If you have been in any industry for more than six decades, you have a lot of memories to look back on---and hopefully most of them are fond.
Such is the case for Gino Bellagio, 81, who recently retired and closed his body shop, Bill & Gino's Body & Paint. The shop had been a fixture in Healdsburg, CA, since 1961.
The collision repair industry has been good to Bellagio, who has no regrets.
"This business has changed a lot since I entered this industry as a tech back in 1955," Bellagio said. "These cars now are more like computers than automobiles, and it has become a lot tougher to make a buck as a shop owner.
“We always kept our business small and were involved in everything from the very beginning, so we never compromised our quality. We built a reputation for being honest and straightforward. Healdsburg is a small town with only a few shops, so our reputation here was always important because a lot of my customers were a lot more than just customers; they were also friends and neighbors."
Bellagio never really wanted a career in collision repair, but life doesn’t always go exactly as planned, he said.
"I started working at a gas station here in town while I was a senior at Healdsburg High, and my good friend Bill Bonham would come by and do our body work,” he said. “My goal at that time was to be a mechanic because I liked tinkering with cars.
“One day, Bill told me about a job at a local Chevrolet dealership, but when I found out it was for a body man, I said no thanks. He told me to come down anyway and maybe they would hire me as a mechanic. But there weren’t any openings on the mechanical side, so I took the job working in their collision center and realized it was more challenging and interesting than being a mechanic. I never thought I would do this for 64 years, that's for sure!"
After working at the dealership in his hometown for almost two years, Bellagio went to Cloverdale, CA, to work at M&M Garage with Bonham, a shop that still exists but is now in Berkeley, CA.
"By working with Bill as an apprentice, I learned every aspect of the business, including body work and paint," Bellagio said. "I took a pay cut when I went there, but it turned out to be a smart move. If I can last here, I told myself, I can make more money down the road, and that's exactly how it happened."
Eventually, Bellagio landed a job at Silveira Pontiac in Healdsburg.
"They had closed their collision center, so we made a deal with Lee Silveira and started doing all of their collision work," he said. "I was there for four years until one day Bill said, ‘Let's start our own shop,’ and that's what we did."
Gino & Bill's was an immediate success and had to move to larger facilities to accommodate its increased workload over the years. By keeping its operation lean, the duo was able to control every aspect of the production and experience steady growth, he said.
"We were busy right at the start because there were only two other shops in town and the market was growing,” he said. “Now there are nearly a dozen shops in the area, so it's much more competitive here in Healdsburg."
When DRPs entered the picture in the 1980s, Bellagio and Bonham decided not to go that route, he said.
"Once you sign up with the insurance companies, they control things and start to dictate, and we didn't want to compromise our work,” he said. “They approached us several times over the years, but we never went that route and looking back, it was a good move. Our customers trusted us, and that's why they brought us their vehicles. It was just that simple."
As the vehicles changed, Bellagio's job became more challenging, he said.
"It was so much easier working on older cars,” he said. “Color matches were easier, and we could use lacquers instead of waterborne paint. We used the old guns and loved them. Bill and I were always combo techs, which means that we fixed the cars ourselves instead of relying on someone else to finish the job. Now, it takes 5--6 people to repair a vehicle, so that has been a big change in the industry."
Bellagio isn't going to miss all of the new technology that has made fixing cars a lot more expensive and difficult.
"These new cars are built for comfort and safety, which is nice for car owners but tougher for shops to stay in this industry,” he said. “Today's vehicles are full of computers, sensors and cameras, and they change every year, so I think I might be getting out at just the right time."
Bellagio's partner, who passed away in the early ‘90s, retired in 1982, and Bellagio kept running the shop for another 37 years. He looks forward to a retirement spent being with family, gardening and possibly visiting Italy.
"My health is still good, and I want to enjoy this time of my life because I’ve earned it, to be honest,” he said. “It's been a good run working in a great industry, so I can look back at it fondly.”