In 2003 after Richie was laid off from his job working at a local shop, Tim Graham encouraged him to go into business together, opening a shop. Without the financial backing for such an endeavor, the only land the two men could acquire was an old chicken compost shed on Tim’s parents’ land, behind two chicken houses. The 2,400 square-foot building had only one bay door for entrance into the shop, and it was neither heated nor air-conditioned. Tim and Richie cleaned out the shed and installed a make-shift paint booth until they were able to purchase a paint booth about a year later. They also acquired a used frame machine.
Since Tim worked another full-time job after the start-up, Richie did the body and paint work on his own. Tracy tells me, “He gave huge discounts just to get what business he could to show people what quality work he could do. He worked tirelessly to prove himself because he knew that being behind two smelly chicken houses and down a dirt road, he would not get a lot of business unless his work was impeccable.” After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Richie realized he needed a more convenient facility, but though he decided to clear out land behind his own home to deliver a better environment for customers and workers, financing became a deterrent.
A local doctor who was impressed by the body work Richie did on his airplane recognized a good investment, so he loaned Richie $20,000, which—along with insurance money from the storm—Richie used to clear a plot of land on his property and to erect a 7,000 square-foot building over the next thirty-one days with the help of his father-in-law and a forklift. Richie and Tracy built slowly, adding to the shop as they had funds and time to do so until they were eventually able to move into the new facility in May 2007 with Tracy as Office Manager and Richie as Shop Manager. Over the past several years, Richie has been able to purchase another frame machine and hire more employees. He has also bought another 3,000 square-foot building which he plans to put up as a paint department, separated from the body shop.
Despite their humble beginnings in a shed behind a chicken house, Richie’s Collision now repairs seventy cars each month on average. Now, in addition to the 3,000 square-foot addition that will soon be erected, Richie’s Collision boasts the original 7,000 square foot building, as well as seven employees: one painter, three body techs, one tech for specialty cars, one helper and one office Administrator. Of course, this excludes Richie Lewis who personally does all of the above, as needed. The shop’s only source of revenue outside of auto body work is storage that they provide for totaled vehicles. They participate in a direct repair program with Alfa. Richie’s Collision is I-CAR certified, Lesonal Waterborne Certified, and they have received additional certification from DuPont Paint and Tinting.
Richie’s Collision receives a combination of older and newer mix cars, but they have not have many paint match problems with their current painter. They use Azko Nobel’s Lesonal and Sikkens paints. The shop now has much more equipment than when they began, including a Goliath four-tower frame machine, a BeeLiner frame machine, cross-draft paint booth, I4 Prospect welder, 60 KW John Deer Generator, hydraulic press, strut compactor, 2 MIG welders, 2 air compressors, a gunwasher, a DuPont Paint Camera and mixing machine, and a Sikkens Paint Camera and mixing machine. Richie and Tracy credit the Goliath frame machine and the I4 Prospect welder for saving them “tremendous amounts of time in the repair process.”
Tracy also praises her husband’s emphasis on customer service as a key ingredient in their success. “Richie is very adamant on customer satisfaction. He spends most of his time going to customers and doing estimates where it is convenient for them. He picks up cars and delivers them if it’s needed. He gives unprecedented warranties on his work. The business stays busy even when other shops in the area are slow, and our shop is located on the end of a dead end road in the woods behind our home. We do almost no advertising, but we stay busy by word-of-mouth and through a few of the local dealerships that direct business our way.”
Richie is also very involved in his community. He sits on the Board of Directors for a Christian half-way house for women coming off the streets or out of prison. Along with Toyota of Hattiesburg Dealership, he gave support and headed the campaign to purchase a new Toyota Sienna van for the half-way house. Richie also supports America’s military in various ways when opportunity presents itself, and he frequently employs people whose past makes them ineligible for many employment opportunities because he believes in trying to give them a second chance at life. Richie’s Collision also focuses on the environment by recycling chemical waste as well as any possible metals. They donate bumpers to Keystone for refurbishing, and any profit resulting from such efforts are used to treat workers to dinner or a cookout.
When discussing current trends in the market, Richie and Tracy see a lot of shops converting to waterborne paint systems, and they believe that all shops will be forced to convert soon. I asked Tracy about problems they have experienced recently, and she told me “we see uninformed people come in that have no idea where or how to pay a deductible, or we have people who automatically think that auto repair shops pad estimates to make up the difference of their deductible so they will not have to pay it. We see people who just come right out and ask for their deductible to be saved. We do not pad estimates, and if we have to save people on the estimates, we just have to take a cut directly out of our pocket. People do not understand that by doing that it’s like someone asking for their pay checks at the end of the week. We’ve also had several cars come in for re-repair that have had previous damage repaired from prior wrecks.”
Richie and Tracy Lewis have been unable to attend any recent NACE, SEMA or other expositions due to their responsibilities in the shop.
Richie’s Collision Center
29 Huckleberry Drive
Hattiesburg, MS 39402