This month, Brown's body shop manager, Joe Hershey, gave me a tour of the store's nearly completed renovation, in a building that was once a movie theater.
Hershey explained the dealership's reasoning behind investing in more bricks and mortar, adding equipment, and increasing headcount and overhead — all at a time when some dealers are turning out the lights on their body shops and sending their customers to national chains, such as Gerber or Service King, or to other dealerships.
Hershey says his store would have lost too much revenue had it balked at remodeling its body shop. Bill Brown was the nation's third-largest Ford brand dealer by sales volume in September, the automaker reports.
"There are a variety of things a large dealership needs a body shop for, even if it doesn't advertise that it is in that business," Hershey says.
He ticks off a few of the reasons: "Brand new cars get scraped up on the lot. Warranty work. Maybe there's a defect in the paint, or maybe a panel is misaligned. Reconditioning used cars. We keep about a hundred trade-ins per month and put them on the used-car lot."
Most of the body shop's revenue comes from fixing wrecked customer cars. Hershey said his shop has averaged between 280 and 300 repair orders a month for much of this year.
This month, the shop had a queue of about 100 vehicles waiting for body repairs. Hershey has kept a shift of painters and service techs working from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. to keep up.
The shop's new layout adds 20 bays, bringing the total to 55. It has a clean-room area for intensive aluminum-specific repairs that require riveting and bonding.
And it has two new paint booths, one of them large enough to handle the biggest Transit van, which is more than 11 feet tall, and the longest F-450 pickup, which stretches more than 22 feet.
By the time you read this, the contractors' work should be finished — final wiring and trim installation were being done during my visit — and the dealership will have completed a project that began three years ago.
Running a body shop is demanding, Hershey says. Customers can be angry and impatient. Insurance companies want repairs done quickly, and they wield a lot of power over the billable items on a ticket.
Because most of the body shop's tech staff is paid on commission, the shop must stay busy. If not, their paychecks will shrink and turnover will increase.
So it's easy to see why some dealers are exiting the body shop business. But Hershey thinks that's a mistake. And I think he's right.
Hershey says the last thing a dealer should do is send his customers to a competitor. "If we go back to asking what is the price of being in the collision business, well, what's the price of not being in it?" he says.
"If you can't take care of a customer and have to send him to another dealership, well, maybe they just cut the lawn, there's fresh coffee and your customer is blown away at how nice the place is," Hershey says. "All of a sudden, maybe they just found a new home. That's not a risk we want to take."
As vehicles grow more expensive and complex, body shops could become more important than ever. Consumers may demand factory-trained hands, using genuine parts, to repair critical electronic safety systems. That's a huge advantage for dealerships to ignore or give away.