30 years later, family business thrives

Published 12:00 pm Sunday, March 15, 2009

Family-owned Blake’s Body Shop has adapted to a changing market to continue longer than the average life of a typical family business.

Blake’s Body Shop opened in Alden in 1979, and moved to Albert Lea a few years later, said part owner Kevin Blake, who added that his grandfather Homer built both buildings in Albert Lea. It’s continued to be very much a family business, as Kevin’s father, Richard, ran the business until he retired in 1990 and was bought out by his sons Kevin, Mark and Jason. Mark died about seven years ago.

Kevin’s daughter Kasey and son Justin both work at the shop.

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Kevin doesn’t spend much time in the shop anymore, and he’s more involved with things like customer service. A large portion of Kevin’s job is working with insurance companies for estimates on vehicles, he said. The process usually entails entering the damage of a vehicle into a database, which will price out parts and repairs, and he’ll reassess during the repairs because further damage is often found, Kevin said.

Insurance companies play a big part in the process, but Kevin said many people don’t realize how much power the customer has in the process. For example, the customer can decide to repair their car at any shop of their choosing.

“You can physically see. You get a car that’s smoked, you know, and you can physically see you’ve accomplished something when you’re done. It’s rewarding,” Kevin said.

A common repair is deer collisions, which Kevin said occur throughout the year but are very common starting in October and in the winter. Icy roads during the winter also lead to a lot of business, but Kevin said it’s difficult to anticipate when the busiest time will be.

“It’s very unpredictable,” Kevin said. “March can be the month one year, or it can be the slowest the next. August can be that way. It can the busiest one year and the slowest.”

Damage to the front end of the car from things like deer collisions or head-on collisions can be the most costly, because the front end of the car contains a lot of expensive equipment, Kevin said. But not all cars can be repaired, as this winter has had a high number of totals, Kevin said. He said about 30 percent of the shop’s estimates have been totals this winter.

Even with many totals this winter, Kevin said he sees more people repairing cars than selling and buying new, possibly because of the economy. Kevin said an uneasy economy may actually be better for a business like his.

“Some people believe, and I kind of tend to believe it too, that it may be better for us, because people are fixing more. Sales are down and people may be repairing more rather than trading,” Kevin said.

Kevin said the auto manufacturers are very safety-conscious, and he said many people don’t know about many of the safety features, like seatbelts aligning with the airbag during collisions.

“Cars have changed,” Kevin said. “People look at a small car and they say, ‘They’re not made like they used to be. I don’t want to be in that.’ They’re actually made to wrinkle up. … They’re made to wrinkle now, so you don’t take the impact.”

To repair those changed cars, Kevin said he needs a strong team that can work well together. That can be difficult, but Kevin said he has a good team of people who each have their specialties.

While workers used to learn how to do everything, Kevin said each worker has an area of expertise now, and that can save time and money.

“It picks up production to do it that way too,” Kevin said. “The procedure goes faster. … You’re more efficient. If you’ve got three or four guys working on one thing, it’s always a little bit more wasteful than one guy doing it.”

One of the ways that can save money is by reducing the amount of products used, especially since Kevin said material costs have increased. A pint of paint could cost $3 when Kevin started, but he said some paints now cost over $100, and different paints and primers are used.

Kevin also said the technology has improved, and they can mix paints more easily than they could in the past. New paints will soon start being used in the next few years that are safer to work with and more environmentally sound, Kevin said.

Despite the changes to the industry, Kevin said the business is going well and it’s rewarding to have two children involved in the business who could someday take it over.

“The average life of a family business is 26 years. We beat that,” Kevin said. “We’re 30 years old. So that feels good. I want it to continue.”