Diversification, experience, confidence are pillars of Wheeler’s Collision success

Kelso, Wash.—Like most Northwest collision repair shops, Wheeler’s Collision & Paint hasn’t repaired a 2015 Ford F-150 yet. But Joe Wheeler says bring it on.

“Aluminum repairs do not scare us,” Wheeler said. “We know how to work on aluminum vehicles. We’ve been working on them for the last 30 years.”

The reason for Wheeler’s confidence and his shop’s experience with aluminum is the diversification of his business. In addition to standard passenger vehicle collision repair work, Wheeler’s offers complete mechanical work as well as repair of RVs and heavy-duty trucks.

“We’ve been dealing with aluminum structural repair on these big semi-trucks for years,” he said. “We do a lot of aluminum welding as it is now.”

Wheeler grew up spending time in his father’s body shop and worked with him in the mid-1970s on building the shop’s current facility, which includes 5,000 square feet of production space.

“I learned the trade from watching all the old body guys,” Wheeler said. “All my training is hands-on experience, the school of hard knocks. It’s always been a passion for me, working on vehicles. I just changed shirts to become the business owner, but I stay very hands-on as far as day-to-day operations.”

His father turned over the reins to him in 1990, and today Wheeler oversees a team of 10 employees. The company, which has annual sales of about $1.1 million, continues to be a family business, with Wheeler’s wife, Deena, and one of their daughters, Meagan, working in the front office.

Wheeler said his business philosophy of avoiding debt, combined with the shop’s diversification, has helped the company weather downturns in the economy more easily than other businesses. Mechanical work, in particular, allows the shop to offer customers more services – and work at rates not controlled by insurance companies, he said. Though he’d like to build a second building exclusively for mechanical work, for now his ASE Master Technician has a well-equipped stall in the collision shop.

“And you actually almost need that in collision repair today because the vehicles are all so specialized,” Wheeler said. “I don’t know how any shop can do it without it a full-time mechanic.”

Wheeler’s has been a NAPA AutoCare Center for both mechanical and collision since 2005. Wheeler said he likes the standards that NAPA sets in the industry; the products NAPA sells, including the Martin Senour paint line; and what NAPA stands for in the customer’s view.

“It gives people an additional assurance through the warranty,” he said. “We offer a great warranty ourselves, but that’s also backed by the nationwide NAPA warranty. And Martin Senour is very user-friendly. Great color matches, and it helps keep us competitive in the marketplace.”

When fleet or heavy-duty truck work requires use of an Axalta Coating Systems product, Wheeler turns to Wesco Evergreen in Longview.

“Those guys go above and beyond, especially when it comes to training classes,” he said.

Wheeler said his shop has a good reputation with insurers but “is not an insurance-driven shop” and has no direct repair agreements. He does some advertising – on the radio and on shopping carts at Safeway grocery stores in Kelso and Longview – but relies largely on the shop’s website, and referrals from fleet managers, RV dealers, and mechanical shops that don’t do collision work. Wheeler said the shop also has a longstanding reputation in the community.

“I was deputy mayor for Kelso for 15 years, until 2008,” Wheeler said. “That was great experience, giving back to the community.”

The shop buys almost all of its parts through the Tonkin Parts Center and Keystone-LKQ. Wheeler has high praise for both companies, as well as for OEConnection, the online parts-ordering tool he uses for OEM parts.

Wheeler said one mistake he made, about a decade ago, was trying to run his diversified business on a single computerized system.

“That was costly and didn’t work well,” he said. “It’s hard to have one system for all the things we do.”

Today, the shop uses the Mitchell 1 for mechanical, AudaExplore for collision estimating, and Mitchell’s TruckEst for heavy-duty vehicle work.

The shop’s production area includes a Continental frame rack, the Kansas-Jack Tru-Point Sonic 360 measuring system, a Challenger two-post lift, and three spray booths including a 50-foot booth for big rigs and the shop’s latest purchase: a Global Finishing Solutions downdraft baking booth.

“My painter is loving that,” Wheeler said. “He feels like he’s in paint heaven.”

He said his best purchasing decision, however, was deciding to buy the building and land his shop occupies.

“That was looking out way ahead in my future,” Wheeler said. “You can have a business anywhere. But to own the land and building is really key. That was one of the wisest things we did.”

Parts & People

Parts & People is published monthly by Automotive Counseling and Publishing Company, Inc., a Colorado corporation, P.O. Box 18731 Denver, CO 80203, 303-765-4664. President-Lance Buchner. Founded by Lance Buchner and Dave Lucia.