Dave and Cindy Savage expanded their Superior Auto Body business from Eau Claire to Menomonie in 2009, and have seen their business grow at both locations every year.
“We actually hit our record year this last year,” Dave Savage says. “I really believe it was because of the heat. People drive more aggressively when it is so hot.”
So when he started thinking about his next step, Savage evaluated his lease at 2707 Wilson St. in North Menomonie and decided the floor plan was too big and not laid out to maximize efficient operations. The location — north of the new Menomonie Fire Hall and across the railroad tracks from the old Menomonie Depot — was also a little out of the way.
“Cindy and I knew that it was too much building for our size of business,” Savage says. Rich Ellefson, a Menomonie appraiser, was brought into the picture.
“The building on Talen Street just happened to pop up,” Savage says. “We were a little apprehensive. He hooked us up with Steve Faulhaber at Peoples State Bank in Menomonie.”
Over the course of the next six months, they worked with a team of bankers, appraisers and economic development people and came up with a plan to purchase the building at the new location and add a state-of-the-art paint operation.
“We’re hoping with this new location we will be able to employ more people and serve the Dunn County area much better. It’s a smarter move,” Savage says.
The new Menomonie location at 1915 Talen St. sits behind Keyes Chevrolet. “Everyone knows where Keyes Chevrolet is,” Savage says.
The building has been home to Menomonie Car World. The new location is close to the only other large body shop in Menomonie, Quality Auto Body, a business Savage talks about as an ally, not as a competitor.
“I believe there is plenty of business for everyone,” Savage says. “Dunn County is a large county, and there really isn’t much for state-of-the-art body shops outside Menomonie.”
It does seem odd to talk about moving from a larger building (12,000 square feet) to a building half its size as an expansion, but Savage notes that it is all about the flow.
“It will be one half the space, but the layout will allow a better flow of cars. You want it to continuously move. You drop your car off, we clean it up, repair the body, paint the parts and the car, go back to the body work area, then to detailing, and back to you,” he says.
And a visit to the Eau Claire shop at 301 N. Farwell illustrates this principle. There are a lot of cars in a fairly small space, with workers moving around them doing the various tasks. The “prep bay,” where the car is readied for the paint booth, is separated from the rest of the area with plastic curtains, but the paint booth itself looks like part of a sealed space station, plunked in the middle of the rest of the action.
“We were one of the first ones in the area to spray water-based paints with new state-of-the-art equipment. We repair to industry standards. We’re trying our best to duplicate what the manufacturers are doing,” Savage says.
The parking area outside the Eau Claire shop seems compact. Where is the tow truck? Savage says the shop used to have a tow truck, but “our business is fixing them, not hauling them. My concern is what is coming in the door and what is going out,” he says. “We have our loyal customers, and we are working on their great-grandchild’s car in some cases. We make sure the cars are perfect when the customers get them back.”
As in all other body shops, the bulk of Superior Auto Body’s work is repairing “mishaps,” or collisions and deer hits, after providing estimates for insurance companies that normally cover those repairs.
“Cars being produced now are more affordable,” Savage says. “But the lesser the value, the more chance it is not repairable. We see a lot of cars getting totaled. Even so, some customers with older vehicles are putting money from their own pocket to keep their vehicle on the road. They tell me they need to keep it two more years.” That accounts for from 5-10 percent of its business.
The addition to the Talen Street building in Menomonie was taking shape as 2012 came to a close, with auto body repairs continuing at the Wilson Street location. RW Construction from Eau Claire was handling the job with help on the structure framing of the addition from Varpness Buffalo and Construction. Other subcontractors are C&J Plumbing, Webster and KC Electric, Eau Claire. “We are trying to keep everything local,” Savage said.
The total project cost is $500,000, with Savage putting up 10 percent of the amount, and the rest coming from the Small Business Administration, a Regional Business Fund loan and Peoples State Bank.
“The reason Dave went with a SBA 504 loan is that they offer a 20-year fixed rate on part of the debt,” said Steve Faulhaber of Peoples State Bank, noting that the current rate is in the low 4-percent range.
“Most of my customers like the certainty of a fixed rate, especially right now because rates are low. It was simply too good of a deal to pass up,” Faulhaber said. “We often put together packages for business loans: the RBF at 2 percent, SBA at 4 percent and Peoples State Bank at some other rate. For us, it is all about maximizing the borrower’s chances for success by getting them the best possible financial structure.”
Faulhaber says that banks rarely lend 100 percent of a project.
“If the customer doesn’t have enough funds to cover the required down payment, then sometimes an entity like the Regional Business Fund can bridge the ‘gap.’ Also in this case that loan is at 2 percent, which is lower than I can go,” he said. “If a customer’s payments are lower, then they have a better chance of success, which is good for everyone.”
The RBF at 2 percent is for seven years. “We are partners in projects like this because they are improving the local business environment,” says Beth Waldhart of the West Central Regional Plan Commission.
She administers the fund that was formed by consolidating 32 revolving loan funds into one pool for a seven-county area, something that happened in 2007. The approval on the local loan came from a committee appointed by the city of Menomonie and the Dunn County Economic Development Commission.
Pat Eggert is a freelance writer from Colfax.