Dave Dunn was only 16 when he first worked in an auto body shop. Like most entrepreneurs, he grew his eventual business with time, hard work, persistence and learning from his mistakes.
Dunn dropped out of high school and opened his first shop at 19. He admits he wasn’t very successful.
“I had no clue how to run a business and was still inexperienced at fixing cars,” he said. “Turns out, that isn’t a recipe for success.”
At age 20, Dunn was offered a job managing the body shop at the local Lincoln Mercury dealer, and he jumped at the chance to gain mentoring and training from an established business. But when the shop caught fire and burned down, the owners chose not to rebuild, and Dunn was out of a job.
By this time, though, he was ready to give business ownership another go.
In 1977, at age 22, Dunn opened Dave’s Autobody at 2171 Grand Ave. with only two other employees. Forty-one years later, he has a busy shop with 38 employees and sales in the top 1 percent in the U.S. Dunn also operates the Masters School of Autobody Management to teach professionals from near and far---and from all career fields---what he’s learned about business principles and marketing.
Read on as Dunn shares how the auto business has changed over the years, how he builds customer relationships and his advice to other entrepreneurs on standing the test of time.
RM: Cars and technology change so quickly---and you’ve been in the business for 41 years. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the auto industry in that time?
DD: Forty years ago, you could repair cars with some very basic tools. Today with computerization, the equipment costs are very high. Specialized welding and measuring equipment are an absolute necessity if you plan to repair the car to factory standards. High-strength steels and aluminum are very common and require very specialized equipment.
RM: How has Dave’s Autobody changed and grown over the years?
DD: I started with just myself and two other technicians. I had to do everything myself, from writing estimates to pulling and welding plus painting and detailing. We grew quickly, and by the time I was 30 we were well-known nationwide. I was able to hire a general manager, Bill Nixon, who I would say was largely responsible for our success. Having Bill there to oversee the daily operations, I was able to start a consulting career at a very young age helping other businesses grow and become successful. Today, we have 38 employees and our sales rank in the top 1 percent in the United States.
RM: I understand a significant portion of your business comes from outside of Galesburg. How did you build a solid reputation not just in Galesburg, but in the wider region? What is your shop best known for?
DD: About 35 percent of our business revenue comes from the 61401 zip code, so 65 percent comes from somewhere else. We are very serious about quality and excellence. We invest heavily in equipment so we can fix cars most shops can’t or shouldn’t. We probably are best known for the way we treat our employees. We invest heavily in training. Our benefits are unparalleled in collision repair, so we have fabulous longevity. Many employees have been with us over 30 years. We maintain a waiting line on our active potential employee roster.
RM: You also have the Masters School of Autobody Management. How did that come about? How do you balance the two sides of your business?
DD: I started Masters 22 years ago when I was 40. I had been consulting for about 10 years and the demand was greater than I could handle. So I decided to start a business school, first in Santa Barbara, California, and bring people to me 20 or 30 at a time. I partnered with Natalie Kessler, who was fresh out of college and teaching high school. Natalie had an affinity for adult education and helped me write curriculum and navigate the bureaucratic red tape of being a licensed post-secondary school. Since I had Bill Nixon as my GM, I felt comfortable leaving the shop for extended periods of time and, needless to say, Masters became very successful and it has become my dharma.
RM: I’ve read that people come from all over the country to attend the school---and it’s not just auto body professionals. How do your lessons apply across different career fields? How have you gained such a following across the distance and different career fields?
DD: Yes indeed, people come from all over the world to learn the Masters approach to business and life. I wrote a book a number of years ago that has done pretty well. It is called “Liquid Amalgam.” It is a leadership and management philosophy based on understanding the relationship between values, principles and systems. The “Liquid Amalgam” approach works in any business, sports team or profession. We help people gain philosophical alignment with their co-workers and that allows the natural creativity of all staff members to work harmoniously. It doesn’t matter whether you are coaching a team, running a medical or law office or fixing cars---we need better continuity of thought in the workplace. People are generally interested in our unique marketing approach, too. Quite a few people in other industries have noticed our unique marketing success and want to learn from us.