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Rebuilding from a Fire

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Every New Year brings the promise of a new beginning and a chance to do things differently. For Dave Wierer, 2009 brought such a fresh start to his business, Dave’s Auto Body, in a most unexpected—and unwanted—way.

On the bitterly cold morning of Sunday, January 4, Wierer was spending a lazy morning in bed, enjoying the last day of a long holiday weekend, when the phone rang. “Are you the owner of Dave’s Auto Body?” It was the Ashwaubenon, Wis., fire department. A hunk of ice from a storm the night before had slid off the roof of his shop and sheared the natural gas line. Dave’s Auto Body, which had been in business since 1983, was on fire.

Wierer raced to the shop, and was relieved to see no visible damage, although smoke was pouring out of the building. He called his wife, Jeanette, and told her he’d likely be home in an hour. “It doesn’t look that bad,” he told her. But looks, in this case, were deceiving: The shop’s polyurethane insulation had caught fire, and it was spreading fast. To contain it, the parts of the building that hadn’t already burned had to be demolished. When the smoke cleared, 16 vehicles, most of the shop’s equipment, and the entire 10,800-square-foot building had been destroyed.

A SPARK OF HOPE

Ask someone who’s just lost his shop to a fire what he’s feeling, and the reaction might not be printable. Not so with Wierer. “I was very positive, right from the start,” he insists. “God gave us this fire because we could handle it. We were well-insured, and we had people to support us. I knew that I was going to be fine.”

That optimism served Wierer and his 10 employees well during the immediate aftermath of the disaster. When his staff came to the shop on the day of the fire wondering, ‘Do I have a job?’ he reassured them that he wasn’t going to collect the insurance money and retire to Florida—“although my [aching] back sometimes says I should have,” he says with a laugh.

“Dave’s optimism rubbed off on everyone else,” says Jessica Wierer, Dave’s daughter and the office manager of Dave’s Auto Body. “We knew we’d have jobs, and have something better than before.”

Even before the fire, Wierer had a do-what-it-takes attitude toward growing his business. He moved and expanded his space twice before the fire, added heavy trucks to his repair roster, and in 2002 began buying “builders” from insurance company auctions and repairing and selling them through Dave’s Auto Resale as a way to keep his techs busy. In 2008, including car sales, his business grossed more than $2 million.

So on Tuesday, January 6, last year, Wierer and his staff began the process of starting over—clearing out anything that could be salvaged from the remains of the old building and making the necessary phone calls to customers. (Thankfully, just two of the destroyed vehicles belonged to private customers; the rest were Dave’s own builders or dealership vehicles. Still, “those weren’t pleasant calls to make,” Wierer says.)

Fortuitously, Wierer was offered a rental building just down the street from his original shop location, and was back in business within seven workdays. Fast action from his insurance company helped—Wierer had a check in hand by Wednesday—as did assistance from local businesses: While Wierer had been able to save his frame racks, he needed to quickly buy other necessary equipment, such as a spray booth/prep station combo, and rent other items, such as an air compressor.“If we’d been out of business for the seven months it took us to rebuild, we’d be out of business,” he says.

“We were always on the next page,” Jessica Wierer says, “[asking] what are we going to do next? How are we going to get there?”

BUILDING A NEW BEGINNING

With Dave’s Auto Body back in business in a temporary site, the next step for Wierer was to rebuild the shop’s permanent home. Four design firms bid on the project, and Wierer sent the winning bid to nine construction companies before finally signing a contract on March 12.

