By Robert Bravender
Anyone familiar with the American music scene will know that Manchester, Tenn., is home to the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, which annually swells this town of 10,000 to 100,000 over four days. But any other week, it’s business as usual for Rod’s Body Shop and Sales.
“[Even then] we don’t see a lot of business from out of town,” said Chris Harwell, the shop’s current owner. “But one thing that’s changed in the body shop business around here is a lot more competition. Back when Dad started this, there were probably three other shops in this town besides his. Now there are three other shops just on this road.”
Rod Harwell founded the shop in the late ’70s as a side business while working at AEDC, the Arnold Engineering and Development Complex. As the research arm of Arnold Air Force Base in Manchester, it’s an extensive ground-based flight test facility for the Air Force. The elder Harwell finally left AEDC to go full time into the body shop business in 1986. Then in 2017 health issues triggered an early retirement, so he sold the shop to his son Chris.
The facility now covers roughly four acres with an estimated 10,000 square feet of enclosed space, all of it literally out Rod Harwell’s back door: a paint shop with two Garmat booths, one a downdraft; the original two-bay shop which now stocks parts; the main body shop which houses the lifts, a laser measuring system, and two Chassis Liner frame machines; and a 2,400-sq.-ft. building currently used for storage, but can quickly be repurposed should the need arise.
“I grew up with an asphalt backyard that kept growing,” laughed the junior Harwell. “I’m self-taught and so was my dad. Back in the day he actually bought cars and cut them apart and put them back together to learn. He’s one of those people who are a jack of all trades; give him long enough and he’ll figure out how to do it.”
Taking over his father’s duties as the shop’s painter, Harwell also employs his mom as the company’s accountant, as well as three technicians whose constancy proves there must be something special about this shop.
“My head body man has been here since I was 15 years old,” Harwell reported. “He left for a year and came back; been here ever since. Our other main body man worked here 20-some years ago; he had his own shop, sold it and came back to work for us.”
Meanwhile his father still lives on the property and helps where he can.
“He’s what you’d call retired-but-not-yet-retired, and never will be ’til they put him in the ground,” Harwell stated. “This will always be his third child, and he’s a big help to me by answering the phone. Plus there are times I still need to ask him questions; besides his 30 years of experience as a painter, his expertise is the frame machine. If I have a problem, most of the time he’ll know how to fix it. And it helps to have a sounding board.”
Like on the previously noted rise in competition: “They’re small shops like we are, but they haven’t been in business as long we have, and they don’t have a lot the same stuff,” Harwell observed, pointing out that they gained an edge after purchasing the equipment required to work on aluminum bodies like the Ford F-150. Plus there was the increased efficiency of the Pro Spot welder.
“It was a huge innovation and a money-maker at the shop because we were able to put out higher quality jobs replicating factory spot welds, and it helped our technicians turn jobs around faster,” Harwell said of the latter. “Having two Garmat paint booths is also huge for us. We can quickly get a car in and out of the paint shop so our technicians can put it back together faster. Turnaround time is crucial with insurance companies.”
Such demands have gotten Harwell to think more about how to refine their processes.
“Being a small town we don’t see a lot of the higher-end European cars here,” Harwell said, “but when one comes in and we have to take something off of it, I have ALLDATA where I can print step-by-step instructions for the technician. There’s no pulling on stuff, trying to figure out what needs to come loose.”
But Harwell noted that the number one key to their success has been treating their customers’ vehicles as if they were their own.
“That has served us well in business over the years” he confirmed. “If you do your absolute best on everybody’s vehicle, you’re going to be okay. Yes, there are now tighter tolerances on things, but if you’re doing things the right way anyway, it’s not a hard transition.”
Yet a big change in the industry has been the advent of ADAS technology, with sensor and camera systems being tied together on their way to creating a self-driving car. Re-calibration is required any time a car is even bumped, however demand for this has only begun to penetrate the market.
“A friend of mine in Georgia was talking about this the other day,” recalled Harwell. “He said he could set up a calibration shop and make six figures a year. No one around here has that technology, but you’d be looking at spending six figures on the set up.”
He mused that demand this for would depend upon the insurance companies, but for right now Harwell’s just happy to do pre- and post-scans.
“We scan every vehicle that comes in,” he explained. “If you don’t do a post scan, you’re leaving money on the table. We get paid $50 pre, $50 post; $100 a vehicle. Say you do 10 vehicles a week; that is an extra $1,000 coming in as profit for something that takes 20-30 minutes a vehicle. Once you have the piece of equipment paid for, it’s all profit.”
The shop works on a wide range of vehicles, mostly late model cars: domestics, Asian, the occasional European make, even some RVs—“but we fix a lot of Nissans because we’re right in the middle of two Nissan plants, Decherd and Smyrna,” Harwell explained. “If you work for Nissan you can lease like a brand new car for a certain amount of month, so there are a lot of Nissans around here.”
Even though they stick with late models now, what helped solidify the shop’s reputation years earlier was the occasional restoration, like the classic Mustang featured on their website. This ’64½ convertible was featured in a 1994 edition of Mustang Times, the official publication of the Mustang Club of America.
“That’s when my dad was getting established, and he didn’t turn down anything,” said Harwell. “Nowadays I don’t think I would touch a restoration; even all-over paint jobs are all but gone. It’s gotten so expensive and labor intensive to do one—you can fix seven to 10 insurance jobs for what you can do one all-over paint job for.”
Meanwhile Rod’s also operates a car rental agency as a LLC separate from the shop. At one time they had a fleet of around 15 cars which they rented to the public at large, but eventually Harwell scaled it back to just service his body shop customers.
“There’s not any big big-name rental car company in our town; [at one time] we were it,” Harwell noted. “It’s not what I call a money-maker, but it pays for itself, and it gives my customers an easy pick-up and drop-off, helping make me a one-stop shop.”
To that end the shop handles all negotiations with the insurance companies on the customers’ behalf, as well as clean every vehicle when it’s finished, leaving it cleaner than when it came in.
All of this generated the word-of-mouth which has propelled the shop forward the past three decades. And nothing is more rewarding than getting this recognized via the Manchester’s Finest contest. An online poll conducted by the Manchester Times, the local newspaper, Rod’s Body Shop has only missed winning a couple of years since the poll was established.
“We pride ourselves on doing things the right way, and if you put out a good product and treat people well, it comes back to you,” stated Harwell. “We still get our core area, because people know we’ll fix it right, and that’s how we get our business. They know the quality of our work.”
Just business as usual. •