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Reprinted from the Daily Camera, Dec. 10, 2001

The body business

Post-high school hobby becomes life-long career for autobody shop owner

Dave Mosley feels a little scared when he realizes his post-high school hobby has turned into a lifetime.

After 25 years in the Boulder community, his business, Import Coachworks, helped put its founders through college, survived closure by the local fire department, and is now fielding repeat and referral customers to the tune of 75 percent of its business, Mosley said.

“I thought I would get through school and then find another job,” Mosley says.

Mosley and Dale Hobbs, both Boulder natives, graduated from Boulder High School in 1974 and started fixing cars out of a garage in Hobbs’ neighborhood. Since they would also be juggling a college load, the idea was to have more flexibility and control over their schedules than would be possible working for somebody else. They did not realize that working for themselves was going to be more work, Mosley said.

There was no business plan. There were no long-term career goals. In 1976, they borrowed money from their parents to buy an air compressor, and they rented a little garage where they would go when they had a couple of free hours. However, they lost the first location within a year, when the fire department closed them down for operating in a non-commercial zone.

A couple of years later, the business became more than a hobby for Mosley, he said. He bought Hobbs out of the partnership when different plans for the business had stimulated the men to go separate ways, Mosley said.

The business is now part of a $20.4 billion market for automotive body, paint and interior repair and maintenance, according to a 1999 U.S. Census Bureau report. There are 20,700 autobody repair shops in the United States, said Bruce Blackwelder, an assistant of market research with the Aftermarket Industry Association. The association conducted a study earlier this year, “Aftermarket Distribution Trends,” which Blackwelder said expects it to publish, before the end of the year.

The company’s first big step was its 1980 transition from a 1,000-square-foot space to one about three times that size. Thirteen years later, Mosley bought Import Coachworks’ current 8,200-square-foot location at 2445 30th Street.

When the company was young, one of Mosley’s strategies for getting business was to split rental-car expenses with customers who brought their damaged cars to Import Coachworks. His marketing strategy was to personally visit auto repair shops, introduce himself and ask for their referrals.

“Several of the businesses that I first started working with aren’t around anymore,” Mosley said. “But I wanted to connect with companies similar to my own. The small ones who had to connect with customers one by one.”

Import Coachworks is one of the shops that Hoshi Motors owner Laurie Farmen recommends to her customers. It is the company’s attention to detail that earns it Farmen’s recommendation, she said. People do not generally understand the amount of detail that goes into autobody work, which makes it a hard business, Farmen said. Sometimes the layers of details, often dependent on one another, can cause repair time or cost to be more than people expected.

“Dave is kind of a perfectionist, which is what you want,” Farmen said. “They can bring cars back from the dead.”

Different cars and customer expectations demand different attention, said Pellman’s Automotive manager Dan Levin.

“There are apples and oranges in body work,” Levin said. He will recommend customers to Import Coachworks if they are looking for “high-end quality, good-as-new repair work on a foreign car.”

“People don’t come back to me saying bad things. Word of mouth is the best advertising.”

Having tried coupons, flyers and advertising over the years, Mosley now relies heavily on his reputation. His only marketing endeavor now is a single yellow-pages advertisement.

“That’s enough, with our prominent location and the fact that we’ve been around a long time,” he said. “We can’t handle huge volume. I’d rather be thorough on the (repairs) we do.”

Volume is one of the differentiating factors between Import Coachworks and other local body repair shops, Mosley said. With about 15 of them in Boulder, Mosley cites the good work and the volume of business some of them do as two major reasons Import Coachworks has competitors among them.

“Some of them develop insurance-company relationships,” Mosley said. “It’s smart. That’s a source of a whole lot of cars. We haven’t been big enough to go after a big insurance company.”

Today, Import Coachworks has eight full-time employees and two part-time employees. When Mosley thinks of growth possibilities, he considers scheduling a second shift. The investment in expensive equipment could be applied to now-idle evening and weekend hours, and people would have an alternative to coming during the day, he said.

“People don’t like getting off of work to get an estimate,” Mosley said. “That’s an annoyance. Somebody runs into you, you’re not happy anyway.”