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The Thrill of the Underdog

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In Wendy and Russell Kelly’s 24 years of marriage, they had frequently talked about opening a collision shop of their own. They were ambitious, and drawn to the idea of entrepreneurship. Plus, Russell had worked as a collision repair painter for 25 years and had served as a sales representative for several paint companies. Wendy, who worked as a dietician, had a knack for connecting with people and coming up with creative marketing strategies.

“We had talked about opening up our own body shop, not ever anticipating or knowing we would actually take the leap and do this,” Wendy says. “In 2008, when the economy was so bad, we did decide that we would go ahead and do it.”

The Kellys felt like the time was right. They could shine when everyone else was fading, they thought. They were confident they had the skills to win business from both customers and insurance companies. So Kelly Collision, in Anderson, S.C., was born. 

And through quality work, stellar customer service, and a grassroots approach to marketing, the Kellys’ efforts have yielded big rewards. Their revenue was just under $300,000 in 2010, and it more than doubled by 2011. They expect 2012 to be their first $1 million year.

“A lot of people were very negative,” Wendy says, recalling that people gave the shop three to six months when it first opened. The odds were not in their favor.

“We have definitely proved them wrong,” she says. “We were hoping that the customers would put their trust in us. They certainly have.”

Sending a Message

Wendy says word of mouth is the most powerful marketing tool a shop can use—and it’s what launched their business, aside from just about all of the cash in the couple’s savings account. 

“When customers get a good product and you stand behind your work, they tell everybody,” she says.

It took time to build the business to where it’s at today. Wendy jokes that the only cars they had at the shop when it opened in November 2008 were their own.

By day, she worked as a dietitian as Russell manned the shop alone. After work she washed cars, did paperwork, swept floors, cleaned the bathroom, and put her mind to marketing efforts.

“We were telling everybody, printing T-shirts, giving away bottled water, getting the word out,” Wendy says. “After a month, people that we knew brought their cars in. After a while, after about seven months, we hired a body man.”

Three months after that, they brought on a painter. Word continued to spread.

“Business just started booming, so we started to hire,” she says.

Marketing has been crucial to the Kellys’ success. They now do business with two DRP partners. They also work with four dealerships and a car auction that sends them vehicles.

To get to this place of growth and partnership, Wendy worked persistently to get the shop’s name out in the Anderson community, which has 187,000 residents and five other body shops in a five-mile radius.

Her tactics have been simple but effective. She put the shop’s logo on hot sauce purchased from the grocery store and gifted them to local restaurants, which set them out on tables. She distributed water bottles and T-shirts with the shop’s name on them and at local events. The Kellys left business cards on everything they could.

“A logo means everything. Like Coke or Pepsi, if [customers] see it enough, they’ll remember you,” Wendy says. “You become a household name. That’s what I’m after.”

Wendy also kept visiting dealerships and insurance companies with goodies on hand—like donuts, cake, cookies, coffee and bags of M&Ms, as well as lunches, such as fried chicken club sandwiches and lasagna, just to keep the shop top-of-mind.

To retain every customer that came through the door, the Kellys sent hand-written thank-you notes after each repair, and Christmas cards to anyone they worked with in a given year—business partners and customers.

The couple spends about $7,000 to $8,000 per year on marketing, and they believe their methods—along with quality work and great customer service—help them more than traditional advertising. They chose not to use radio, newspaper or billboard advertising, as it was too expensive. Their grassroots efforts have achieved the customer contact they’re looking for at a fraction of the cost, they say.

Russell attributes much of the shop’s growth to Wendy’s efforts, though his attention to detail and commitment to quality have helped win over customers once they’re in the shop.

“She’s got a great marketing skill,” Russell says of his wife. “I think she’s real creative when it comes to stuff like that.”

A Leap of Faith

The Kellys took a great risk when they decided to open their shop. When the economy fell apart, they couldn’t get a business loan—no one could. They took a small equity loan of $6,000 to pay for basic business costs including rent, and used tools from their garage at home. They couldn’t even afford to buy a frame machine at first. They borrowed money against one of their personal vehicles and bought a paint booth with it.

When they opened their doors, they had just $2,000 in their business checking account.

“When we decided to open this, we basically knew that we were going to go from two incomes to one,” Wendy says. “It was very scary to take this plunge financially. We used the money that we had, tightened our belts with our personal ventures, and put it all here.”

FAST GROWTH: Kelly collision jumped from a one-man operation to a staff of eight in less than five years. The company is still moving up and plans to expand to new locations. Photo by Brad Forth.

The Kellys have a strong personal faith that they also attribute to their success—in addition to their marketing efforts and dedication to quality. Wendy says there were some days when they were nervous and felt uncertain about the future. “Business kept growing,” she says. “We pulled through the nervous feelings.”

Russell says success often requires taking risks. Wendy says being a successful entrepreneur is worth it.

“With owning a business, you never give up. It is a constant, ongoing challenge every day, and that’s something that Russell and I realized real quick,” she says. “If we don’t change with the times, then our business will not grow.”

Wendy says the goal is to keep growing—and quickly. Within the next three years, she hopes they can add two or three more locations.

“There’s no time like the present,” she says.

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