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Support from co-workers leads couple to open auto body shop

Kelly Horman of Collision Care in Willmar works Thursday on making front end repairs to a 2002 Ford F-150 truck which had hit a deer. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR — Jim Jacobson joined the Swenson Motor Company body shop as a technician in 1978. He had been serving as manager since 1981 when he and his wife, Pam, learned in late 2011 that the body shop and dealership in east Willmar were going to be sold.

The Jacobsons could have moved elsewhere following the sale. But after other longtime body shop employees said they wanted to stay with Jim, he decided to consider starting a body shop business.

“We knew things were in the process of being sold and all the employees here wanted to stay with Jim,’’ said Pam. “They were with Jim there, and they wanted to go with him if he would do something in town. That was what spurred us on to do this.’’

Since July 2, 2012, the Jacobsons have been doing business as Collision Care in the gun-metal gray building with the red front door at 1401 Litchfield Ave. S.E.

“If the employees had not wanted to stay with Jim, then we would have just gone on to something else,’’ says Pam.

“Everybody came with. Nobody is left out,’’ says Jim. “Everybody is fully together with us. It made me feel good.’’

The couple said real estate agent Bob Oakland helped them quickly find their building, which they said had been nicely built by Steve Strom. The couple increased the size by a third and installed the latest repair equipment and technology.

“The space was the best of what we could find on the market at the time. And with the confidence of the employees and them all wanting to stay in the area, then we did this. We basically feel like we saved their jobs and our job and it’s going well,’’ says Pam.

Other employees are Shawn Kleist, assistant manager; Troy Puchalski, body tech; Kelly Hormann, frame tech; Jim Hoffmann, refinishing prep; Doug Evenson and Isai Rodriguez, painters; and Amy Welter, receptionist.

Jim says 90 percent of their business is through word-of-mouth with customers returning or telling their neighbors. Most of their business involves collision repair.

“It’s repeat and referral business and we are a direct repair facility for many insurance companies,’’ says Jim. “They were happy to have us stay in business because they have to have somebody put their cars back in shape again and stand behind all the work.’’

Some work involves rust repair.

“Cars have gotten so expensive that people have to maintain them and they do take care of the rust. We do some of that also,’’ he said. “Not like in the ’80s when cars used to rust out so bad. You look at these cars — 200,000 miles — they still look pretty darn good now. And a lot of that comes from using the right product and the right kind of knowledge and fixing the cars right.’’

Pam notes that the paint industry and the materials used to paint have changed. She says the craftsmanship of some of the paint jobs is amazing to see. Technicians are Automotive Service Excellence certified.

“We’re big believers in training,’’ Jim says. “All our technicians have been trained through Chrysler and GM and through the paint manufacturers. You have to do that to stay in this kind of a business. We are all doing that.’’

Besides cars, Collision Care works on boats, other watercraft, motorcycles, motorhomes and campers. They have even worked on a semi.

After graduating from the auto body program at Willmar Vocational Technical Institute (now Ridgewater College), Jim began work at the former Town and Country Motors in 1975 before joining Swenson three years later.

The couple says most of their employees had worked for Swenson from 20 to 30 or more years. Jim says that kind of long-term experience is important.

“I didn’t want to put this kind of investment out and have people who wanted to be here just for a short term,’’ he says. “I think we’re all here pretty much for the term of our career.’’

Pam says their employees are particular about what they do.

“This is a pretty big investment, and if you don’t have the team that’s able to maintain the level of customer satisfaction, we wouldn’t begin to do this,’’ she said. “Everybody wanted to stay with us, so that was the push.’’

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150