Chicago Body Shop’s Anti-Texting Campaign Catches Fire

Chicago Body Shop’s Anti-Texting Campaign Catches Fire

Admittedly, the owner of a well-known 80-year-old body shop in Chicago was guilty of texting in his own vehicle himself for several years until he saw more than a few damaged cars in his shop caused by his customers’ lapses in attention while texting. Rather than ignore what is now an national epidemic that causes 1.6 million accidents annually, Bob Gottfred, the owner of Erie-LaSalle Body Shop, decided to start his own anti-texting campaign.

Erie-LaSalle Body Shop was founded in 1934 and over the years it has become a neighborhood institution in downtown Chicago. “We’re the longest continuously owned auto body of its kind in Chicago and Illinois,” Gottfred explained. “We now have a handful of third-generation customers coming in here and it’s great to hear their stories about when their grandfather or even great grandfather brought his car here decades before. Additionally, we have expanded our service area by acquiring a 30-year body shop on the southwest side of Chicago.”

Gottfred, 64, had what he described as a “marginal interest” in cars as a kid, so his path to owning a body shop wasn’t part of his life plan, he said. “I grew up working here in the shop as a teenager and to be honest, I wasn’t crazy about it. I had no intention of taking over the shop, but when I came home around Christmas time in 1975, my stepfather told me he couldn’t do it anymore. His health wasn’t very good so he said, ‘If you’re interested -- hop in” or he was going to sell it. So, in January 1976 I started running the business full-time and then eventually bought out my stepfather in 1995.”

Today, both of Gottfred’s sons work with him at the shop and eventually the business will belong to them -- but not tomorrow, Gottfred said. “Jim (36) and Jay (34) could take over right now and do a great job, because they’ve learned the business and they’re ready. They’re right at the hand-off point now and I know it would be a seamless transition, but I’m not quite ready to retire. I currently work on customer acquisition and foster the great relationships we have with the insurance companies and agents, so it works well right now. Opening the new shop in a very different market has also been a challenge. I like to be the rainmaker around here and take a lot of the administrative stuff off my sons’ radar, so that they can concentrate on the most important things, such as quality and customer service.” 

New proposed anti-texting laws have gained more momentum in this country, most recently led by a documentary called "From One Second to the Next," a cautionary tale about the dangers of texting while driving. The film was funded by mobile providers AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon and has received major awards and accolades.

The genesis of Gottfred’s anti-texting campaign began when he decided to participate in the Great Chicago Fire Hydrants Project, a public art exhibition that celebrates the heroism of Chicago’s firefighters. This citywide public art installation features oversized replicas of Chicago’s iconic standard fire hydrants, designed, painted, decorated and/or dressed by local artists, architects, and even fashion and interior designers. These colorful sculptures are placed throughout the city in tribute to the work and heroism of Chicago’s beloved firefighters. At the conclusion of each year’s exhibition, the hydrants are gathered for a final exhibition before being auctioned, with net proceeds benefiting charities that support the families of fire victims and other fire safety programs in the Windy City.

As part of his company’s ongoing philanthropy, Gottfred decided to participate in the project. “We purchased a five-foot fire hydrant made out of fiberglass for the project to decorate,” Gottfred explained. “We painted the words ‘Texting & Driving, It Can Wait’ on the fire hydrant and then decided to take the whole thing one step further. We had purchased a little Smart Car a while back and we have our logo on the side of it. We use it to shuttle customers around or pick up parts and we love it. We thought maybe we can use the Smart Car and the hydrant together to get our anti-texting message out there. We disassembled the front end of the Smart Car and parked it out front of our shop and made it appear as though the Smart Car had just bashed into the fire hydrant. We get 40,000 people driving by our shop every day and so pretty quickly everyone was talking about it.”

Then last October, Gottfred decided to use Halloween as an opportunity to take his anti-texting message to another level, he said. “We put a dummy in the front seat of the Smart Car and deployed an old airbag we had sitting around and strapped it to the steering wheel. Later, I went out there and the local police and fire department were out in front of the shop. Someone had reported a car accident with serious injuries, and after we explained what was going on, we all laughed about it and they took a few photos. We left it there until the end of November and then the hydrant got auctioned off, raising $500 for the 51 Club. We bought it originally for $1,500 and that money went to Club 51 too, so we donated $2,000 total, which was nice.”

Once Gottfred got involved in his anti-texting campaign, he stopped texting altogether. “When people use their cell phones while driving, the bottom line is that they’re distracted,” he said. “I was doing it too, because you get a text message and your first reaction is to respond to it. But in the end it can really wait. We get damaged cars in here all the time and the customers will never admit that they were texting when it occurred, but I know many of these accidents are the result of texting.”

Gottfred teaches CE (Continuing Education) classes to insurance agents and now he has created a class dealing with the topic of texting. “We discuss how to insure teenage drivers and what can happen when they text,” he said. “I show some gruesome videos to get their attention and to raise their consciousness about texting.”

Ed Attanasio

Ed Attanasio is an automotive journalist and Autobody News columnist based in San Francisco.

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