Cockrell’s Auto Center

By Tom Williams

Located on U.S. 27, on the southern outskirts of Cynthiana, Ky,, and about 19 miles from the Toyota plant in Georgetown, Ky., Cockrell’s Auto Center, Inc., has practically become a local landmark.

Mark Cockrell grew up around the auto body business and worked for his uncle, James Cockrell, at Cockrell’s Body Shop in Lexington. James Cockrell started his shop in 1956, and although he passed away several years ago, it still thrives to this day.

At age 25, Mark Cockrell opened his own shop in July 1981. The original shop was about 1,500 square feet, which was about all one man could handle by himself. In the beginning, Cockrell’s in Cynthiana was a full-service shop, but it didn’t take Mark Cockrell long to figure out his future was in bodywork, and he changed his business plan in 1986.

As his business and reputation grew, so did his shop. He soon became a “boss” and his shop has grown to what it is today. Still located at 4320 U.S. Highway 27 South, Cockrell’s Auto Center is housed in five buildings, including the office, a warehouse where they keep their wreckers, two large shop buildings and five parts storage bays in the dry storage operation on the property, which is also owned by Cockrell.

Both shop buildings have undergone expansions over the last two years, doubling the workspace. The first shop is approximately 9,000 square feet and houses a Black Hawk frame machine, a Chief EZ Liner, a Shark Measuring System, a Uni Cure Prep Station, a Blowtherm down draft booth, and a newly-purchased California Pulse Blower. At 6,000 square feet, the second shop building is where the dirtier grunt work takes place.

Cockrell’s is an exclusive PPG paint shop and recently switched to full waterborne paints. This is part of their plan to be a fully green shop.

Cockrell’s Auto Center also has a variety of welders including a nitrogen plastic welder from Urethane Supply Company and an Elektron aluminum welder, which is necessary for the Ford certification. Brent Cockrell, Cockrell’s son, has I-CAR aluminum certification and is Ford certified for aluminum repair. He is the only one in the shop with the Ford certification.

In a small town like Cynthiana, you don’t see many exotic imports, and that is okay with Cockrell. He wouldn’t turn away the business but is just as happy not having to deal with the inherent complications found in many of the exotics.

But they do get their share of imports, especially Toyotas, being just down the road from the plant. They also have repair contracts with the county and Judy Construction, a local heavy contractor. On the day of our visit, they had a new hood and fender assembly in the shop for one of Judy Construction’s dump trucks. In any given month, Cockrell’s will put out between 75 and 125 units.

A strong relationship with the insurance companies is crucial to Cockrell’s business. They have embraced most of the major programs and changes brought on by the insurance companies, and they are a State Farm Select Service provider.

Even though there are only two collision shops in town, it is still important to keep their name on the minds of their customers. Community involvement and advertising in the local paper and sometimes on local radio stations go a long way to sustaining a successful business for 35 years. Word-of-mouth and reputation are probably the most effective forms of advertising for this local shop. Their good reputation brings them business from five counties.

Mark Cockrell has had the good fortune of low turnover. Most of his employees have been with him for ten or more years. His primary painter just retired after 30-plus years with this one shop. The challenge is not keeping good people, it is getting good people who want to work and find a home. (There is a feeling of family here.)

Besides Mark and Brent Cockrell, there are two in the office, Teresa Johnson, (office manager), and Becky Clifford (parts manager) who handles inventory and parts procurement. They also have 10 shop techs — four in the paint shop, one clean up, and five in the body shop.

Training is also a key to keeping good painters and techs. Both painters have been through PPG’s waterborne training and everybody takes part in I-CAR and ASE certification programs.

Mark spends most of his time in the administrative side of the business. He and Brent do all of the estimating. Speaking of Brent, he’s not just the boss’s kid. Brent is also the shop foreman, the sole aluminum tech, and drives the wrecker, a new KW rollback, when needed.

They are optimistic about the future of the collision business. New techniques like aluminum welding and plastic welding are just the tip of the iceberg. With every new development in the auto industry, a new set of problems and opportunities present themselves. When asked about the big corporate shops expanding, Mark wasn’t too worried. He doesn’t see them coming to the smaller markets, but if they do, he does have a price in mind.  •