Erie-LaSalle Celebrates 75 Years
|Erie-LaSalle Body Shop, which is celebrating its 75th year, is at 146 W. Erie Street in Chicago. – photos courtesy of Cindy Kurman.|
As owner Robert "Bob" Gottfred leads a tour of the basement at Erie-LaSalle Body Shop, he reveals a wall that survived the Great Chicago Fire. You can still see some black charring on the basement ceiling beams. "You know," he says, "the basement used to be the first floor. When they rebuilt after the fire, the city was one level higher." It's just one more reminder that in Chicago, a business celebrating its 75th anniversary is as meaningful as it is rare.
Erie-LaSalle Body Shop at 146 W. Erie is a Chicago institution for many reasons. Originally a blacksmith shop, it was transformed into a car repair shop by Gottfred's stepfather, Ivan Goodmonson, in 1934. In 1976, when Goodmonson retired, he asked his stepson to take over the business. With a degree in finance from Arizona State University and a background in the restaurant industry, Gottfred took over and has run the body shop with an executive's eye. Over the past several years his two grown sons, Jim and Jay, have joined him in running the business and their responsibilities have increased as they've gained experience.
As it has done for 75 years, Erie-LaSalle continues to offer top-quality service to customers from all over the Chicago metro area. The shop boasts a team of 25 professional technicians, many of whom have been on board for decades - a testament to their skill and experience as much as to the profoundly decent way Gottfred treats them. They're a team that has succeeded for so long because they've mastered the fundamentals of good business: they're honest, prompt, courteous, and deliver a high quality of service.
Gottfred describes their mission: "We take a negative event - a car collision - and give our customers a pleasant, straightforward experience that minimizes the disruption in their lives. We pick up the damaged car and arrange for a car rental. We repair the car, constantly keeping our customer updated as to the status. Finally, we deliver the car to the customer when it's ready. It can't get any easier than that."
A tour of the body shop also reveals how professional and intricate collision repair has become. Erie-LaSalle employees are clearly a team of professionals trained to use complex equipment and technology. They must know, in detail, how a wide range of cars are manufactured so they can repair them to factory specifications. "There are changes every day in this business," says Jay Gottfred. "Vehicles get more complicated; technology is added; new metals are substituted; different paints are used. Our profession is as much a science as it is an art."
|From left are Bob, Jim and Jay Gottfred, owners of Erie-LaSalle Body Shop.|
It has also become a complex business involving many people - customers, insurance companies, parts suppliers. Insurance companies are a major source of referral business. "We work very hard to maintain our excellent professional reputation," says Jay. "Great service, promptness and competitive pricing are important keys to our success."
Most car owners don't pay much attention to what goes on behind the scenes in collision repair, so they don't necessarily understand how much attention Erie-LaSalle pays to professionalism and efficiency.
"Technical training is a must if we are to repair cars quickly and correctly," says Jim Gottfred. "Speed is crucial. We have customers who operate their business from their car and so we must get them up and running as soon as possible."
For Erie-LaSalle, training is a way of life. The shop regularly hosts evening classes offered by two pre-eminent automotive training organizations: the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair (I-CAR) and the Automotive Service Association (ASA). The classes are led by certified instructors and are attended by both Erie-LaSalle technicians and professionals from other collision repair shops and insurance companies.
Erie-LaSalle has earned the I-CAR Gold Class Professional designation, the highest accreditation for a collision repair shop. The entire Erie-LaSalle team of repair professionals has earned the Platinum Individual designation, the highest level for individuals.
With a company history spanning 75 years, there are just too many stories and memories to pick a single most memorable one. But Erie-LaSalle has seen more than a few cars of the rich and famous come through its doors. Probably the first true celeb was Ralph Capone, Al's brother. The roster of big names goes on and on: former Today Show host Dave Garroway, Cubs luminary Ernie Banks, news anchor Ron Majors, former Bears quarterback Vince Evans, NBA star Antwon Walker, and three cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church: Francis Eugene George, the current Archbishop of Chicago; the late John Patrick Cody and the late Joseph Lois Bernardin.
|Smart Car is used to shuttle customers to and from work or home. Members of the firm’s staff also use the vehicle to run other errands as a means of advertising the company.|
The 75th anniversary is an exciting yet humbling milestone for Erie LaSalle. "We all feel very lucky and very fortunate," says Bob. "Personally, I pinch myself every day. To live in wonderful River North, working with my sons and my longtime team members is like a dream come true." Gottfred's enthusiasm for his business is matched by his friendly demeanor and gift of gab.
The future holds interesting possibilities. Erie-LaSalle is looking to expand if the right deal comes along. Jim and Jay are taking on greater responsibilities, and they recognize the opportunities and challenges in front of them. "It's a never-ending process, looking for better ways to do things, becoming faster without diminishing the quality of our service," says Bob Gottfred. "It's a challenging, competitive business and we're glad to be among the survivors."
But the word "survivor" would be an understatement - Erie-LaSalle is one of Chicago's great small-business success stories. It easily serves as a role model, showing aspiring entrepreneurs the right way to build a business and keep it thriving for years and years.
Kurman Communications Inc. is a Chicago-based public relations and marketing agency that began 27 years ago with Chrysler Corp. as its first client. Since then, Kurman has worked with a number of automotive clients and is a leader in the automotive PR industry. For more information, visit www.kurman.com.
Name of Shop: Erie-LaSalle Body Shop
Location: Downtown Chicago
Square Footage of Shop: 8,000
Number of Years in Business: 75
Number of Employees: 39 (two shifts)
Number of Repairs per week: 60
Projected Annual Sales: $4.8 million
Web Site Address: www.erielasalle.com
Why They Joined ASA: "ASA provides a voice for our industry in insurance, government and consumer relations. ASA understands our industry and works for excellence and constant improvement for all of its members. Its annual event for collision repairers, NACE, wonderfully integrates products, services and education for the good of all associated with our industry. The real benefactor is the consumer." - Bob Gottfred
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