Generations of customers keep family collision repair shop thriving
St. Helens, Ore.—When a man walked into St. Helens Auto Body recently, company founder Gene Cross immediately recognized him as having been the shop’s first customer three decades earlier.
“You fixed my son’s car recently, too,” the man told Cross.
“As you can see, we’re now working for the children, and sometimes the grandchildren, of the customers we had back in 1987,” Cross’ wife, Carol, who works in the shop’s front office, said. “A lot of our business is repeat customers and word-of-mouth.”
Those repeat and referred customers, including those from as far away as Rainier, Vernonia and Clatskanie, have helped the business grow significantly from the small garage Cross started in just a few blocks from the company’s current 9,600-square-foot facility.
“The gentleman who was here back then decided to retire in 1993, so we moved in then,” Carol Cross said. “I was really apprehensive when Gene said he wanted to buy this. I wondered if we could make the first month’s payment. That was a big step.”
Business volume has tripled in that time, and the company now employs eight people including two body technicians and two paint technicians. Joe Dougal came to work at the shop as an estimator-manager in 2000, after working in the parts department at a Portland area dealership for 15 years.
“I was talking to Gene when he ordered some parts and he asked me if I’d ever thought about becoming an estimator,” said Dougal, who at the time was living in St. Helens but commuting about 30 miles into Beaverton. “That evening was the worst commute ever, and I called him back up and said, ‘Are you serious about that?’ I’ve been here ever since.”
It meant a cut in pay at the time, Dougal said, but the reduced stress and driving have been only part of the benefit.
“Those two have taught me a lot,” he said of Joe and Carol. “I’ve never regretted it. It’s been a good deal.”
All three agree that finding good technicians has perhaps been their biggest challenge over the years.
“We struggled with that for 25 years,” Carol Cross said. “The last five years we’ve been able to financially attract the best of the best.”
“We are very, very satisfied with all of our employees,” Gene Cross agreed. “A big difference from 30 years ago is that today, technicians are trained professionals. They’re not your backyard guys any more. They know what they are doing, and are presentable. I have no qualms at all about any customer who wants to go back and meet a painter or a bodyman, I’ll take them right back and show them our shop. We installed a window here in the office so they can see what we’re doing. The shop is clean and organized, so they can feel good about leaving their $30,000-$70,000 vehicle here.”
Dougal said the most recent addition to the shop’s staff is a student from Portland Community College’s collision repair training program.
The Crosses have continued to reinvest money back into the business, most recently adding a Shark electronic measuring system, a Pro Spot welder, more lighting in the detail area and a fresh air system in the paint department. The shop was among the first in the area to switch to BASF’s Glasurit waterborne paint line.
“Pretty much anything that happens, I’m the first one to do it around here, whether it be new paint technology, or welding going from plain MIG welding, to bronze TIG welding, aluminum, all of these things,” Gene Cross said.
He had some reservations when Wesco bought out his longtime jobber, Evergreen Paint, several years ago, but he has not been disappointed.
“They’re the best out there as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “We still get the same service that we got from Evergreen. We tried changing once, but it didn’t pan out. We went back after not quite a year. Anytime I have a question, they either have the answer or they get right on it and get me an answer. They’re all well-schooled in all the paints they sell, as well as all the equipment they handle. They know what they’re talking about. That’s what keeps me with them. It’s a no-worry thing.”
Carol Cross had similar praise for the Tonkin Dealerships, the shop’s primary parts supplier.
“They have been very good to work with, no complaints,” she said. “From the parts person to the delivery person, they’re all conscientious.”
As to the future, Gene and Carol Cross say they are looking forward to retirement and hoping Dougal will take over the business.
“I’ve had people come in here from the larger places wanting to buy us out, but I won’t do it,” Gene Cross said.