveted the DRP movement and had little trust in insurance appraisers and adjusters – though I did have a couple of DRPs at the time and felt they were good companies who truly wanted the best for our mutual customer. But as I learned more and more, I decided it was time my techs were paid for their work. No more free R&I, no more free sand and buff, no more free blending and on and on.
“Well, my ‘good’ insurance partners didn’t like my new ideas, so I asked them to kindly take me off their list since I was starting a list of my own. That was an easy task because my list had only the best carriers who paid for all necessary procedures. You guess it. My list was empty.”
Slifer: Was it during this particular time that you began focusing your marketing directly on the interests of the vehicle owner?
Sellers: “Yes. As the steering grew and CTA was sucking up to all the DRP accounts, I decided to wage my own battle. I started a heavy pro-consumer advertising campaign, purchased an ex-Saturn dealership that was almost new and converted it to a 10,000-square-foot collision shop.
“By this time, my friend and one-time competitor Paul Tatman had sold his shops and was in the construction business, so he and I designed the new shop with an additional 8,000 square feet, which his company built. By this point in time, the previous 45 shops in the Champaign/Urbana area had decreased – due to the fierce competition from first Paul, then CTA and myself – to where there were only 12 competitors, which included four CTA shops.
“With the new, well-equipped facility plus my 20-plus-year customer base of loyal customers, I took on a 100 percent anti-DRP, pro-consumer stance that worked well in my market. We continued to grow, and in 1991, Paul Tatman’s son Jeff approached me to see if I might be willing to sell. … While I wasn’t ready to retire, I did have other ventures I’d always wanted to try and Jeff was a perfect fit. He agreed to continue my pro-consumer stance and to retain my loyal, hard working staff as well. The dollar offer was more than sufficient, so I agreed to sell to him.”
Slifer: Are you happy? Any regrets?
Sellers: “In regard to selling my business, the answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ Yes, I’m happy because of the financial security. Yes, because it’s allowed me to venture into a business I’ve always wanted to undertake. I bought a lounge and grill here in Champaign. …
“And no, because I’m sad about the unfinished work that still needs to be done – the top priority being cleaning up the industry and getting new technicians to enter the workforce. Until the crooks are eliminated and the techs are respected and paid as well as other professions, the collision industry will have problems with a negative public image.
“It disgusts me to pay my computer repairman with a small box of tools $100 an hour to fix my PC, while collision technicians with thousands of dollars in tools and training and a shop owner who perhaps has millions invested make a small pittance.”
Slifer: Any last bit of advice?
Sellers: “Collision repair is a good, honest profession, and it can also be very profitable. So help to make it an honest business, and the profits will follow. Either that or you just may see Paul and me breaking ground across the street from you!”
And the Moral of These Stories …
There you have it. Five stories of how they did it, why they sold and what they’re doing now. What can I tell you that the stories didn’t already? I can simply tell you what I came away with:
All the usual emotional suspects are here: desire, lust, hope, envy, greed, dreams and aspirations to be better than one already is. But in short synopsis, it’s about greed – how to wisely or unwisely wield one’s greed and how to learn or not to learn to channel greed.
In writing this article, I wanted to remain impartial in a sort of “Rod Serling” way. Whenever he introduced and closed a “Twilight Zone” episode, he allowed the viewers to decide if they were entertained, along with leaving them with a learned morality notion stuck in their minds. That’s what “Twilight Zone” really was, not spooky tales cloaked in heavy gothic tones, not creepy sci-fi stories – but a running morality play that spoke to and touched upon the human condition.
It wasn’t my original intent, but once people started telling me their stories and this project evolved, it dawned on me that my original goal was being wrapped in many threads and woven into a morality play spotlighting greed.
In the case of Sam and Phillip, both were propelled by greed (money). Though Sam’s greed prevailed, Phillip was nearly destroyed by his. Why did Sam’s greed reward him? Was he better able to shape and direct his greed than Phillip, who let his overwhelm and blind him? Or did Sam simply have more common sense than Phillip?
I can offer more theories than facts, but given that Sam is street smart and Phillip is backwoods rural, my guess is that Sam learned to harness his greed by way of his “salesmanship” skills. He knows how to manipulate others in ways to fuel and benefit his greed.
On the other hand, Phillip saw and experienced “growth = money,” but he wanted that growth as quickly as possible. To reach those levels, Phillip was willing to condone repair shortcuts that weren’t detected by others. In essence, Phillip felt rewarded by what he could get away with, until that near-fatal wreck caused by a shortcut destroyed Phillip’s dreams of big money.
Bob Knight’s greed eventually led him to perhaps the same fork-in-the-road that tantalized Phillip. But while Phillip was willing to lay aside his ethics (which later sealed his doom), Bob was emotionally torn between continuing to turn out a quality repair versus giving customers crap in return for a fatter bottom line. Eventually Bob signed on with a well-known DRP thinking he could travel both roads.
Thing is, Bob was badly torn and discovered he couldn’t serve two masters. His own greed had only given him emotional strife, and as his DRP stepped up its demands, he made a choice – he bailed out altogether. Today, his greed serves him and his customers well as he builds and sells hot rods, customs and original old cars.
Though not as flamboyant as Sam, Tom Sellers is the other joker in the deck who started small and grew in size and wealth. But in Tom’s situation, he was sold on the idea of diminished value and running his shop as a “Pro Consumer” business. But Tom found this to be an uphill battle that was taking too long to shape to his liking. Tired of insurer control, he decided to sell. I think with Tom, it was a matter of directing one’s greed in a new and, hopefully more enlightening, direction.
In the context of shop owner success, Paul Tatman’s story probably says it best. There’s no way he could have that local business empire without having an overwhelming desire driven by greed. But Paul was smart about what he did, allowing a large measure of common sense to temper his greed, to direct it in a useful manner without pulling down his empire. Even then, full-time success spurred on by greed can be taxing.
Yes, I learned of greed, of the many manifestations it can take on, and of how it can drive one to lofty success or utter ruination.
I hope you enjoyed my journey. Thank you for coming along.