Few if any industries are recession-proof, but so far Brainerd area auto body shops have been bucking the downward trend during a historic poor economy.
Maybe it's because a harsh early winter resulted in slick roads and a rash of fender benders. Maybe it's because more people are fixing the old rather than buying new. And maybe it's because more people are hoping to keep their vehicles up until the economy turns around.
Ask body shop owners, and the answer seems to be all of the above.
"I've got a good year going here and last year was a good year for me too, so I don't know what recession they're talking about," joked Darrell Slotrem, owner of Darrell's Auto Body on Highway 371 north of Brainerd.
Jay Barnes owner of ABC Collision and Marine Repair in Baxter, attached a chain to the chassis of a stock car so he could straighten the vehicle. Brainerd Dispatch/Kelly Humphrey » Purchase reprints of this photo.
Slotrem said his business has remained busy because people are still hitting deer, fixing their vehicles rather than buying new ones and looking to patch up vehicles instead of putting them on the scrap heap.
He also notes that being in business since 1976 has helped him build a good customer base and all of his equipment is paid for.
"I'm not worried," Slotrem said.
At ABC Collision and Repair in the Baxter Industrial Park, Jay and Kari Barnes also are staying busy but are keeping a close eye on the economy, especially the Big Three automakers in Detroit.
Kari Barnes said if Ford, Chrysler and General Motors fail it will mean the patents on their parts will be locked up, resulting in a higher cost for parts. That means the cost of repairs will increase, which is passed onto insurance companies and could mean higher insurance rates.
"As you can see, it's an economic snowball," Kari Barnes said. "Ultimately, we consumers pay for it."
As the economy tightens up, Barnes said the cost of business is increasing. Also, more people are spending less on insurance or using insurance money from a crash to pay for bills instead of repairs.
"Overall, the industry is down," Kari Barnes said. "Still, we're holding our own."
Jay Barnes used a buffer on a damaged hood at his body shop in Baxter. Brainerd Dispatch/Kelly Humphrey » Purchase reprints of this photo.
One area of business that has increased has been people taking care of little dents or rust on their vehicles, Barnes said, as people are keeping up their vehicles longer rather than buying new.
That along with other repairs have been enough to keep their business going, Kari Barnes said, and she's hopeful about the future.
In a www.brainerddispatch.com online poll, readers were asked: Are you repairing your vehicle(s) more or less frequently since the economic downturn began?
47 percent, 29 people, said they are repairing instead of buying new.
27 percent, 17 people, said they were repairing/upkeeping vehicle more.
18 percent, 11 people, said they were repairing/upkeeping vehicle less.
5 percent, 3 people, said they were buying new for less repairs.
3 percent, 2 people, said no opinion/given up driving.
"On a good note, for those of us who can survive and stick it out, we're learning how to run our business in lean times," Kari Barnes said. "If we can survive the next six to 10 months, we'll be better off in the future."
Shannon Christian, owner of Shannon's Auto Body on Ironwood Drive in Brainerd, said his business depends on the weather - the kind of weather that creates road conditions motorists dread but still venture out in.
"Business has been very good this year," Christian said.
Kari Barnes, on the other hand, said ABC Collision has not seen an upswing in business because of the weather.
While the economy is a concern, Christian said his business has been helped by people trading in their sports-utility vehicles for foreign sedans that get good gas mileage.
Like Kari Barnes, Christian has seen many people taking insurance money and paying bills rather than fixing their vehicles, or just having partial fixes done.
One problem he has seen is people unable to pay their deductibles. To remedy that, Christian works out a payment plan.
Like Slotrem, Christian said he's in a different situation because his location, off the beaten path, doesn't receive much drive-by business. Instead he's relied on past customers and referrals for business.
"With this economy, it doesn't affect us as much as a lot of other businesses, like car dealers," Christian said. "At least it hasn't affected us yet."
MATT ERICKSON may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5857.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.