The southeastern corner of Minnesota is part of an area known as the “Coulee Region.” Early European settlers derived the name from the French word “couler,” which means “to flow.” And boy was it flowing last March when I paid a visit to some body shops there. The whole area sits in a flood plain adjacent to the Mississippi River, and when heavy snow hits in early March and melts off, it can put the place under water. We didn’t make it to one shop as one road proved impassable.
“We” consisted of myself and Ron Lorenz, a salesman for United Auto Supply, the company that so kindly hosted me (and let me mix paint at the store with another sales rep, Dewaine Clayton) during my three-day tour of LaCrosse, Wisc., and its neighboring cities. Ron and I called on nine body shops, excluding, of course, the one we would’ve needed a row boat to get to. Along the way, we met quite a few characters, one of whom was Richard Budde, a.k.a. The Mayor of Mabel. Budde owns Mabel Body Shop in Mabel, Minn., and apparently earned his nickname from being so widely known around town. He told me he knew I was a Yankee because I kept my hands in my pockets almost the whole time I was at his shop. There’s a joke there somewhere, and I’ll let you figure it out. Another character we came across was Brady Auger, a.ka. Iceman of Iceman Customs in Houston, Minn., who lamented about how business was down because “everyone thinks they can do custom work now.”
In La Crescent, Minn., we visited Mark Miller of Mark’s Paint & Repair. Miller runs a small shop located on the same property as his house, which he likes because it lets him spend more quality time with his wife and two children. Initially, the neighbors weren’t so keen about his plans to build the shop there, thinking it would depreciate their home values.
“They thought it would look like a salvage yard, with junked cars lying around with no wheels and their hoods opened,” Miller said.
But the shop is tidy and Miller doesn’t make the kind of noise the neighbors predicted, so he’s able to run it right where it is. He survives on a steady flow of work from family and friends and the occasional insurance job. He didn’t claim to be the world’s best businessman, but he did have a story about one-upping an insurance estimator.
A good customer of his had brought in his old F150 pickup, which needed a new grille, fog light and lower valance panel around the fog light. Miller wrote an estimate and sent it in to Progressive, the customer’s insurer, who said they would send someone out to OK the work.
“That was absurd because it was only three small items,” Miller said.
Miller had ordered all new Ford parts so he could make the repair as fast as possible, an hour at most he figured. The estimator arrived and wrote up her own estimate. The only used part she could find was a fog light, which she said would save $25 on the estimate.
By this time, it was 5 p.m., too late to order the part. Miller would have to order the part the next day (Thursday), and then wouldn’t receive it till Monday. If it was all about saving money, the whole thing made no financial sense, Miller thought.
“I asked [the estimator] if she was willing to put my customer in a rental car for four days just to save $25 when I could use all new parts and get the job done the next day,” Miller said. “She kind of just smiled and laughed and conceded that maybe used parts weren’t always the way to go.”
All I’ve heard since entering this industry is that the little guys will eventually be run out of business. But now I’m not so sure. Some of the guys I visited own their shops outright, have little overhead and manage to keep busy with work from family and friends. And some like Miller at times display more business savvy than their counterparts in the insurance world. The future, I suppose, remains to be seen.
Jason Stahl, Managing Editor
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