Body Shop Owner Aims HighPosted 10/15/2004
By Alexis Gross
"A guy I took my BMW to every few months did really great work, and he found a place with shop space and asked me for financial backing," Graves said. "I backed him and got him going. Then, five months later, he got a divorce and moved away - and I had a body shop on my hands."
Being full owner with no technician wasn't what Graves had planned when he moved to Castle Rock from Denver with his wife and new daughter. Undaunted, he hired a new crew and immediately expanded his operation. The '90s were boom years in Colorado, and the town was growing quickly with immigrants from California and Texas. Graves immediately expanded his operation and moved into the remaining portion of a tire store that had been partially destroyed by fire a decade earlier.
"We leased the area that hadn't burnt down and talked the owners into restoring the building in 1991 to 6,000 square feet. In 1996, we bought adjacent land and licensed with Budget Car and Truck Rental," said Graves. "We kept trying to buy the building we were leasing from the owners, but eventually decided to build our own place in 1999."
Construction began on the new shop in late 2001 and was completed in November 2002. The new shop is more than 23,000 square feet. Graves and his 10 employees move about 20-25 vehicles per week through the operation.
In his time, Graves has been shop manager, production manager, estimator and "everything else." It's all part of being a business owner, he said.
His wife, Becky, is co-owner of Autobahn and handles the accounting, among other things. Graves is hoping to hire his brother as well. Like many others who share work with their family, Graves sees advantages and disadvantages to the arrangement.
"The advantage is you have someone else at the shop you can trust who's part of your family. You know even if you're not there that you've got another set of eyes working for you," he said. "The disadvantage is you live and work together. In some ways, even that's a good thing. If you have a bad day, you don't really have to talk about it at home because you both already know what happened. There are definitely more advantages than disadvantages."
Graves has long had a personal interest in auto repair, restoring Mercedes, BMWs and Porsches in his spare time. His previous professional automotive experience was at International Automobiles in Houston, a dealer in grey market vehicles from Germany. The owner would purchase the vehicles overseas and the shop prepared them to meet U.S. Department of Transportation standards.
"(Before we opened Autobahn), if you owned an upper-end car and took it to a shop around here, you wouldn't get the service you'd expect," Graves said. "Paint jobs were bad. You could tell where the tape had been, and they didn't do body work correctly. My shop was going to repair each vehicle as though nothing had ever happened to it, and that's been my goal ever since."
Graves said his attention to detail and commitment to customer service are what make Autobahn unique.
"We're in a customer service industry, and bad news travels faster than good news," he said. "If you do a bad job for someone and don't handle it, they're going to do nothing but tell bad stories. Handle the problem well and they'll tell good stories."
Autobahn goes the extra mile to do things like buff out scratches or check the power steering fluid because the car is making noise as they move it around the shop.
"We've received cars that were filthy, and when the customer comes to pick it up, he doesn't even look at the outside at first because he's so amazed by the inside," he said.
Autobahn regularly receives nearly 100 percent CSI ratings. While Graves' goal is 100 percent, he understands that something will always come up. The key to diminishing any problem, he said, is communication with the customer.
The ability of all employees to be swift and decisive is also key, he said. "If I'm not here, my second in command knows exactly how to handle things like I would, so there's no delay."
If Graves could change one thing about the repair business, he would like to see all insurance companies apply the same standards and procedures.
"We deal with a multitude of companies, and some don't want to pay for things to be done right - some only want you to use aftermarket parts, and some want you to use all OEM parts and do everything to make the car perfect," said Graves. Because of the inconsistencies, he said, each shop must negotiate the repair with each customer. "It's like going to McDonald's and ordering a Big Mac and at 10 different McDonald's they're all different. I want consistency, and I don't think I'm alone in that.
"For one thing, it's a marketing tool. Say someone comes in with an insurance estimate, and they don't want to say who wrote it. I write them an estimate, and there's a $1,000 difference. You have to be educated and aggressive enough with the customer to justify that expense," said Graves. "As a middle guy, I've got to keep everybody happy."
"I've been contacted several times over the years, and there were a lot of things I was interested in. The biggest thing that changed my mind this time was that a representative came down and talked to me, and it went from there," he said. "Because it's not really a local organization, I didn't know if it would really help my business. I'm a penny-pincher, and that's how I was able to build this building: by being very cautious. I'm the one always walking around the shop picking up rolls of tape and sandpaper and brand new clips and putting them away. I don't like waste. I fill all the holes so I don't lose money. It drives some people crazy, but I can't charge $10 more because I need it to make the business run. I'm regulated by the insurance company.
Graves' plan for the future is to put his current facility to full use.
"We built the building much larger than we needed at the time. Originally we had planned to expand as we grew, but I changed my mind so now we have a huge facility," he said. "I would like to see this shop at full production within the next two or three years. I have 10 employees now, and this place could easily house 20 or 30 employees. I would love to be there the day this place is running at its fullest capacity. We'll plug away and see what happens."
Shop StatsName: Autobahn Auto Body
Location: Castle Rock, Colo.
No. of employees: 10
Square Footage: 23,455
Annual Sales Volume: $2.5 million
On Customer Service: Treating customers right and doing quality work will reward you many times over. There's no better feeling than doing it right the first time.
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