By Steve McLinden
Body shop ops in the time of COVID-19.
Considered essential services, most auto-repair shops are allowed to remain open as America does battle with the coronavirus. But for many collision centers, business hours and workflow have changed, staff has shrunk, and car drop-off and pickup procedures have been altered to minimize human interaction.
For some body shops, the pandemic will prove to be a death knell. But Khalil Issa, owner of Arlington Auto Center in west Arlington, Texas, is not about to let that happen.
As the virus spread and people stayed home, the shop devised a promotion in March that’s geared for the times.
“Life has been difficult on all of us lately,” read the shop’s Facebook announcement/promotion. “We’d like to make your difficult situations a little bit easier by offering you 15 percent off your car-repair needs. All first responders: (doctors, nurses, hospital-related employees, firemen, police, paramedics, etc.) will receive 20 percent off to thank you for your hard work.” It concluded: “Stay safe and stay home if you don’t have to leave. Let’s flatten this curve!”
The offer worked. Though patronage is far from overwhelming, the promotion, effective until May, helped bring in some new much-needed blood, Issa said. Moreover, the shop locked in the price-off deal until customers have time to drop off their vehicles so jobs will continue to trickle in.
Arlington Auto Center is taking in cars by appointment to minimize the number of people coming into its office, and is taking other coronavirus precautions. Handshake deals aren’t getting sealed with actual handshakes.
“We are trying to be careful as much as we can around the shop but sometimes you have to take your gloves off when you’re working,” Issa said.
By mid-April, the DFW area was nearing 4,000 coronavirus cases, including an outbreak at an Arlington Masonic retirement home on Division Street just one mile east of shop.
“It’s getting very ugly out there,” said Issa.“I have been doing this for 23 years and I have never seen anything like it.”
Perennially-busy Division Street, a major local artery, is now quiet, sometimes eerily so.
“At 5 o’clock in the afternoon, there’s practically no one on it,” Issa said.
For the sake of caution, drivers are insisting the parts and materials they’re delivering be picked up in body-shop parking lots so they won’t have to come in and be exposed to interiors of shops, Issa said. Some parts are slower to arrive than they used to be in the current climate, “but customers have been pretty understanding,” Issa said.
In 2014, Issa bought his 10,000-square-foot space just off Division at 320 Dixon Lane, fulfilling a dream of owning his own shop. Previously, he rented a location several miles to the west on Division and an earlier one just off Division on North Street (called Voss Paint & Body), which was in punting distance of a property now occupied by the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium.
The new place needed significant customization, so a contractor was tasked with installing garage doors, new lighting fixtures and constructing an office, but fell woefully behind schedule, throwing a monkey wrench in Issa’s plans to coordinate a move. Fortunately, a deal to build a new office building at the site of his old structure was delayed, so Arlington Auto was allowed to stay on a month-to-month basis.
In June of 2015, after spending $120,000 for the retrofit, Arlington Auto finally moved into its permanent home but not before the old landlord gifted him two industrial-sized heaters, thinking the shop space would be demolished anyway. (It wasn’t). For the new shop, Issa also invested significant capital in a state-of-the-art downdraft paint booth with computerized controls by Global Finishing Solutions.
Because so many people are out of work at present, customers have for the most part been holding back on spending for anything but bare-bone basics, Issa said. Arlington Auto balances insurance work with a flow of custom jobs, which has helped the current bottom line, and was working on a 1957 Chevy truck during Automotive Repor’s April interview. The shop can even fabricate parts if necessary, Issa said.
Business had slowed inexplicably in the months prior to the arrival of the coronavirus, so it’s not as though the shop had built up a buffer when it hit. The hail work the shop typically handles each spring did not materialize last year and has yet to occur this spring, Issa said. “So business is still okay but not as busy as it used to be.”
Shop customers come from throughout Arlington, Fort Worth, and the rest of the DFW area. Once patrons have work done there, they’re prone to returning, Issa said. One family from Lancaster, about 30 miles to the southeast has been sending cars to Issa for the better part of two decades, for example.
The shop property has a covered parking lot that holds as many as 70 vehicles and it came in handy after a major hail storm hit the area in 2016. Not one car parked there was damaged, Issa said.
Issa works side by side with two sons, Khalid and Mohammad, his long-time right-hand man, Ghassan Abulail, and four other shop workers.
An American citizen from Kuwait, Issa was considered an undesirable after Saddam Hussein directed Iraqi troops to take over the oil-rich country in 1990. So he fled to the U.S., where he’d earlier earned his engineering degree. Issa worked as a restaurant manager for two national casual-dining chains before taking up auto-body repair.
Issa has soldiered on over the years despite some health issues. A few years back, Issa inexplicably lost his voice. Writing it off to as temporary condition, he expected to regain the voice in a week or so. But weeks went by with no improvement. Issa went to doctors, who were unable to find the cause.
Issa tried resting his vocal chords. Meanwhile, when he did speak with customers and workers, he could do so only in a loud whisper, and it was often a challenge to get his message across. Three months passed, then four. Still no voice. Finally, after about six months, the voice suddenly came back. Issa never knew the cause.
In 2016, doctors found 90 percent blockage of Issa’s carotid neck artery, and it was discovered he suffered a minor stroke that was the cause of numbness in one hand. Issa was successfully treated with a stent and blood thinners, is as active as ever and feels fine.
Issa, 57, was asked what has changed about the business over the nearly quarter century he’s been in it.
“I am getting old, that’s what’s changed,” he joked. “The coronavirus is not helping.” •