Forging Steele

March 1, 2013
The story behind Steele Auto Body, the collision repair business that helped fulfill all of Bill Steele’s custom ambitions.

Bill Steele is known for turning vehicles into artwork. 

“I’ve always thought that you can just take something that is plain Jane and ordinary—if you just change the color on it and do the right color—you can make it really stand out in a crowd,” Steele says. “For me … that was something I could do.” 

But before the glossed hot rods on pedestals, before the awards, before Steele Kustoms became an industry icon, there was Steele Auto Body Inc. in Oakdale, Pa. Steele grew the hometown shop into a $1 million-plus operation, giving him the financial freedom to pursue his custom passions. 

“The body shop keeps me financially where I need to be with everything, and the hot rod stuff gives me the fulfillment,” Steele says. 

Steele built his auto body shop drawing on the same skills that have made his custom work famous: detail and discipline. With an unwavering commitment to savings, employee management, customer relations, and most importantly, turning out quality repairs, Steele fostered steady growth, while laying the groundwork for custom notoriety. 

It’s all in the Details

Steele, a technician by trade, is meticulous in his work, whether it’s custom hot rods or standard collision repair. 

“He has a vision in his head, and it has to be the way the vision is in his head. There’s no varying from that,” says Josh Hart, a custom fabricator in Steele’s shop. “And that’s not a bad thing.”

When it came to choosing a color for his Ford Model A (winner of the 2009 Goodguys Hot Rod of the Year award), he wouldn’t settle until he had mixed the right brown.

“I made probably 15 different panels to come up with that color,” Steele says.

 Steele, 42, says that the same commitment to quality in his auto body shop is what brings customers through the door. He often goes the extra inch to stand out.

“[We] clean up marks on one side of the car when we fixed the other side … go out and brush touch a few nicks or something with some extra paint,” Steele says.  “I think that sort of prompted the relationship, the reputation in the area here.”

Steele brings a disciplined approach to his employee management as well, training everyone in the shop to repair vehicles to his standards and holding them to those standards, which turns out a quality repair every time. 

“I wanted the cars to look good,” Steele says. “I didn’t want to try to short cut things. I wanted to do things the right way.”

“Every single car that leaves my shop, I’m the last one to look at it, whether it’s a hot rod or a customer’s collision car,” Steele says. “I’m the last one to look at it before the customer gets called.”

He says that customers know his commitment to their repairs and are willing to travel to receive his quality of work.

“I still have people that drive out of their way out here to have me repair their car,” he says. 

No Stranger to Hard Work

Steele first bought the facility for Steele Auto Body from his mother in 1990. The building used to be the site of his father’s trucking company.

While Steele was looking to get the business going in the early ’90s, he was presented with a unique opportunity. The military needed a painter to work out of a warehouse in Pittsburgh, converting combat vehicles from green to tan camouflage.

And they wanted it done quickly—requiring 12 hours a day, seven days a week for 90 days. Steele heard about the contract through a buddy who worked as a mechanic in the warehouse. With the help of his friend, he applied and got the job. 

“I remember looking out in the yard, where these things were, and there were just tanker trailers as far as you can see,” he says. 

Steele got to work, often painting two or three whole heavy-duty trucks with attached trailers each day. 

“Toward the end of the 90 days—the last three weeks—I remember just working there 12 hours, driving home [with] one eye open basically, falling asleep, then being woken up to go back down there again,” Steele says.  “I mean I was just exhausted.”

But Steele finished the contract and took his payout. (The military offered him $25 an hour, an impressive wage at the time.) He invested the cash in his shop, putting the final touches on his paint booth and purchasing an array of tools. That’s when Steele Auto Body was born. 

Learning Discipline the Hard Way

When the shop first opened its doors in 1993, Steele had humble goals. 

“The first thing that came to my mind was that I wanted to make enough money to be able to have my hot rod,” Steele laughs. 

Like many, Steele came into ownership with no prior business knowledge.

“I knew how to work on the cars,” he says. “I knew about how long it took me to straighten a dent. But book-wise, I wasn’t really good in school.”

Steele soon realized that not every payday should lead to immediate spending. 

“I couldn’t just go out and buy a new TV … or things that I wanted, because I wasn’t to that point yet where I could be comfortable with what was moving through the shop cash-flow-wise.” 

He developed a disciplined strategy to reinvest earnings into the business, never letting his account dip below $10,000, the amount he needed to cover his line of credit with suppliers. 

“I had to really discipline myself, because I was actually making some good money,” Steele says. “So I saved my money. You’ve got to have that little nest egg in the shop.”

Steele also learned the pressures of a customer asking him to shave a few dollars off the price of an estimate.  

“I started realizing, I’m busting my ass, and I’m making the cars really right, Steele says. “I’m the one doing all the work, and the customer wants me to not make much money.” 

Steele became unwavering on prices, confident that his quality of work was worth the estimate. And it paid off.

Gradually, customers started to recognize the value of his repairs. They would tell their friends, and his customer base grew. The first year the shop opened,

Steele did $250,000 in revenue. By ’96, his revenue had climbed to $650,000.

“I didn’t have to short-change myself to make the other customer happy,” he says. 

Steele has always netted between 15 and 20 percent in profit. So as revenue in the collision business gained steam through the late ’90s, he was left with more income to put toward his passion—hot rods. 

“I ended up finding myself going from doing one car every six months to doing two cars every six months to three or four cars every six months.”

The Turning Point

In 1995, Steele took out a $120,000, 15-year loan to add an addition to his shop. With his disciplined savings approach, he paid it off completely by 1999.     
“The body shop was doing well. I was paying all my bills. I was putting some money aside. I was still able to pay the mortgage, pay my insurances, pay all my taxes properly,” Steele says. “I was able to have that feeling of being OK and safe.”

With the loan gone, Steele had more money every month to throw at hot rods, making his custom builds worth more.   

“Because of that money, the hot rod projects started getting more detailed and more elaborate,” Steele says.  “The car that I would be putting back up for sale would be more thought out and have more done to it.” 

With the increasing value of his custom jobs, he opened Steele Kustoms in 2004. Situated in a separate facility next to the auto body shop, it’s a full-fledged business dedicated to fulfilling his passion for building one-of-a-kind hot rods and motorcycles.

“It lets me be creative. … That makes me feel good inside,” Steele says.  “It’s all possible because of the financial side of the collision industry.”