Multi-shop owner ‘outworks competition’ to fuel growth of six-shop repair chain
Portland, Ore.—Bret Bothwell made a full-price offer about four years ago to the owner of a collision repair shop in Southwest Portland who was looking to sell, but then heard nothing for months.
“It turned out he was doing a bunch of due diligence on who I was, but it made me nervous when a full-price offer wasn’t instantly accepted,” said Bothwell, who renamed the shop Central Auto Body after the sale closed. “He didn’t want to sell to a big corporation. He wanted to sell it to a real guy.”
Earlier this year, Bothwell closed on the purchase of his sixth shop, the first one outside the Portland area: the former Jim Nickels Auto Body in Medford, Ore. Bothwell acknowledged that having a shop more than a four-hour drive from his others will be a bit of a stretch, but hopes to eventually expand his company into other states as well.
“So this is almost a test for myself,” he said of the Medford acquisition. “It’s a challenge. But at the scale we are today, the investment was minimal. We can take the risk. I’m kind of a risk-taker. I have no fear. I want to see if I can do it, and I really think I can.”
Bothwell said Central Auto Body’s rapid growth – from three employees to more than 75 in just four years – has been fueled in part by sheer drive on his part. After more than 15 years as a painter for relatively large collision repair organizations, Bothwell decided it was time to “do my own thing.”
“I thought I could do it better, and I’ve since hired a lot of my friends, so that makes me try even harder,” he said. “It’s a battle to grind it out every day, seven days a week, 16 hours a day. But if you outwork your competitors, and try to do the right thing for your customers, I believe the business will just keep snowballing.”
He says other factors, beyond sheer tenacity, has led to the company’s growth. He admits falling into his second shop by chance. A heavy-duty truck dealership contacted him about painting 20 semis, something Bothwell’s first shop didn’t have a booth capable of accommodating. But the dealership offered him use of a shop, saying he would then have the option to lease the facility. It’s been Central’s fleet shop ever since.
“It’s part of what differentiates us, being able to fix your high-roof van or semi truck or whatever you have,” Bothwell said.
He considers the company’s third shop, at Southeast 122nd and Division, as the company’s flagship and as one of his best decisions. He knew the location was a winner in terms of visibility, at one of the busiest intersections in Portland. (Records show that intersection, and another one just 20 blocks away, are two of top three most common crash sites in the city as well.) But converting a vacant 8,000-square-foot former tire shop into a well laid-out body shop with two drive-through paint booths wasn’t easy.
Without disclosing specific numbers, Bothwell said the 16-employee location has become a “production machine.” Quick access to parts is one reason — the Ron Tonkin Parts Center is also located on 122nd Avenue, and an O’Reilly Auto Parts warehouse is a block away. There are also two tire shops offering vehicle alignments within one block of the shop.
But Bothwell also points to other keys to success at the location including a Nitroheat system in the paint shop that converts oxygen to heated nitrogen.
“You can do two things with this,” Bothwell said. “First, you can fill your nitrogen tanks for your bumper plastic welders instead of buying it. But it also improves transfer efficiency of your paint materials. More paint hits and stays on the panel, so it’s better for the environment and reduces materials costs. Because it’s heated, it makes your flash times a little faster, and the paint and clearcoat lay on a car better, look a little better.”
Although he has aspirations of growing his own company to two dozen or more shops in the next decade, Bothwell has chosen to stick with a relatively smaller Akzo Nobel paint jobber, Oregon-based OnPace Finishing Solutions.
“I’d rather stay with a local guy,” Bothwell said. “I could get a slightly better deal from somebody else, but I choose not to. Because of that, if we need a hose from Home Depot, I can call him and he’ll have a hose here in an hour – and he doesn’t even sell hoses. Whatever we need, he helps with.”
He also credits the company’s success to the “great people” he’s been able to attract and retain. Kelly Dutcher, the manager he hired for the Division shop, for example, is the person who 22 years earlier had hired Bothwell as a detailer at another shop. Back when Bothwell opened his first shop, he knew how to read an estimate but not write one. He hired Sun Jae, who brought estimating skills and a masters degree in accounting to the shop, helping him learn both estimating and the financial side of business.
“She basically sat right next to me for a year or longer until I fully understood everything, and she still works for us today,” he said.
Bothwell is excited about the growth and opportunity he sees for his company in the coming years.
“You only live once. You might as well do what you like and be the best at it,” he said. “If you’re in a job where you’re not doing what makes you get out of bed in the morning, what’s the point? If you find something you like and do that, I think you’ll be more successful. This is what I enjoy.”