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The Innovator

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Auto Kraft Body & Paint may be one of the few shops in Nebraska—and even in the country—where people might stop by just to take a look at what’s on the rack.

Owner Doug Kielian does a fair amount of standard collision repair and paint jobs, but on any given day, there might also be a Triumph GT-6 that got banged up in the Vintage Alpha Road Race, or a 1971 Porsche 911 that’s riddled with rust. He’s even taken on the challenge of restoring a 1931 Oldsmobile, right down to putting in mohair upholstery.

Creating a healthy business in the smaller market of Lincoln, Neb., requires a high level of diversification, Kielian has found, leading him to work on race cars, hot rods, custom built cars and trucks, and vintage cars from every era. But part of his leaning toward this diversity comes not just from a solid revenue-generating strategy; he also does it for the sheer joy of the craft.

Kielian caught the car restoration bug at an early age, helping his brothers to restore a 1966 Mustang years before he was old enough to drive the finished product. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” he recalls. “But, for a 13-year-old kid, I think I did a pretty nice job.”

While standing outside an old body shop that had the Mustang in the paint booth, Kielian realized he was hooked on fixing old cars: “I was so thrilled, and I knew that was what I wanted to do for a living.” Three decades later, he’s still got that excitement whenever a Mustang or El Camino rolls into the shop, and the fact that his passion also fuels success for the shop makes it even sweeter.

Business Evolution

Kielian did his first insurance repair job when he was 16 years old, after his sister got into a minor accident. The insurance company needed to write the check out to a shop, and Kielian’s father quickly told them to pay “Doug’s Auto Body,” since the teenager would be doing the repairs.

His first official shop, though, was started just out of high school with a partner, and when conflicts arose, he switched to working at a dealership, which didn’t suit his entrepreneurial style. Eventually, in 1990, he opened Auto Kraft in Lincoln, and a few years later bought the 4,000-square-foot building that’s still the shop’s home.

Although the shop is on the small side and there are competitors in the area, Kielian is an optimist, believing there’s always enough work to go around when it comes to standard repair jobs. Still, in his business he’s not relying just on collision work.

“I’m not a guy that’s just after the numbers,” he says. “I started to take on more restoration jobs, and as the value of classic cars started climbing, there were more and more people with an interest in vintage cars.” In other words, he lucked out—what he started doing for the love of the work turned into a nice revenue generator.

When customers bring in one of these types of vehicles, he dubs them “Classic Car Heroes,” and talks to them about how they’re saving a part of automotive history. That tends to make it easier for them to write the check, he’s observed.

An Inventive Idea

Kielian has also created an additional revenue stream through sales of a new product. The Roller Hoop, a system invented and designed by Kielian that allows a frame to sit within two large hoops, and be turned like a rotisserie chicken (rollerhoop.com). Technicians don’t have to crawl under cars, and can work on a roof with much more ease. The hoops ride on four roller wheels in the base units, with four foot-operated brakes for control.

“Basically, it just makes it less stressful to restore a car,” says Kielian. Younger technicians in particular seem to really enjoy using the Roller Hoop, he adds, and that attracts more of them to come to Auto Kraft for training.

Another advantage is in developing fresh craftsmen for both collision repair and restoration. Over the past 18 years, Kielian has trained dozens of technicians, and at least five of them have gone on to have their own shops. Kielian doesn’t feel threatened, though: “It makes a guy feel a sense of accomplishment, to see this fresh talent come in as floor sweepers and work their way up to having their own places.”

The Road Ahead

In terms of the future, Kielian is open to seeing what comes next, and isn’t in much of a hurry to set any ambitious goals for growth. Although he has fewer employees now than in the past—Kielian’s wife does the books and the shop has one other employee—there are no aggressive plans to add another technician or open another location.

“I’d like to try and take all my experiences, wad them all together, and throw them back out on the table to see what comes up,” he says. “Probably, we’ll stick with the basics, because I’ll never change who I am.”

That means more classic cars and hot rods are likely to roll in for repairs and painting, and that tends to attract young technicians for both restoration and collision, so the training is also likely to continue.

Kielian would like to start a formal program in metalworking, custom car building and classic restorations, and eventually, turn the shop from a repair facility into a training facility. The Roller Hoop has been drawing attention, and Kielian believes it could play a major role going forward. Until then, he’s happy just to keep seeing the Mustangs, Corvettes and Triumphs rolling onto the hoops.

Elizabeth Millard is a frequent contributor to FenderBender. Last month she wrote about Rich’s Autobody in Asbury Park, N.J.

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