Learning From Experience

Nov. 1, 2011
With a grade-school education and some backyard auto repair skills, Richard Lewis worked tirelessly through the ranks of the collision repair industry. Then, he risked it all to open his own shop.

Given the ever-intensifying demands of the collision repair industry—from keeping up with technology to developing more efficient processes—it seems impossible for a man who never even made it through second grade to run a successful body shop. But Richard Lewis, the hardened, no-nonsense 49-year-old owner of Richie’s Collision Center in Hattiesburg, Miss., has spent his life doing the impossible. He doesn’t advise anyone to follow his career path, and he’s anything but boastful about his accomplishments. He says he grew up too fast, and had to work much harder to get where he’s at than if he had stayed in school. “With no education and where I came from, it’s a miracle I got to where I am,” Lewis says. What’s most incredible about Lewis, though, is how you’d never know he was a grade-school dropout. His modern 7,000-square-foot shop’s annual revenue has grown steadily to $800,000 and is on pace to break $1 million next year. Lewis recently purchased another building for a second and third paint booth, and he’s hunting for additional staff to help him keep up with the 10 to 15 cars the shop repairs each week. He’s not a traditional shop owner in many ways, but every strategy he’s put into practice was learned and trial-and-error tested during more than three decades in the business. Today he’s an industry leader in his region, with ample insight gained during his surprising, steady rise to the top.

“Everybody is amazed at him, everybody who has ever worked or gone there.”
    —Tracy Lewis, wife and former colleague of Richard Lewis

A lucky break

Lewis says a lack of parenting caused him to quit school during second grade. Several years later, he started painting houses to help provide for his family. When he wasn’t working, he spent his time piecing together model cars, which sparked an early automotive interest.
By the time he was 14, Lewis had saved enough of his own money for a $250 ’69 Camaro that was in rough shape. With no real bodywork experience, Lewis and a buddy set out to bring the car back to life right there in his family’s driveway. It was then that Lewis realized he had a natural talent for auto restoration. Unfortunately, with no education, he wasn’t able to find a job to apply those skills.

He sold the Camaro, and a few years later bought a ’70 Trans Am, again for $250. He restored it and then borrowed an air gun from a friend, which he used to paint the car in a shed. The metallic red Trans Am turned out nice—nice enough that while Lewis was working at a local carwash, the car impressed an area body shop owner who saw it parked in the lot.

“He came down and saw the car, and gave me a job,” Lewis says. “And the rest is history.”

Lewis spent the next 12 years working in a couple different shops, watching his colleagues, soaking up information and perfecting his trade. He worked in just about every position possible and eventually became an expert in just about all of them. His limited reading, writing and math skills added an extra challenge, he says, but he taught himself how to do what was necessary for each job. 

When the last shop Lewis worked for changed owners, a friend invited him to be a business partner at a new shop. The catch was that the “new” business was a 40-foot by 60-foot compost shed behind two chicken houses. But by this time, Lewis and his friend Tim Graham were confident and well connected in the community, so they ventured out on their own.

Chicken coops and Hurricane Katrina

After scraping out the chicken muck and equipping the shop with used equipment, Lewis and Graham got to work.

The little operation went from generating $2,000 a month in revenue to $7,000 a month in its first year, but the business couldn't grow any more in that space. Lewis says the shop’s inconvenient location was not appealing to customers or insurers. Aside from being directly behind chicken houses, an incinerator for dead chickens was 30 feet away, and customers had to travel a winding dirt road to get there.

“I knew the day a lady stepped out in high-heel shoes and mud was getting in her toes, I knew right then that we were never going to get any bigger there,” Lewis says. “She never came back.” Success required relocation.

Lewis opted to launch his current business, Richie’s Collision Center, on his own in 2005. That might not have happened if not for the most devastating storm in U.S. history, hurricane Katrina, which hit as he was hunting for financing. With roughly $16,000 in insurance funding from storm damage to his home, plus a $20,000 loan from a local doctor who had his plane painted by Lewis, the shop operator cleared a plot of his own property and a purchased a metal building.

“[The doctor] believed in Richie and what an honest and hard working person he was,” says Tracy Lewis, Richard Lewis’ wife, who until recently worked in administrative support for the shop.

Tracy Lewis’ father and Richard Lewis assembled and equipped the metal building entirely on their own in 30 days. Money was tight at the time—to make ends meet prior to the new shop's launch, Richard Lewis had to sell his truck.

But because of Katrina, business started flowing into the new facility immediately after the doors opened. Volume has stayed high since, and today it’s too much for the shop’s seven employees to handle, Richard Lewis says.

He’s hoping to hire more staff so he can stop being so involved in the day-to-day operations of his shop. He’s working long hours and is still involved in all aspects of the business—and still shocking anyone who learns of his background. Tracy Lewis says she thinks her husband has always felt he has something to prove, so he’s spent his life going above and beyond expectations.

“Everybody is amazed at him, everybody who has ever worked or gone there,” she says. “The way he figures out money or numbers, the way he knows how much everything is going to cost, it blows people away.”

Richard Lewis says he’s never found time to complete the education he missed out on as a child. He guesses his shop would be even better if he had.

”I’m happy,” he says. “I just wish I could go back to when I was a kid and get an education. I look at myself as being 20 years behind everyone else. Not having an education really puts a handicap on you, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be successful.”

The strategies that helped Richard Lewis build a body shop business from scratch.

• Commitment to quality. When it comes to making repairs right, Lewis has never cut a corner. His commitment has paid off in customer referrals. For example: A local paintless dent-removal company that had worked with Lewis referred a Toyota dealership to him when he was doing business behind chicken houses (see main story). Lewis’ high standards for repairs earned him an exclusive relationship with that dealer—never mind the coops.

• Finding talent in unconventional places. Because of his background (see main story), Lewis knows there are plenty of talented individuals who might not have the credentials needed to get a job. He has a general maintenance employee who served 15 years in prison. Another recent hire is a laid-off iron worker. Lewis says he cares more about an eagerness to do good work and learn than about certifications. “I’ve hired guys with all the I-CAR certifications, but they’ve worked for so long and got such bad habits that it’s hard to break them from that,” Lewis says. “I’m willing to get out there and find someone who is willing to work hard. I’m not hunting for a bodyman from another shop, I’m hunting for a guy I can train.”

• Emphasis on continuous education. Lewis might have missed a lot of school, but the value of education is not lost on him. Lewis makes sure that he and his employees receive all the education they need to be up to speed on the latest collision repair technologies and procedures. His goal is to get his entire staff certified in Toyota repairs. 

• Dedication to customer service. Lewis says he does whatever it takes to satisfy a customer, such as onsite estimates, and fixing squeaks and rattles for free. He guarantees his work for life and will repair a previously fixed area for free within a three-year time period if it develops a flaw. For instance, a customer might return with rock chips in a paint job his shop sprayed; he’ll touch it up without argument. The extra work is worth the praise it earns his shop, he says.

• Investment in equipment. Lewis is quick to purchase new equipment if it will help his employees do a better job. He has a modern computer-based management system, a downdraft paint booth, and other up-to-date equipment. He still has a frame rack from the chicken house days, which he lovingly calls the dinosaur, but the other used equipment is gone. A new, 4,000-square-foot building will house two more paint booths to improve efficiency.

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