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Benefits of Sharing Shop Space

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Anyone who thinks that having roommates only happens during that post-high-school/premarriage time frame should talk to Johnny Webb.

As the owner of Webb’s Auto Body in Grand Junction, Colo., Webb’s been through a number of business shifts in the past two decades. He’s done collision repair out of the same building since 1987, but the working environment in the space has evolved from several employees to a one-man operation.

With so much space, Webb considered moving to a smaller location, before he hit upon a better idea: Just like a guy with an extra bedroom, why not rent it out to a pal? The result: one building, two companies, with Webb on one side and U.S. Glass, an auto glass company, on the other.

“Buildings are expensive around here, and so I thought it made sense to share the space,” he says. “In some ways, it just simplified things for me. I didn’t have to worry about paying all the bills on my own.”

“You have to know the person before you enter into an arrangement like this. To have someone come into your business, and have access to everything, you need to have trust to be able to work well together.” 
—Johnny Webb, owner, Webb’s Auto Body

Getting Together

Webb originally opened the shop with his father, a mechanic. His parents still own the building, since transferring the shop to Webb after his father’s retirement would have resulted in a large tax hit. “It’s kind of an inheritance at this point,” Webb says.

At one point, the busy shop employed 10 people, but as the business climate in the area began to change—causing many shops to close within the past few years—Webb stopped replacing employees who left. He’s never fired anyone, he notes, but through natural attrition, the shop became his alone.

After going through a divorce last year, Webb was eager to make life simpler: “The divorce created a lot of pressure in my personal life, and I just wanted to find a way to do my work on my own and cut down on my overhead. I didn’t want to worry about employees and payroll and taxes, but instead, just concentrate on the jobs coming in.”

He began chatting with longtime friend Urban Sisneros, who had turned his two-car garage into U.S. Glass in 2007. After a few months of that, Sisneros moved onto the campus of the Business Incubator Center, a nonprofit that helps new businesses in the area. When U.S. Glass began to outgrow the space, Sisneros started looking for his own building, but as Webb noted, affordable options were tough to find.

While installing a window at Webb’s shop, Sisneros mentioned the need for more space, and Webb offered the chance to be “roomies.”

Share and Share Alike

Webb’s space is 30 feet wide by 100 feet long, accommodating a paint booth and repair work space. Sisneros gets an equivalent amount of room near the back of the shop, next to the office, where he keeps benches and racks for glass. There’s a framework specialist operating out of a different part of the building, but he doesn’t share space in the same way as Webb and Sisneros.

When Sisneros moved into the space in September 2008, he brought in only one employee, a bookkeeper who did the invoicing and records for both companies. “She rocked,” Webb says. “She kept this company together.”

The bookkeeping expertise was short-lived, however, since Sisneros decided to bring in his stepdaughter instead to answer phones, and to do his own bookkeeping. Webb went back to maintaining his own books and answering his own calls, and now the pair shares only a compressor occasionally.

In terms of splitting finances, utilities and expenses, Webb and Sisneros keep it pretty simple.

Each company pays its own insurance, and Webb covers insurance for the building since Sisneros is a renter. It evens out, though, in their rental rates, since Webb pays $400 per month, and Sisneros pays $800. “It’s still a good deal for him,” he says. “You can’t rent anything around here for that kind of money.”

Sisneros mentions Webb in his radio advertising, although he doesn’t charge Webb for that part of the spots. Webb maintains he doesn’t need the ads anyway. “I’m busy enough,” he says. “Maybe if I had 10 guys like I used to, I’d need to get more business, but for right now, I’m in a good spot.”

Before Sisneros moved in, Webb had figured out a way to split the utilities equitably, with one company paying for heat and lighting, and the other paying for the alarm and cable for the Internet. But since Sisneros is newly married, Webb’s been holding off on actually asking for his share. However, that’s due to change soon.

“The honeymoon’s over,” he jokes. “But, in all seriousness, I remember what it was like when I first started. The first couple years are the hardest. So, I thought I’d help him out a little for his first few months here.”

One thing they happily share, though, is customers. Sisneros has been steadily building his business, repairing four to eight windshields per day. That larger customer base has resulted in some referrals for Webb, and the auto body shop owner is only too happy to return the favor.

“He does good work, so I don’t have a problem telling people to use him, or asking him if he can do work for me,” Webb says.

Making it Work

Just like in traditional roommate setups, not all personalities can sync well together, but Webb and Sisneros had been friends for so long, they felt it was only natural that they could share a space without conflict.

“It kind of makes me feel like I’m 18,” Webb says, laughing. “It’s like when you live with someone and have to figure out how to share your food.”

Although Webb jokes about Sisneros having to adjust to his living style, there are similarities to being real roommates. The pair has to be able to communicate effectively about issues related to the building, and most important, there has to be a high level of trust.

“You have to know the person before you enter into an arrangement like this,” Webb says. “To have someone come into your business, and have access to everything, you need to have trust to be able to work well together.”

For example, he notes, there are only two keys to the building, one for each business owner, and he’s asked Sisneros not to give a key to any future employees, no matter how busy the shop might get. “I have too much money in my tools to take any kind of risk,” Webb says.

Another reason that the relationship has worked so well is that the two companies aren’t in competition, Webb says. If another collision repair or auto body shop had come in, there would be a battle for the same customers, and that would undoubtedly create tension.

Conversely, if a shop that was unrelated to auto work, such as a widget manufacturer, took the space, there wouldn’t be much opportunity to share customers or advertising. With the ability to work on cars jointly, there are more services under one roof, and the sign out front that advertises both companies seems to emphasize that multiservice approach.

But all that togetherness and friendship doesn’t mean that the occasional glitch doesn’t occur, like the minor dustup that was caused by the heat being left on accidentally one night, adding to the utility bill. In general, the pair is still learning how to work around one another.

“It’s like any relationship where you have to learn how another person works, and then it gets easier,” Webb says. “You just use common sense, and show respect for their space, and get the work done.”

Right now, Webb has no plans to invite more shop owners into the space or to hire employees, since he and Sisneros seem to have found a comfortable groove.

“There’s no growth plan. I’ve done that before,” Webb says. “I’ve worked so hard in the past to get employees and build a bigger business, but that’s just not where I’m at right now. I’m happy just to work alone. But it’s nice to have Urban around, too.” 

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