Wednesday, 21 November 2012 09:40

4th Generation Body Shop Celebrates 135 Years in Business

Many shops today spend a lot of time worrying about the ability to meet their weekly payroll and don’t have enough time to think about next week, let alone next year. So, when you hear about a shop that has been around for 135 years, your first response might be shock, followed by curiosity. In this highly volatile, ever-changing industry, how has any collision-related business lasted so long?

When George V. Arth opened his shop back in 1877, there were obviously no DRPs, aftermarket parts, supplements or waterborne paint—or even cars for that matter. The country’s president was Rutherford Hayes and Thomas Edison had just invented the phonograph.

It all began when George V. Arth and his family arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, after having made the long journey from Alsace Lorraine, France. A career blacksmith, Arth bought a small local shop named the Oakland Carriage Manufactory and promptly renamed it George V. Arth & Son. The business was wildly successful and quickly became well-known for performing top-tier repairs on horse-drawn buggies. But pretty soon the business model changed dramatically, when Henry Ford’s “horseless carriages” began roaring through the streets of Oakland. The shop realized rather quickly that they would have to re-invent themselves to survive, so they embraced the technology and began repairing and painting these new motorized vehicles.

135 years and four generations later, George V. Arth & Son is still fixing cars in Oakland, CA, and flourishing, despite experiencing at least five recessions over the decades (including the Great One in the 1930’s); two major earthquakes and a professional hometown football team that left and then came back again. Until someone can prove differently, George V. Arth & Son is the oldest continually operated family-owned auto body shop west of the Mississippi and maybe even in the entire country.

Ron Arth is the great grandson of George V. and the manager today. He started working at the shop in his early teenage years and has continued to work alongside his father, George W. Arth Jr. and his brother George Arth III in the family business. Ron believes that his shop is the oldest in the West, but he isn’t sure if it’s the oldest in the country. A national trade publication had a contest back in the early 1970’s and found two shops to be older on the East Coast, but that was almost 40 years ago and Ron has no idea if those two shops are still in business.

“To be safe, we just refer to our shop as being the oldest family-owned shop west of the Mississippi,” Ron Arth said. “I can’t imagine that there are very many body shops, or even mechanical shops that have been in continuous operation for 135 years.”

Ron took on full responsibility and management of the shop when his father stepped down and retired on his 65th birthday. Ron’s father, George W. Arth, Jr., is still going strong at age 86 and stops by the shop on a regular basis, usually three to four times a week, just to check in, Ron said. “My father still plays a role here and actively attends Oakland Rotary meetings every Thursday,” he said. “These connections to the city were built over years and years of living and working here and they still help us to keep the shop strong.”

George W. Arth, Jr. was also one of the founding members of the East Bay Autobody Association, now known as the East Bay Chapter of the California Autobody Association. Ron’s father served as president and was on the board of the association for many years before finally retiring. His son has followed in those same footsteps by serving on the organization’s board and as president of the association for several years as well.

Ron cites several reasons for the company’s longevity and ongoing success, but being customer centric is the most important. “The fact that we’ve always been a family-run business is important. People like to see the same faces every time they bring their car in. It provides them with a sense of stability in what is usually a stressful situation. It also allows us to build relationships which really are the foundation of our business. We now get customers whose parents and grandparents brought their vehicles here.“

Repairing more than 80 cars monthly and employing 12 people, Ron has also seen a definite change in the relationship between body shops and insurers. “Obviously, another one of the biggest changes that I’ve seen in this industry is the introduction of Direct Repair Programs (DRPs) that entered the picture about 15 years ago. The insurance companies used to do the estimates themselves, but now we write most of them and often take the place of the insurance adjuster.”

What is one of the biggest changes in this industry? “It would have to be the technology, definitely. I remember when my father used to have to get a ledger sheet from our bookkeeper at the end of every day, so that he could know exactly where he stood financially. Then one day I showed him that we can do the same thing with just a couple of clicks of a mouse. He was shocked, but we assured him it was just as accurate, if not more so. With the variety of new computer management systems available today, it not only makes us better owners and operators, but saves us time with the overall estimating and repair process.”