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Shop owner Keith Neal worked his way to the top, first starting out sweeping floors at the auto company in high school.
Shop owner Keith Neal worked his way to the top, first starting out sweeping floors at the auto company in high school.

Business Spotlight: Fixin' for 50

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The office at Dodson and Williams Automotive Inc. is relatively quiet, with telephone ringing and chatter punctuated by dull rumbles and growls from the body shop out back. Visitors enter the shop through a small side room, with walls lined with cabinets full of 3-inch thick vehicle maintenance manuals.

For 50 years, everything from fender-benders to rollovers have come through the Dodson-Williams Collision Center to be looked over, estimated, torn down and repainted. A lot has changed in the vehicle world in five decades.

“Oh, there are changes every day,” says shop owner Keith Neal, pointing to safety systems, electronics and the very metal used in car production. “It’s all changed since then.”

Neal first worked at the shop sweeping floors as a high school senior. He moved up the ladder under Ervil Climer, who with Marian Wilson succeeded original owner Harold Williams and his brother, Johnny. Harold Williams and John Dodson founded the company in 1961.

Neal said Climer trained him, and as he recalls nearly fired him. Climer, now 81, says it’s true, admitting he was a “pretty hard-nosed” boss. Neal survived the job and became a co-owner in 1991. Since late 2007, Neal has worked as sole owner of the business, comprising a body shop, frame and front-end unit, and a paint shop across the street.

Keeping up with automotive changes and advances requires continual education, Neal says. Dodson-Williams is gold-certified by the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair, one of the highest certifications in collision repair, according to the association.

To earn that recognition, his 17 employees must complete relevant classes and annually prove that their knowledge is up to date.

Besides changes in cars and the equipment to fix them, other challenges pop up for auto body repair shops.

“Parts have been hard to get, so we’ve had to venture into other avenues for quicker parts turnaround,” says Kenny Burgess, an estimator and team leader who has worked at the shop since 1990.

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan early this year have made Japanese parts hard to come by, for example, Burgess says. The shop receives many of its parts from dealers such as Reliable Chevrolet and Don Wessel Honda, but the recession resulted in the closing of area venders Springfield Lincoln-Mercury, Heritage Chrysler and Ozark Dodge.

But Dodson-Williams has weathered that storm fairly well, Neal says. Earnings in 2009 were roughly flat, but last year revenues gained 10 percent to $3 million, he says. Midway through 2011, Dodson-Williams is on track for a 15 percent increase.

In April, the shop earned about $107,000 through parts, a roughly 40 percent share of the $254,000 monthly total. Paint shop income was nearly $40,000.

During the years, the body shop has built relationships with insurance companies that send customers its way, Neal says, pointing to files on the wall for several major insurance companies.

Being a preferred auto body shop means a faster progression from making an estimate to beginning repairs. Geico Insurance Agency Inc. has operated an office on site for about three years to expedite the process even further.

“It was my gig” bringing it to Springfield, says Victor Damommio, the on-site Geico claims adjustor.

The model is still unusual, he says, but Geico has now spread the practice nationwide from its beginnings in the Northeast.  

Before Geico moved in, however, Neal had to prove his shop was the right one.

The company wanted somebody with a good reputation and “looked through his history pretty severely,” Damommio says. Dodson-Williams also reworked some of its operations to come more in line with the Geico model, he says, including adopting the practice of employees following cars through the entire process of estimate, repair and return.

In a sort of celebration of the shop’s 50th anniversary, Neal has started a radio-based advertising campaign for the shop based on the slogan, “We make it easy.”

“We’re going to play with it this year and see what it does,” Neal says.

Meanwhile, Neal views electric cars as the shop’s next challenge.

“I’d say that’s going to be the next hurdle,” he says. “We’re dealing with hybrids right now.

“Who knows, 10 years from now, what the vehicle’s going to be?”[[In-content Ad]]

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