The business now has six locations, including a towing division and a boat/RV division. Autobody News spoke to Andy Tylka, general manager of Tom and Ed’s Autobody, about the family-owned and operated company and how it has grown over the years.
Q: Can you tell us about the history of Tom & Ed’s Autobody & Towing?
A: The original body shop was opened in Schereville by Tom Tylka (my dad) and Ed, who left the business after a few years. My father has been sole owner ever since. At the time Ed left the company, by father was afraid to change the name for two reasons:
1. He didn’t want to lose the customer base he grew from nothing.
2. Signage and letterhead was recently printed and it was very expensive for a sole owner starting from scratch.
The name stuck and has remained the same ever since. The business started with my father being the only employee with the support of my mother Debbie managing the finances. He would go out during the day and market his business, while working at night on customers’ vehicles. He was focused on providing the community a body shop that was family-friendly with an honest price. We are now growing to include 50+ employees and six locations with the same focus my father had 34 years ago.
These include a 10,000-square-foot location opened in Crown Point in 1998 and one in Merrillville added the following year, which was recently moved to a new 16,000-square-foot facility behind the existing location. In 2016, Tom & Ed’s Autobody acquired Arnell/Bosak Bodyshop in Burns Harbor and CC Autobody in Valparaiso. The company also opened a new location in Cedar Lake in December. It was previously “Center Garage/Bobb Auto Group,” prior to being remodeled to a collision repair facility.
Q: How have you handled some of the challenges as family-owned and operated business?
A: One of the challenges of being a family-owned business is having responsibilities clearly defined for each family member. When we all know our roles in the company, then finger-pointing is reduced, which then avoids any family feuds. Communication is also key. We communicate by having monthly meetings, as well as carbon copying the family members on important emails so everyone is on the same page. And of course, someone needs to be in charge. In a family business, there needs to be a single person that is the main decision maker. This gives the responsibility of the company to a single person who can lead. As the saying goes, “you have to avoid too many chiefs, and not enough Indians.”
We are not a family that can leave work at work. Tom & Ed’s Autobody is part of our lifestyle, where we enjoy talking about it during family functions and get-togethers. I feel like by us enjoying discussing work and strategizing during afterhours is a result in all of us loving what we do. We have a huge passion for this business.
Q: What prompted the decision to open your new locations?
A: Two years ago, we decided to take our dealership location out of the dealership in Merrillville. We secured the bank loan, designed the facility, and broke ground to start construction. While the location was being rebuilt, we were approached with an opportunity to purchase a building in Cedar Lake. My father always spoke to me about that building, telling me it would make a great auto body shop, which was an existing Chrysler/Dodge dealership. He told me about opportunities he had over the years purchasing additional locations and prime properties to grow the business, but regretted never doing so. When Cedar Lake became available, it was too perfect to pass up. We were tired of always regretting opportunities.
During that time of rebuilding Merrillville, and completely renovating the dealership location in Cedar Lake, the Burns Harbor and boat/RV business in Valparaiso became available to take over. With the new motto of ‘no regrets’ we jumped on that purchase as well.
The Merrillville location was moved to a new 16,000-square-foot facility behind the existing location.
Q: What is the benefit/challenge diversifying your business with the boat/RV division?
A: The boat/RV business is a completely different animal in the auto body business. We are lucky to employ someone who had run the existing boat/RV location a very long time and is passionate about this type of repair. There are different challenges we must contend with.
Insurance companies handle boat/RV claims completely different and each case is unique. RV repair is more manufacturing as you are more of a general contractor than a collision tech. Where in the car repair business you buy most of your parts through the dealer, the RV business is the opposite.
It also takes experienced experts to write estimates and know what to do because repair procedures times and parts are not documented and there is not a major software that has data available to write estimates and manage claims. In addition, you need a large footprint to work on boats/RVs that have a span of 50+ feet in some cases. We have constructed a paint booth specific to handing any size we may come across. When dealing with boat/RVs, large bay doors, tall ceilings, boat rotisserie/skates, and the ability to construct scaffolding when needed are all necessary.
Q: What advice would you give to others in the industry in regards to making an acquisition vs. building a stand-alone facility?
A: My advice is: do not grow unless you are confident that your existing locations are self-sustaining. You cannot grow unless you have your house in order. You want to make sure you have policies and procedures that are easily duplicable in new facilities.
OUR DEDICATED AND LOYAL STAFF IS DEFINITLY TO THANK FOR OUR GROWTH. We are lucky to have staff that lets us grow by being just as passionate as we are about the industry. We hire problem preventers, not problem solvers. If you teach/hire people to prevent problems, you spend less time scrambling, trying to solve situations. It makes your day very predictable.
You also need to have supporting staff on the corporate side knowing that individual owners cannot do everything themselves. Delegating to your team is crucial, while trusting that they will carry out that task effectively.
I also document EVERYTHING during projects. There are a lot of deadlines, tasks, and projects going on at once. Being very well organized is key. My best tool for organization is a Microsoft program called ‘Onenote.’
It is an application that follows you wherever you go as it stays current on your phone as well as your desktop. I use it for: “Todo” lists, meetings and insert pictures and video into my notes.
After projects are completed, I log them into files on my computer so I can reference them at any time. I never want to have to figure out/learn something twice. If I have experienced doing something new like applying for a town variance, permit, bank loan procedures, etc…, I want to have a reference so when I have to do it again, I do not have to relearn it.
Q: What are some of the additions you added to the facilities to enhance customer service?
A: When designing our facilities, customer flow and service is a priority. We over-analyze every situation to make sure the customer experience is flawless. Therefore, we focused on the dealership’s service departments and how they are set up. We tried to copy the flow of dealerships customer “drive in bays” with the service writers on the floor to greet the customer. Why should we reinvent the wheel when billion dollar companies such as BMW have already put the research into how to make their indoor drive-ins flow for the best experience for the customer?
With these changes, the customer never has to be outside in the elements as all customers are directed to our “indoor drive-through bays” for estimates, for drop offs, pickups, and to pick up their Enterprise rental car.
If anyone is prone to build a new facility, I recommend they spend a lot of time in luxury dealership serviced Departments observing how customers and their vehicles are addressed.
Tom & Ed’s Auto Body recently opened a new Cedar Lake location.
Q: How have you created a culture at your shop where your employees are like family members?
A: Our Industry continues to get saturated by national consolidators. We have embraced that by creating our own niche. As other shop owners complain about not being able to find technicians and staff, we are creating a culture where we have employees applying every day wanting to be a part of our family. We have made a big decision to focus on the quality of life of our employees and what we can do to improve their employment experience. We want all employees to enjoy coming to work. When you work hard for your employees and care, they work hard for you and your customers as well.
I can’t say enough about how grateful I am to have the employees we have. They make me enjoy coming to work every day, and I hope I do the same for them. If it wasn’t for them being a part of the family and caring personally about our product and our customers, our growth would not be possible.