Stars, Stripes and Big Rigs

Aug. 1, 2008
Forty years ago, Wayne Abrams launched a one-man autobody shop in a military town. Today he’s tackling buses, trailers, and trucks—for NASCAR drivers, country music singers and the U.S. Army. Here’s his all-American story.

Some people hang photos of their first body shop, as a reminder of how far they’ve come. For Wayne Abrams, that nod toward the past has a bit more weight: a coal stove that used to serve as a paint warmer in the early days. “I show it to my employees sometimes,” he says, laughing. “If they had to work under the conditions I had to, they wouldn’t make it.”

In the last 40 years, operating out of Clarksville, Tenn., Wayne’s Body Shop and Collision Center has gone from a modest, one-man (and one-stove) endeavor to a 24-employee, 60,000-square-foot flurry of activity. The shop paints and repairs about 18 automobiles a week, but also does large tractor trailers and buses, some belonging to country music stars and NASCAR drivers, which takes intensive management strategy to keep the operations running smoothly.

“Always be thinking about the future.
Everything changes. You have to, too.”

Even with the challenges of success, Abrams has always enjoyed his ride into work: “I’m glad to come in every day,” he says. “It’s been really something to see how this shop has changed over the years.”

Early Days: ’60s & ’70s

Abrams’ love of fixing cars started in high school, when he was working at a garage and taking a vocational course in auto repair during school days. He decided to make it his career, but first, he had to give a little time to Uncle Sam.

Clarksville is home to the 101st Airborne Division. So, when Abrams graduated from high school and decided to go into the military, he chose the Army so he could stay close to home and still serve his country. The stint didn’t keep him from car repair, though, since there was a body shop just across the street from the base, and he got a job working there on weekends.

In 1968, just out of the Army, Abrams rented space to try running his own shop, but it wasn’t exactly a joy-filled start to his formidable career. “It was terrible,” he says, “since I was basically working in a 1,500-square-foot unheated barn. In the winter, I used the stove to warm me up just as much as the paint.”

For a while, the only work he got was from the used car lot in town, which tended to be a difficult customer, he notes: “They didn’t want to pay me anything, and they wanted everything the next day. Anyone who’s done used lot work knows that it’s hard to succeed doing only that.”

After a few years of trying to stay warm and arguing with his main customer, Abrams began to pick up insurance clients and other types of work, and finally got to the point where he could hire his first employee in 1976. But the years of working solo had given him a great deal of time to think about expansion plans. He began to feel that while working on cars was interesting, there were bigger rigs to tackle.

Growing Up: ’80s & ’90s

During the 1980s, Wayne’s Body Shop changed location four times, although Abrams continued to keep that rented, drafty barn as an additional workspace until 1988. During those years, he gradually added equipment and employees, building the business slowly but steadily.

Eventually, Abrams felt like he finally had enough economic clout with the bank, and enough business solidity, to make a major change. He bought land and built a $1.2 million, 30,000-square-foot facility, later increasing it to 60,000 square feet.

“I was really sticking my neck out, but I knew I could do it,” he says. “It was a chance to diversify, because I wanted to do more large trucks, buses, and trailers. But to do that, you need the space.”

Not only was he intrigued by the work, but he felt like the geographic location worked in his favor—the closest facility for large trucks was in Nashville, about an hour’s drive away.

Abrams was taking a chance, since it was a classic chicken-or-egg situation about deciding what needed to come first: the space to accommodate a growing list of customers, or actual customers that could help him justify ponying up over a million dollars? Abrams chose the first option, and his leap paid off.

Diversification: 2000s

Not long after building the large shop in 1997, which sports a 75-foot truck paintbooth, Wayne’s Body Shop started picking up work from commercial haulers, and got a major contract with Dollar General. That job resulted in the shop painting over 1,000 trailers over the course of two years.

Interest also came from the 101st Airborne, which first began sending vehicles to the shop in the early ’90s, after the Gulf War. Since army vehicles that have been painted to match the desert landscapes need to turn back to standard olive drab colors when on home soil, the shop has had a steady stream of Army vehicles, about 800 in all.

It wasn’t long before celebrities came calling, too. Country music stars like Alan Jackson, Diamond Rio, and Wynonna Judd started bringing in their tour buses for custom painting, and NASCAR drivers Bobby Hamilton Jr. and Jeff Purvis are also frequent customers.

Because of its strength in the local market, Abrams recently added mechanical repair services in order to be a one-stop- shop for buses, trucks, and trailers. To make the repair process even faster, the shop stocks about $30,000 worth of truck parts in inventory.

“We try to keep the turnaround time on major rebuilds down to a minimum,” notes Tony Rifkin, manager of the truck division. “We’re on a short schedule, so we can get jobs in and out quickly. Because if the truck division isn’t making money, the whole shop isn’t making money.”

The division cycles through about 5 to 10 trailers per week alone, and Rifkin has dedicated a crew just for trailer rebuilds.

“It’s all about happy, well-educated employees,” says Rifkin. “Trucks are more complex than cars when it comes to rebuilds, so you have to be at the top of your game.”

At this point, technicians now handle more trucks than cars. Part of that flip-flop has been because of deployments of Airborne soldiers, resulting in a 27 percent drop in auto body revenue last year. But Abrams doesn’t fret about such declines: “Whenever business is slow with the body shop, the truck business has pulled me through.”

One of the challenges over the years, though, is that building up that part of the business requires equipment that can handle multiple trucks at one time. That means scaffolds, special ladders, and of course, enough paint.

“The tricky part has been the equipment, because if you don’t have the right stuff to work the way you need to, it doesn’t matter how large your facility is,” says Abrams. “But I’ve seen it as an investment, and have added to what we’ve got over the years. I knew early on that I wanted to diversify, so whenever I had a little money, I bought equipment.”

Road Ahead: 2009 and Beyond

In addition to building his business one piece at a time, Abrams has been careful to keep up with what’s happening in the industry, since he believes deeply in keeping pace with shifts and trends.

“The way things are changing, if you don’t keep up on technology, you might as well close your doors,” he says. “Take waterborne paint, for example. That looks like it’s the future, so shops that don’t at least look into using that might be out of luck.”

Abrams extends this type of philosophy to his technicians, he adds, by sending them for regular I-CAR trainings. “Always be thinking about the future,” he says. “Everything changes. You have to, too.”

Through all the years, Abrams has maintained his ambition to build a shop that serves as an all-service facility for large trucks as well as cars, and the addition of mechanical repair has seemed to be the final component.

Now it’s time for grooming the next generation. Abram’s son, Kevin, is now an assistant manager, after having worked at the shop during high school and college. The goal, Abrams notes, is to keep training him until there’s little left for the shop’s founder to do except pursue his hobby.

And what a hobby it is: Abrams is a competitor on the national barbecue circuit, with a rig as tricked out as any NASCAR auto he sees. He’s competed on the Food Network channel and cooked alongside famous chef Bobby Flay, who’s known for his southern dishes and love of grilling.

The body shop’s employees get to enjoy this distinctive passion, too, since Abrams tends to bring in barbecue most Mondays, as a result of competitions or cooking experiments done over the weekend.

With an office lined with barbecue trophies, a steady and growing business, and his son on deck for taking over the business, Abrams feels a long way from those days of warming paint on the coal stove, but his drive to serve his customers will always remain the same, he says. And, much like barbecuing, he sees his daily tasks less as work and more as an avocation.

“It’s never been drudgery, because if you enjoy what you’re doing, that makes any challenge worth it,” he says.

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