“It was a real rough nine weeks,” he says of the bidding process. “Lots of plans were thrown away, there was a lot of redesigning and lots of meetings—and I was running my business at the same time.” Construction began in April, and was completed in August.
For Wierer, the headaches were mitigated by the fact that he had the opportunity to build his dream shop—and remedy all the little design-related annoyances that were apparent in the old space. “It opened up a new avenue for me to design the place the way “Dave” wanted it,” he says. Some of the transformations he made include:
• Using the space more efficiently. “In the old building, we had to go outside to make left turns,” Wierer says. “And if you know Wisconsin, if a car that’s all masked up runs into a snow bank, or a rainstorm, you end up redoing a lot of the work. It’s not very efficient.” The new building is U-shaped inside to accommodate left turns.
• Adding square footage. Wierer increased the size of the building by 1,200 square feet (bringing the total to 12,000 square feet), and much of that increase is in the repair area. The increase allowed him to grow from eight stalls to 12 and keep more cars under the roof—a bonus when it’s 20 degrees below zero outside.
• Creating a dedicated area for parts. In the old building, there was no room for a parts room, Wierer says. In the new space, there’s a two-story parts room. “Everything is right there,” he says. “We can have the parts delivery guys put things on specific shelves. We deal with a lot more parts than we did in years gone by, and to have everything in a designated area, it’s just more efficient.”

The rebuilding process also led to an evolution in Wierer’s management style. Jessica Wierer and another employee are planning to take over the business when Dave retires. That prompted Dave Wierer to take a more collaborative approach than he might have otherwise in designing the new building. “It was a combined effort,” he says. “I got my people involved, and I think that led to a stronger relationship with my employees.”

Wierer held informal meetings where his employees could look at the design plan and offer their input—What’s wrong here? What could be changed? What do we want to do differently? It was an employee’s suggestion to angle the parking stalls in order to better use the body shop space, he says, and employees who helped decide everything from the location of the electrical outlets to where the shelving should be placed.

As a result, Wierer feels that his employees are more company-minded. “It’s their shop now, not Dave’s,” he says. “They were involved in the planning process, they have a new shop to work in that’s clean and bright, and it’s designed to do what they do every day.”

GETTING VENDOR INPUT

Beyond the design of the new shop, a crucial issue was what to put in it, given the need for almost all new equipment. Wierer had salvaged two frame racks from the original shop, but ultimately bought a downdraft booth, two MIG welders and paint mixing equipment.
Wierer collected quotes from a half-dozen different companies and relied on assistance from his paint supplier, Auto Paint Specialists, as well as distributor rep Bill Reese, owner of Central States Spray Booth Systems Inc. in guiding his choices.

When it came to purchasing a new booth, Wierer chose a top-of-the-line model from Spray-Tech: The Premier Down Draft booth with Junair’s patented QADs auxiliary air movement system, which supplies additional air flow from the intake plenum and distributes it from the corners of the booth and, according to Spray-Tech, can reduce cycle times by 35 percent and reduce energy costs by up to 40 percent. (The booth goes into a lower-energy “rest” mode if the trigger of the spray gun isn’t pulled for 10 minutes, explains Steve Boda, national sales manager for Spray-Tech.)

Thanks to those potential savings, Reese believes that Wierer could realistically recoup his investment in the booth in less than five years. Wierer, for his part, says he hasn’t started measuring his energy savings yet, but is happy with his purchase: “I think I got a good quality booth for a good price,” he says.

The new booth is also waterborne-ready, although Wierer is still spraying solvent-based paint. Given all the changes taking place in his shop, his paint supplier recommended waiting until he was able to focus on implementing waterborne paints most effectively.
Reese worked carefully with Wierer’s contractor to make sure the booth fit into the rebuilt shop, a process that is helped by Reese’s 22 years of industry experience, as well as “asking a lot of questions and trying to get an understanding of what the customer is trying to accomplish—and where he sees his equipment going into his shop. You take into consideration flow: How will cars move around in his shop—specifically the paint department—and where would a large object like a spray booth go best into his shop?” he says.

ABRIGHT FUTURE

One year later, Wierer is as optimistic as ever about the state of his business and its future. The legacy he plans to leave for his daughter is intact. He still loves coming to work each day. He has a beautiful new facility, and the happy knowledge that his employees and customers are loyal. From the ashes of disaster, Dave’s Auto Body has risen, transformed. And, Wierer says, “I believe I’m a stronger business because of it.”

Erika Rasmusson Janes writes frequently for FenderBender.
 

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