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Thriving in the Garden State

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To those who aren’t from New Jersey, Asbury Park is perhaps best known as Bruce Springsteen’s hometown, and many probably picture a blue-collar area where life may be gritty, but at least it’s honest. But the truth, unfortunately, has been darker in the past few decades.
Once a thriving tourist destination, with a busy boardwalk section and frequent visits from celebrities, the town suffered through numerous riots in the 1970s that left it stripped and devastated. Subsequent economic difficulties brought poverty, and in turn, that brought crime.
So, when Rich and Deanna Crompton decided to open an auto body shop in 1982, it wasn’t exactly perfect timing. Although Rich quickly built up a customer base, the declining reputation of Asbury Park and the rise of DRP shops made the early years—and some of the recent years, too—tough going.

Now, in its 26th year, a long customer list and familiarity with a wide variety of collision work are keeping the shop strong, but there are still numerous challenges, such as convincing customers to come into what they’ve heard is a “bad part of town,” and a very slow local economic rebound.

“Neither of us wants to sacrifice the quality of our work for an insurance company that doesn’t have the same high standards that we do.”
-Rich Crompton, Co-Owner, Rich's Body Shop

But there are successes as well, Rich notes, and after two and a half decades, he values customer loyalty and doesn’t mind his shop staying at its current size.

“I’m very comfortable with the size we’re at, because I’m able to manage everything without a lot of stress,” he says. “We’re staying busy, and with the economy getting slower, and the insurance companies pushing all their customers to DRP shops, staying steady is an accomplishment. But, of course, it would be nice to get even busier.”

A ROUGH START

With an interest in cars since he was a kid, Rich was a natural fit for helping out in his brother-in-law’s auto body shop during high school. The business was in Asbury Park, and although there was turbulence and crime at the time, Rich was removed from it, building his repair and collision skills instead.

After graduating from school, he worked at a few dealerships, then small collision shops, but the money wasn’t exactly stellar, so he moved into an independent arrangement, where shops would pay him for piecework.
“Growing up, I always wanted my own shop,” he recalls. “Working for dealerships and different people just made that more and more clear. I wanted to do things my own way.”

While working at a dealership and doing side work in 1982 in a building owned by a friend, Rich had the opportunity to fulfill that teenage dream of having his own place. The friend offered to rent him half the building, and Rich’s Auto Body was born. A few years later, another opportunity came, but at a very high price. The friend, only 38 years old, was struck with cancer and passed away. His widow offered Rich and Deanna first crack at buying the whole building, and they took the plunge.

“Although there were the riots in the ’70s, at the time we bought the business in 1985, Asbury Park was still doing okay,” he says. “The bars and places along the beachfront were open, so we’d come in after the weekend and there was a lot of collision work.”
At the time, there were nine collision repair shops doing regular towing, and despite the competition, Rich’s Auto Body was building its customer base. But economic decline began to take its toll.

“The whole town became desolate, and pretty soon there were only two shops left that were doing any towing,” he says. “It was a struggle.”
Although some shops didn’t tow, they did draw in customers. Rich notes that there have always been about nine to 10 competitors in the immediate area through the past few decades, and when one closes, a new one opens up not long afterward. Currently, there are three large DRP shops in the area, although two have just been sold and their future remains uncertain.

But Geico has just come into town with a collision repair shop, and Rich believes that, yet again, he’ll have to do his best against challenging conditions.

Staying Strong

Through all the upheaval, Rich’s Auto Body has remained in the same 4,000-square-foot building with some of the same employees it’s had all these years. Deanna has run the office for 22 years. Of the shop’s six other employees, one painter has been there for 22 years as well, and another painter has stayed for 10 years.

That consistency has been important, Rich notes, but the most vital aspect of the shop has been its steady reliance on a fast turnaround and quality work.

“If we didn’t do good work, we wouldn’t have a customer for very long,” he says. “We’ve built a big referral business based on quality. That’s all you can do.”

Over the years, the town’s economic trouble caused many talented potential employees to leave soon after high school, and when a savvy painter or technician does appear on the scene, there’s intense competition among the shops.

