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Part three of a five-part series
A second-generation, former shop owner recounts how his unbridled greed led him down a dangerous, destructive path – culminating in a customer having a near-fatal accident due to shoddy repairs.
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 third part in our five-part series of “Bondo Tales.” Phillip started out in a family business, being taught by his father who took great pride in the profession. Unfortunately, when his father died, this shop owner became increasingly blinded by greed – which, ultimately, led to his demise. But unlike Sam (the shop owner interviewed in the second part of our series), Phillip regrets the way he chose to run his business and also deeply regrets the one incident that nearly cost a customer his life.
Slifer: Tell me a little about how you got started in the industry.
Phillip: “My father was a self-taught bodyman and painter. He worked through World War II by purchasing wrecked cars and rebuilding them for resale. There weren’t any new cars for sale and hardly anyone could afford to buy a used car. The military wouldn’t take Dad because of his hearing, so he stayed civilian and rebuilt totals.
“He sold them at a price people could afford to swing. That’s how he fed his family. Man, was my father good at what he did! The guy could straighten almost anything that was bent on a car. He had to fix what was damaged because replacement parts were scarce and very expensive if you found what you needed.”
Slifer: Many old-school bodymen started out that way, buying, repairing and then selling rebuilt totals. I assume that your father taught you the trade?
Phillip: “Yep. I was born in 1949. We lived on a few acres of undeveloped land just outside of town, right next to the state road. Dad put up a six-stall block building, and that’s where he began his body shop business. When I was old enough to swing a metal finishing hammer, he’d take the time to show me how to repair bent fenders, doors and hoods. A few years later, I was painting, fixing damaged frames and pretty much doing what Dad did.”
Slifer: At what point were you running the business?
Phillip: “When Dad passed away, leaving the shop to me. Dad was never interested in growing the business. He was satisfied with the work and cash flow we had at the time. But I was different. I wanted to grow the business. I had big plans!
“Shortly afterward, I added more floor space to the existing shop, more stalls to fill with wrecks. It was working out. We had a few good years, and I was netting more profits than I’d ever seen my entire life. Trouble was, I got to a point in my life where no matter how much I earned over the previous year, it was never enough. I had to earn even more.”
Slifer: So you had to find ways to attract and produce more work?
Phillip: “Yes. Around this time, a major insurance company was offering a preferred-shop program. Thinking this was a viable way to have wrecked vehicles sent to me on a consistent basis, I looked at this program as a blessing. I conformed to the insurance company’s requirements, signed on and, just as I wished for, I had more jobs to fix than I could handle.”
Slifer: But you no longer have your shop. If you were happy with your growth, what happened?
Phillip: “It’s a long story. At the time, even I couldn’t figure out where I messed up. See, my crew had worked there for a very long time. They were used to doing things Dad’s way. I saw them as old fashioned, slow, making too much money for what they did. I let it go, but this bothered me. Yet when I took on this insurance program, I cut their commissions and rode them hard to pump out more work. Not liking my ‘new’ way of doing business, those men quit and walked out. Fine with me. I hired younger guys who didn’t have the experience, but were willing to work longer days for less money. It certainly meant more profits for me.
“Trouble was, I let overwhelming greed rob me of my common sense, of my responsibility to my customers. In my case, I was putting unqualified and incompetent people in charge of doing repairs they had no business doing. Back then, I didn’t care who did the repair or how it got done. All I wanted to see was lots of cars being delivered, and money flowing in.
“Well, my world fell apart when a vehicle we’d repaired went off the road and crashed. My customer was badly injured, and the wreck was investigated. It was shown that the crash was caused from a loss-of-control condition due to a steering part that was badly welded together when it was supposed to have been replaced. I was sued, ordered to pay a judgment and I lost everything.”
Slifer: That’s a terrible shame – and it explains your situation today.
Phillip: “Yes. Sometimes the most important lessons in life are the ones learned the hardest. I endured the aftermath with great bitterness, took to drinking and was an absolute mess. Then one day I said to myself, ‘That’s enough. It’s time to let go.’ I’m sorry for what happened. It was my fault, and I’ll always feel responsible for what I’ve done. But I managed to forgive myself. I joined a church, stopped drinking and decided I was going to again make my life worth living. It’s not easy to fall into an emotional hole and then climb your way out, yet I’m doing it.”
Slifer: Still doing body work? Own another shop?
Phillip: “Oh, heck no! I’ve had a belly full of wrecked cars and body shops. No more of that for me! Instead, I took a job with the county highway department, spent my summers on the tractor mowing crews, winters driving a snowplow truck. Thing was, those jobs gave me too much time for thinking to myself, to dwell on my sad mistakes. So I moved away from there and relocated to where I live now. I found a position as a mail sorter at the local postal distribution center. The job keeps me very busy, so it’s a great mental distraction. I don’t have time to think about the unfortunate results of my poor decisions.”
Slifer: Thank you for your time. I wish you success with your future endeavors.
Phillip: “The pleasure was mine. What’s important is that others hear my story – to know the resulting bitter fruits of unwise judgments driven by unbridled ego and greed.”
Writer Barney M. Slifer is a practicing collision-repair technician of 30 years experience. He can be contacted at (219) 922-9886.