Day Job/Night Job: Writing Estimates By Day and Rocking it All Night Long

Tom Spencer
Tom Spencer is an Estimator/Manager at Mathews-Carlsen Body Works in Palo Alto, CA and also a very talented guitarist and song writer.

"Get a second-hand guitar. Chances are you'll go far if you get in with the right bunch of fellows." These are lyrics from an old Bachman Turner Overdrive song ("Taking Care of Business"), and although it's not quite that easy to get into a rock band and make it in the crazy world of music today, it's still a dream for many people.

One of those dreamers who is passionately pursuing his musical career is Tom Spencer, 48, a Manager/Estimator at Mathews-Carlsen Body Works in Palo Alto, CA. A few years ago, he became a member of Bradford, an up-and-coming rock band in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Santana, the Grateful Dead, Huey Lewis and the News and Green Day all became stars.

Spencer's journey in the collision repair industry started in a roundabout way, he explained. "I was a mobile glass guy and one of our customers was Mathews-Carlsen," he explained. "When I was working there, I started getting to know the people at the shop and I really liked the vibe there. So, when they started looking for an estimator, I seized the opportunity and got the job. I have been here now for 18 years and it's been a great experience."

Originally established in 1955 by Carl Carlsen of Carlsen Motor Group, the shop later changed to Mathews-Carlsen Body Works when Marshall Mathews was brought in as partner. When Carl Carlsen retired in the early 1980’s, Marshall partnered with J. R. Montelongo who had been working as the shop’s head painter for several years. J.R. and Marshall worked together here for 25 years until Marshall’s passing in 2003. Today, J. R. Montelongo and Marshall’s wife Nancy Mathews co-own and operate the shop. The shop is well-known for repairing a wide range of luxury brands, including Audi, Volkswagen, Volvo, Porsche, BMW and Mercedes, but they will work on any type of vehicle as well.

To become a better guitar player, Spencer completed the online educational program at Berklee College of Music, which he called one of the toughest things he's ever done.

Are there any notable similarities between Spencer's day job and his musical career? "Not really, but I do tell people that writing estimates is easy compared to writing lyrics," Spencer explained. "Other than that, the body shop business and the music business don't have a lot of things in common, although writing a good estimate takes knowledge, training and practice and getting good at playing guitar requires the same."

To become more than just a casual musician, Spencer decided to attend the online educational program provided by the renowned Berklee College of Music. "I needed to get better, so I took their certificate program, consisting of five 12-week courses. I did the classes in the evenings after work and it was probably one of the toughest things I've ever done. It made I-CAR look easy compared to this intense program."

Don't underestimate this estimator, because when Spencer decides he wants to do something, he rocks on. To audition for Bradford, the process wasn't exactly easy, to say the least. "I saw an ad on Craigslist looking for a new guitarist, so I responded," he said. "The auditions were up in Marin, a two-hour drive from my house. They sent me three songs to learn and I had to do in two days. I practiced non-stop until the day of the audition." 

When Spencer showed up at the auditions for the band's newest guitarist, the guys in the band were surprised and impressed. "They didn't think I would come, because of the distance, plus it was a school night," Spencer explained. "As I was waiting to audition, I could hear the other guitarists in the other room and I realized that they weren't playing the songs correctly. Wow, I thought--I might just have a shot!"

After playing one song for the band, Spencer was in. "They looked at each other and said, when can you start? I was excited, because I was now the member of a really good band, which was my goal from the beginning." In addition to Spencer, the band's members include Bret Bradford (vocals); Mark Randall (guitar); Scott Garbutt (bass) and Bill Morrissey (drums). The band plays live several times every month, in San Jose and San Francisco primarily, because those are the hottest places in the Bay Area to perform, according to Spencer.

Bradford's music has been described by critics and insiders as a mixture of "The Eagles and Pearl Jam" and their lead singer Bret Bradford's voice has been compared to Bob Seger's. Peter Berghammer recently wrote this about Bradford: "Based out of San Francisco, Bradford has consistently produced music that pushes the rock genre out of oppression into a real world setting. Their fresh take on rock combining a fusion of sounds and influences has set them apart as one the premiere rock bands of this generation. The combination makes for driving guitar riffs, melodically haunting vocals, intense rhythms and beautifully crafted songs."

Tim Bednarz, a local music critic, former lead singer for several bands and the host of a popular South Bay podcast called C.O.A.R (Creative Original Artists Rock), is a big supporter of the band. "The music industry has changed and the old days of getting signed by a big label are pretty much over," Bednarz said. "Bradford has self-produced three albums and that's the way bands are doing it now. Their songs and the lyrics are really memorable and Bret Bradford is a great front man. The band is musically tight and they have developed a following, so if they keep plugging away and playing live as much as they can, who knows what the future can hold for this band."

In other music projects, Spencer is working with another collision lifer who he met online by chance. "I am starting a blues project with a new friend, Bryan Ashworth," he said. "I met him through the music network and found out that he is a body technician who works in Tracy, CA for a shop. We've become very good friends and we're excited about this project."

Doing estimates and overseeing a staff of 20 at the shop during the day and practicing his music and doing gigs in the evenings makes for a busy life, but Spencer loves it all. "I wouldn't do it any other way," he said. "Creating music and playing it for people--what's better than that?"

Ed Attanasio

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

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