Toby Chess: 40-Plus Years of Service to the Industry He Loves

Toby Chess

If you’ve been in the world of body shops for more than a few years, you likely know the name Toby Chess. He’s the smiling bearded guy who brings gifts to people---and no, he’s not Santa Claus.

His story all began in a salvage yard and has turned into a fantastic career of teaching, mentoring and helping the collision repair industry and other people on many levels.

Chess, 75, has given his life to others through several channels and has never slowed down. He’s taught thousands of body technicians skills that are used every day to fix cars the right way---Toby’s way. He’s been to almost every state in the union, teaching and imparting more useful information than most in this industry will ever know.

Chess is well-known as an I-CAR program instructor, training specialist and renowned industry writer, but also for his work with first responders and advocacy for body shops and consumers as well.

Now he has encountered another challenge with his battle against end-stage kidney disease. He has been undergoing dialysis for the past 30 months, but hasn’t slowed down for even a minute, and is still doing everything he can to continue on his path.

Toby’s passion for cars started back in the late 1960s, when he began working on old Porsches. His first project was a 1955 Speedster, and over the years, he became a Porsche expert, restoring several.

In 1972, Toby and his father opened a salvage yard in Culver City, CA, specializing in Volkswagens. It had a good run until the Chess family stepped away from the business 21 years later.

No longer working for his father, Toby took all her had learned about the collision repair industry and was eager to get out there and take on the world.

During the next few decades, Toby worked in several capacities for independent shops and MSOs in the Los Angeles/Orange County area. He built a shop for a Honda dealership, was a regional manager for a chain of nine stores, and even worked for three years as a fraud investigator for an insurance company.

In 2004, Toby started working toward becoing an instructor for I-CAR. One year later, he made a life-changing decision to take his classes on the road, when he bought a trailer and a truck and started traveling nationwide to conduct I-CAR welding instruction and testing.

In his very first I-CAR welding class, Toby had 26 students, and half of them failed. So, he showed them how to do it correctly, and realized he really enjoyed it.

“I thought, I can take this on the road,” Chess said.” I could see that there was a real need for MIG and aluminum welding instruction, so I set up the road show, and it grew from there.

"I hit Illinois, Indiana, Washington, Georgia, Colorado and all of California during those first years. I went where I was needed and stayed there until everyone knew how to weld. I stayed at a hotel in New Mexico for almost a month because they really needed me there. It started I-CAR’s mobile programs, which were successful and got great reviews.”

During the first 40 days of his road trip, Chess tested more than 100 technicians, a number that blew up to approximately 800 during that first year.

To date, Chess estimates there are more than 20,000 collision professionals out there who’ve taken his classes. It’s been a busy schedule to say the least, because during much of the time, he has worked a regular job at Kent Automotive, as well as serving on the Society of Collision Repair Specialists board and acting as a featured speaker at Collision Industry Conference and SCRS events.

Other impressive things on Toby’s resume include his roles as co-chairman of the Write it Right Committee and an induction into the Hall of Eagles in 2003.

Toby loves being able to teach someone and then watch him or her excel, he said.

“It all comes down to how to make a good weld each and every time. I am still doing it today, and I never tire of it. I have a lot of good friends who passed one of my tests 10 years ago.”

His teaching style has never changed, he said.

“I learned how to simplify things so that people can absorb the information more easily, and I also try to make it fun. Early on, I could see that I was connecting with them because they could see that I really cared. After a while, I figured that I can teach someone how to weld in 20 minutes. I have a knack for this, plus I love it!”

After visiting more than 5,000 shops and teaching more than 100,000 students, Toby now has former I-CAR students all over the country.

“People come up to me all the time and tell me that I taught them how to weld. Two weeks ago, a guy walked up to me at a Home Depot and said I trained him to weld many years ago. Yes, it is satisfying.”

In addition to his teaching and mentoring, Toby is known for stepping up and helping others when in need. He helped an organization called Camp Make a Dream get a new bus, played a big role in three or four different toy drives at Camp Pendleton, and worked to establish a collision repair tech department at Belmont High School in Los Angeles.

Known as a leading industry writer/columnist for more than two decades, Chess began writing for Autobody News in 2008, with his "Hey Toby!" series, and has written close to 100 articles for the publication since. He covers every aspect of the industry, with a focus on things like paint, parts and procedures. He has also written for Body Shop Business, ABRN and Tire Review, to name a few others.

“I started writing in the late 1990s and I like it,” Chess said. “I write the way I talk and I try to find topics that will provide information and tips that can be used in shops.”

During every step of the way, Toby’s employers have liked his managerial and organizational skills and his “can do” attitude, and it’s conveyed succinctly in the text accompanying a recently established GoFundMe account.

“Always the first to step forward and help others, our industry has the opportunity to pay it forward to our dear friend Toby, who is valiantly battling kidney failure as COVID-19 cripples his teaching schedule,” according to the GoFundMe page established to help him. “Toby is undergoing dialysis three times a week, for four hours per treatment.

"This fund represents a way for an industry that is grateful to recognize a wonderful man for his decades of service and volunteerism. For anyone that has ever been inspired by his words, motivated by his articles, informed by his seminars or videos, or simply touched by his generosity in sharing information.”

As a lifelong giver, Toby was a little uncomfortable about the GoFundMe page at first, but now he has decided to accept it graciously.

“My wife laid it out to me. Why not let someone do something for you and not complain about it? I am so grateful for everyone who has donated, but to be honest---I hope I won’t need the money.”

Read more: Toby Chess Says SOPs, Industry Training & Networking are Key to Body Shops’ Future Success

Ed Attanasio

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

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