San Francisco’s Emerald City Auto Body hits high notes with shop investments
San Francisco—A skilled musician who once had a popular Bay Area salsa band, Julio Castillo plays all the right chords as the owner of Emerald City Auto Body in San Francisco. A 45-year veteran of the collision repair industry, Castillo opened his doors in 1972 with his partner, Bruce Davis, and no crew.
“If we could get a couple cars to fix every month back then, we were happy,” Castillo said. “We had two bays in a tiny facility. I fixed the cars and my partner painted them. I remember the first time we did a repair and got a check for $1,000. We were like, “Wow!” We were getting all of the projects no one wanted to do and it was a much different type of business back then. We used manuals to find out how to fix the cars and we had to drive and pick up our parts ourselves.”
Today, Emerald City is repairing 60-70 cars every month out of a 5,500-square-foot shop with 13 employees and now doing the kind of work they want to, instead of the other way around, Castillo said. “We do some fleet work and, for a while, we did restorations, but we’re not tied to anything, which is nice. Our main focus is to repair these cars the best way we can and that’s our main goal. We concentrate on what we know how to do that’s why I think we've grown over the years.”
Castillo is always looking for better tools, equipment and repair techniques to do a superior job. “I have seen how the tools and equipment have changed over the years and how much it has improved the industry,” he said. “I love to attend SEMA and discover the new tools and technology. We will buy things and try them here to see if they fit in well, but we’re not going to use them regularly until we know they will help us.”
In this regard, Castillo has been experimenting with paintless dent repairs (PDR) and plastic repairs using the Pliogrip Adhesive System, but he isn’t yet ready to include either in his menu of services. “We use these tools primarily when we want to do something extra for a customer,” he said. “When they come to pick up their car and can see that we’ve fixed a little dent on a door, for example, or use the Pliogrip to repair a part of a bumper, they’re surprised. It’s something that they didn’t expect, and they always smile.”
Castillo doesn’t have any issues with any of the insurance companies he interacts with now. “I am surprised when other shops tell me that they are having difficulties with the insurers, because we get along well with all of the adjusters we work with. I think we both want the same thing, which is a quality repair and a happy customer.”
Zoila Amort, the shop’s office manager and an owner, started working at a law office before landing the job at Emerald City. “I had to learn this business by doing it, because I had no knowledge of how a body shop works, but by having good teachers like Julio, I was able to learn how to manage the front end of the business and to fix these cars right while keeping our customers and employees happy.”
Julio Castillo says his crew is a lot like a salsa band and that’s why he treats his people like valuable parts of a machine that is clicking along. “If one musician left the band, we all suffered,” Castillo said. “We would have to start looking for a new player and he would have to learn all our songs — it was never easy.
Here at Emerald City, we are like professional musicians. When we get busy we lean on each other and, believe it or not, some of our former techs will come back and help us.”