Dare to be Different

July 1, 2011
Amato’s Auto Body doesn’t look anything like a collision repair facility—and that’s exactly the point.

Driving by Amato’s Auto Body in San Diego, it’s unclear exactly what the place is.

The cream Art Deco building, which features green, yellow and black accents, offers no prominent signage beyond owner Paul Amato’s last name in a neat black script. The facility looks like a vintage movie theater or restaurant and passersby often mistake it for one of the two.

Most shop owners positioned next to a freeway that sees 300,000 vehicles a day would think it’s crazy not to advertise their shop’s services, but Amato thinks differently. Relying on quality work, customer referrals and an Art Deco–themed facility unlike any other, his 15,000-square-foot shop manages to pull in 125 cars a month and $6.5 million in annual revenue, with zero insurance relationships.

“I wanted to stand alone, to be different,” Amato says of his vision for the shop. “We don’t need a fishbowl and plaques on the wall. We want people to come in the building and say, ‘This is really cool.’”

A gradual move

Amato, 53, started doing collision work in the mid-1980s, after a stint in vehicle restoration.

Back then he owned a more traditional-looking shop in an industrial area just down the street from his current location. He saw the new building, a former warehouse on a one-acre plot, on his way to work one day and quickly recognized its potential. He bought it for $1 million, picked up another nearby plot for the same price and moved in 1997.

By that time, Amato’s had honed in on European vehicle repairs, which it still specializes in today. The shop is certified in Mercedes, BMW, Porsche, Audi, Aston Martin and Volkswagen. Small vinyl letters on the front door advertise those certifications, which are the only indication of what goes on inside the business.

A reflection of clients

Amato had to fully retrofit the new building, which he says only had enough electricity to power three light bulbs, for collision repair. The back of the shop received paint booths, work bays and traditional repair equipment, but Amato decided to have fun with the front office.

Inspired by his love of 1930s automobiles and art, he opted for an Art Deco theme, both inside and out. The exterior design was already perfect and only required paint (Amato also planted some palm trees), but inside, he wanted to use as much authentic Art Deco decor as possible. He scoured eBay for original items from the era, creating a classy design that he says serves as a reflection of his affluent clientele.

When customers enter, they see an antique chandelier shipped from New York, vintage red theater seats, original paintings and newspapers from the 1930s, several period-correct desks, and a continuation of the green, yellow and black paint scheme. The theme carries into the bathrooms with antique sinks and soap dispensers and tile work done in 1930s designs. About the only items not from or reflective of the 1930s are the shop’s computers and a few iPads offered as a modern convenience for customers.

And the theme extends beyond the building. The shop’s website opens with a slideshow of artwork, mixed with the words “art,” “passion” and “precision.” The words then align to form the shop’s motto: “When art, passion and precision collide.”

Amato estimates he spent around $50,000 on his facility’s décor, but some of it was a bargain. One of his paintings, bought for $150, was appraised at $12,000. He sold a duplicate of another piece of artwork to an enthusiastic customer for a profit.

“People come in and take pictures. They are very, very surprised,” Amato says of his creation, which he thinks has contributed significantly to the success of his business.

After working in his unique facility for more than a decade, Amato says he’s learned a couple of things:

Customers need the wow factor. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it drops jaws, Amato says.

“My wow factor is all art deco,” he says. “You could have a downstairs office full of sports stuff, just something to make you stand out. You don’t want to be the typical body shop down the road.”

Amato’s closing ratio is 80 percent and all of his customers are walk-ins. Most of the traffic comes from customer referrals.

Sometimes it’s OK to break the rules. Omitting his business’s identity from its exterior signage goes against basic branding strategies, but Amato does it on purpose.

Because he serves a specific niche, doesn’t repair cars older than five years and is already at capacity, he doesn’t want the nearby heavy freeway traffic to recognize he’s a body shop. Getting swamped with customers he couldn’t serve would only be a time-suck for staff, he says.

“We tried to portray it that way so we don’t have people driving by for estimates,” Amato says.

It’s all in the details. Amato suspects his dedication to the Art Deco theme shows customers his eye for detail, an important trait to have when repairing six-figure vehicles.

He also caters to his customers’ tastes in often overlooked areas, such as publication offerings in the lobby. He provides The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and several fashion and food magazines, which customers have appreciated.

And when clients come to pick up a car, the women get flowers and men get Swiss Army keychain knives. Owners of more expensive vehicles receive a laminated business card for a local dent puller, who will take care of one ding for free.

Anyone who comes in for an estimate receives a free reusable grocery bag.

A team effort

Amato’s Body Shop employs 40 people working two shifts.

It’s also a family operation. Amato’s mother, Terry Amato, answers phones four days a week, his wife, Louise Amato, runs the books and brother Chris Amato works as the shop foreman.

Though the staff doesn’t dress in 1930s attire, they do maintain a business-casual look up front and uniforms in back. Customers are paired with front office staff based on their insurance company and they deal with that same employee throughout the repair.

Tours of the entire facility are offered, even though the only Art Deco feature on the shop floor is a row of theater seats for techs. The repair space is kept clean and neat.

“When you walk into a shop that’s organized, clean and professional, that puts you at ease,” says Chris Amato. “When you work on $100,000 cars, you need a clean facility that looks professional.”

He calls the business as a whole the Nordstrom of collision repair facilities because of how it stands out from other shops in the area. Amato’s has about 30 shops within a five-mile radius, five of which repair the same types of vehicles.

Amato’s has managed to hold its own in the competitive market and Paul Amato plans to continue doing so with only one change: the addition of an old-fashioned mural on the side of his building. It might even include the full name of his business, not that he’s ever needed it.

“There’s not a body shop in the country that’s built like mine,” he says. “No way.”

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