Friday, 21 September 2018 08:40

Custom Auto Builders Focuses on Service, Quality Control in IA

Written by Elda Stone, Globe Gazette
Steve Tass, Sean Hook, Jason Tesch, Debbie Bryan and Kristy Tass with Custom Auto Builders. Steve Tass, Sean Hook, Jason Tesch, Debbie Bryan and Kristy Tass with Custom Auto Builders.


Steve Tass, Cristy Tass and their employees have withstood road closings, cancer and the changing automotive industry. They celebrated 35 years in business at Custom Auto Builders in August.


Getting to the body shop at 335 S. Delaware Ave. has been a challenge this summer, with major road construction just a block away on Mason City’s Fifth Street SW. Reconstruction of the Delaware bridge a few years ago posed another serious obstacle.


Debbie Bryan, office manager for 25 years, said, “A customer told me, ‘You know you have a good reputation if they can find you in this mess.’”


“The reason we’ve stayed in business is we have a real handle on customer service and quality control ... despite multiple road closings!” said Steve.


“We’ve been in tune with helping customers make smart decisions on fixing cars, in keeping with insurance company practices,” he said. "I think that’s why people keep coming back.”


He grew up with a love of cars on his parents’ local farm, following two older brothers with the same hobby.


“In 1976, I bought a ’77 Jeep CJ7 from Van Horn Auto Supply, completely totaled. It was so new; it had only 1,400 miles on it. A guy bought it and ran into a bridge.”


While a senior at Mason City High School, he repaired the Jeep in his parents’ garage. Steve said he was particularly intrigued by the nice paint jobs on cars.


He started Custom Auto Builders in 1983 with a partner, Brad Blazek.


“At that time, Brad and I were doing just rebuilders---late model wrecks we’d buy, fix up and sell. That’s how the name Custom Auto Builders started. I had a custom car myself---a ’55 Chevy. It was my brother’s. I was the baby of the family, so I ended up with it. I painted it my first year in business, and Cristy and I went to 21 shows with it," he said.


Brad worked with Steve for almost two years and then decided to go back to his family’s business, Blazek Electric. The body shop has been part of the original Blazek warehouse ever since it opened. Steve noted that Brad passed away last December.

Cristy, who graduated a year after Steve from Mason City High School, was living in Arizona when he opened the business.


“He wanted to do this, and I wanted him to move to Arizona. So I moved back---I loved him!” she said, laughing.


After Brad left the business, Steve hired employees and began doing repairs for insurance companies. He said it’s essential to keep up with the latest automotive standards and the requirements of multiple insurers.


“We go to continuing education to be a preferred shop for insurance companies,” he explained. “Technicians have to be trained, equipment has to be up to date, and we have to follow procedures.”


That includes certifications by the National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence, or ASE, achieved through coursework online, in a classroom setting, or at the shop.


“Employees are happier too. They feel confident knowing they are doing it the right way,” he said.


Vehicle technology gets more complicated all the time.


“In ’83, we didn’t have electric or hybrid cars. At first, we started out with maybe one to three computers in cars. Now there are 30 computers in an average car, around 100 in an electric car. And their programs have about 100 million lines of code, more than a jet fighter,” he said.


He’s also seen great improvements in safety equipment.


“In 1983, a sealed headlight beam cost $20. Now a headlight system costs over $1,300, but it provides much better visibility,” he said. “We have air bags and designs that protect the passenger compartment. The same hit years ago that would have killed a person---today they would live.”


Cristy pointed out, “You can’t be in business for 35 years without great employees.”


Besides Debbie, they’ve employed Jason Tesch, master technician, for 19 years, and Sean Hook, painter and body technician, for 11 years.


“These guys have grown up with us,” she said.


They gave credit to their friends Scott Schneckloth, who kept the shop running during a difficult time in the 1990s while Steve fought cancer, and Mark Ewy, who worked as general manager for eight years.

Cristy said their two sons essentially grew up in the body shop. Cory now works for Enterprise Car Sales in Des Moines. Joe works as an Alliant Energy lineman.


They also credit their faith in God for seeing them through the years.


“We’re not shy of giving a person a hug and ‘God bless you,’” Steve said. “They’re devastated with what just happened and need compassion. When they see the finished car, they often go, ‘Wow!’ We bring their car back to pre-accident condition, and sometimes it even looks better. I had a guy say, ‘My car hasn’t looked that clean since I've owned it.’”


Cristy is retired from running a Curves women’s fitness center for 25 years. Before that, she was a Jazzercise instructor.


“We used to run ads about how we had two ‘body shops’---Custom Auto Builders for cars, Curves for you,” she said. “We did radio ads where Steve would say, ‘I’m here to tell you about Custom Auto Builders,’ then I’d say, ‘I have a body shop, too! I strength-train women and get them back in shape.’”


“Thirty-five years go by awfully quick!” Steve said.


Simultaneously, they said, “It’s been fun.” And laughed.


We thank Globe Gazette for reprint permission.