AUSTINTOWN, Ohio – Should you be unfortunate enough to get into a fender bender anytime soon, your fender likely will stay bent for the foreseeable future, says Ron Latone, president of Superior Auto Body Inc.
“We’re booked until Jan. 16. We’re that far ahead,” he says.
Usually the shop would have a wait of only about two- to three weeks to do repairs.
Latone owns Superior Auto Body with his brother, John Latone Jr., who is vice president. The company operates auto body shops in Austintown and Girard.
When asked why Superior and other auto body shops are so busy, Ron holds up his smartphone. “It’s right here,” he says. “It’s more people on the phone crashing.”
John agrees but says the smartphone is only part of the problem. “The business is getting smaller. There are fewer techs, fewer shops. So it’s a supply and demand thing,” he says.
And it appears the supply of auto body workers is likely to get smaller.
In its annual CCC Crash Course 2022 study, released in March, CCC Intelligent Solutions Inc. projects a wave of retirements leading to around 100,000 job openings for auto technicians over the next decade.
“Young kids just aren’t getting into it. The median age of a body man in our business is 56 years old,” John says. “What’s going to happen in 10 years? Where are we going to be?”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the auto technician field will see a 4% drop in employment through 2029.
The shops that can find technicians are so busy, John says, that many have stopped writing estimates for repair work until things slow down.
“We try to at least write the estimate and get them scheduled out so at least customers know they’re getting taken care of – instead of pushing them out the door,” he says
John Latone Sr. opened Superior Auto Body in 1969 on South Avenue in Youngstown. “He was always a body man,” John says.
The business moved to Glenaven Avenue a few years later and operated there until its roof collapsed during a winter storm. It then relocated to Pyatt Street. A second site on Andrews Avenue followed. A third shop opened in Warren.
“We were the first multishop organization to do that,” Ron says.
Both brothers began to work for the family business when each was 13. “We were forced into it,” John says, laughing.
“In summertime, you’re not going to play football with your buddies. You’re going to work,” Ron says they were told.
Eventually they bought a building at 6508 Mahoning Ave. in Austintown, then the Girard shop, 717 State St. Today the company operates a third shop, 51 Fitch Blvd. in Austintown.
The Youngstown sites shut down in 1982 in the wake of the retrenchment of the steel industry, John says. “We took a gamble on Austintown and it’s paid off.”
Sales “increase every year,” John says, although profits aren’t where they would like them to be.
One reason is that costs have gone up. “We’re absorbing a lot of that because the insurance companies aren’t paying it,” he says.
Another reason is the time it now takes to go through the estimation process with the insurance companies, many of whom have done away with their adjusters, Ron says.
Often the insurance company will have the driver download its app and upload pictures of the damage.
“What happens now is you bring your car to me and they wrote that estimate for $2,500. I know it’s $6,000. Now I have to get on the app and get hold of someone and get it changed,” Ron says. “The process is doubled for us.”
And because the insurance companies control their replacement costs, the Latones say they’re very limited in what they can charge for their services, which also makes it harder to raise wages. “You’re always looking for a handful of people,” Ron says.
The Latones say they work with some of the nearby vocational schools to recruit workers but the students often lack the work ethic required to succeed.
“They don’t last once they realize the extent of the work and the things they really need to know,” John says.
The Latones also do some in-house training to move people up through the system and improve their skills.
“I’ve moved some guys at the Austintown store from washing cars to paint. So they moved all the way up the ladder,” Ron says. “Most of our guys stay with us until they retire. We don’t have a big turnover. It’s just getting new people to come in.”
Superior Auto Body employs 23 across three stores. The Mahoning Avenue site works solely on body repair, the bulk of the company’s business.
Besides bodywork, the shop in Girard also does service work, while the second shop in Austintown handles overflow and the work its body men do for Amazon fleets. “Those guys wreck every single day. They do lots of damage,” Ron says.
The Mahoning Avenue shop is also home to another division of the business, Speedliner Spray-on Liners and Truck Accessories, which specializes in spray-on truck liners.
The third generation of Latones is now getting into the business. One of John’s twin sons operates Speedliner while the other helps to run the shop in Girard.
Ron’s daughter does secretarial work at the body shop in Austintown while his son has begun to learn some of the father’s duties.
To ensure the future of the business, John says, they have to keep up with the technology and the education. He also says he hopes that as the industry gets smaller, it will lead to greater demand and higher wages for workers.
“Now you’re paying $15 an hour for someone to flip a burger. I still can’t afford to pay $25 an hour to have someone fix a car because I’m controlled by the money I’m bringing in,” he says. “To make money in this business, you have to work hard.”
Pictured at top: Ron and John Latone Jr. both began to work for the family business at age 13.