“There’s definitely a lack of talent in the area,” Rich says. “A kid can get a job working at a fast food place instead, and won’t have to put in the kind of hard work required to learn the trade. They have to start at the bottom, for $10 an hour, and I think that scares a lot of them away.”

To deal with the scarcity of talent, Rich prefers to keep his employee numbers small rather than aim for growth. Thriving as a small shop makes far more sense than struggling as a large one, he believes.

“The guys I have, they’ve been with me for so long that they know exactly what I’m looking for with every type of job,” he says. “They know what needs to be done.”

Part of that expertise and knowledge comes from regular I-CAR training. Rich’s is an I-CAR Gold Class shop as a result. One of the technicians has I-CAR Platinum status.

Another major advantage for Rich’s Auto Body is Deanna, who is adept at handling all the details of the business, he says. The pair has a rule that they can’t talk about business over the dinner table, but both admit that doesn’t always work. However, the partnership does.

The Growth Factor

In the future, one major growth driver may come not from inside Rich’s shop, but from the city itself. New development efforts are underway, particularly around the oceanfront area, and the Chamber of Commerce is making a major push toward boosting tourism. The police department has added officers, new restaurants are popping up, and condos are being built that could attract more well-to-do residents. As a result, crime is decreasing, although Rich notes that occasionally he still has to convince nervous customers that he’s not in a shady part of town. With Asbury Park coming into a turnaround, though, he’s hopeful that the number of those calls will decrease.

As the town becomes stronger, Rich’s is likely to see more growth as well, but that doesn’t mean that Rich expects to get a boost of DRP business in the future. Currently, he writes for only one insurance firm, the New Jersey Manufacturer’s Insurance Company, because he believes the insurer really looks out for its customers.

For example, on one job, Rich noted that a small nick had been taken out of a wheel, but that after the repair, there was no reason to replace the wheel. When he told the insurance company, the rep said to replace it anyway. “They didn’t want that wheel on the car, and I feel like any other insurance company I’ve dealt with would never make that particular decision,” he says.

With other insurance companies, Rich is a bit of a bulldog, he admits: “I fight them all the time over the proper way to repair a vehicle and the proper parts to use.” Then, he gives a little chuckle. “But Deanna fights a little better than I do, and she does more of it. Neither of us wants to sacrifice the quality of our work for an insurance company that doesn’t have the same high standards that we do.”

Treating Customers Right

Even though Rich’s Auto Body isn’t going after more DRP business, the Cromptons use some fresh marketing strategies that they hope will boost the number of cars and trucks coming in for repair.

The shop already puts “goodie bags” into every car when the job’s done, Deanna says, and these have included items like water bottles and coffee cups with the shop’s logo, and they’re constantly thinking about new products to include. The bags are very well received; customers think they’re a nice touch. Deanna also sends out thank-you notes and encourages customers to call with any kind of feedback, and the shop provides free car washes after all repairs.

But with Geico and Progressive coming in strong, the Cromptons have had to step up their consumer awareness efforts. Deanna recently sent a note to a local congressman, who happens to be a Rich’s customer, letting him know about DRP and steering. Rich’s has also started doing radio commercials for the first time, letting customers know that they have the right to go to whatever shop they want. Printed flyers in community-oriented places like gyms and churches are also helping to drum up new business, Deanna noted, but like any new effort, it will take time.

Also likely to be more prominent in the future is a new referral program, in which customers receive gift certificates for local restaurants when they refer new customers.

“So far, it seems to be working, and we’re staying steady,” she says. “We’ve talked to others in the area that have businesses in other industries and they’re seeing a slowdown, so we’re not taking the lack of growth personally.”

While Rich and Deanna wait to see how their strategies work in the long-term, they feel confident that they can survive this economic downturn, as well as the next.

“The number one reason that we’ve been able to go up against the biggest DRP shops and not close our doors is that if people want the job done right, they come to Rich’s,” says Deanna. “There are people here who care about their cars, and they all know Rich’s because we’ve been around for so long and we do quality work. That’s what makes all the difference.”
 

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