Auto-Repair Shops Scramble to Meet Demand, Sales Swell

Many local auto-repair shops, snow-removal companies, and towing companies are overloaded and expecting record or near-record sales thanks to the recent snowstorms.

When Heidi Olson recently walked into Suburban Auto Body to get her Toyota Highlander repaired, she wasn't surprised to see that the shop was bustling-or to be told that it might take up to two weeks to get her vehicle back.

“It hasn't been this busy in a December in 10 years,” Dennis O'Connell, owner and operator of the Little Canada-based auto shop, said Tuesday.

As events have been cancelled and snow emergencies have been declared throughout the Twin Cities, many businesses have been hurt by all the snow-especially the 19-year record blizzard that blanketed the metro area with least 17 inches on December 11.

But for some local companies, business has never been better. In addition to auto body shops, snow-removal companies and towing companies have also been positively affected by the storms.

During the first 21 days of December, Minnesota State Patrol responded to 3,083 crashes throughout the state, up from 2,836 at the same time last year. About a quarter of those occurred between December 11 and 15 after the big snowstorm hit. State Patrol was called to another 448 accidents between 10 a.m. Monday and 10 a.m. Tuesday following this Monday's whiteout. Police departments within each city have responded to some crashes as well.

Thanks to the recent snowfall and the resulting accidents, Suburban Auto Body-which has been in business for 30 years and has 12 technicians-is on track to match its best sales year and has seen a 30 to 40 percent year-over-year increase in December business.

The shop has its employees working overtime to meet the needs of customers like Olson, a White Bear Lake resident whose vehicle was damaged when another car slid into the front and side panels.

“Whenever business gets like this, we have to extend the hours because we don't know if it's going to be like this next month,” O'Connell said. “It's a very feast-and-famine business.”

Suburban Auto Body typically takes in about 10 cars per day but has been taking in 13 to 14 daily since the big storm. O'Connell said he has enough work to hire one or two additional technicians but lacks space where they could work.

Jared Scheeler, operating partner at the downtown Minneapolis location of Bobby & Steve's Auto World, said that following the storms his company's repair service division has experienced business “like nothing you've ever seen before.”

The week of December 12 through 18 raked in the repair service business' record-high sales-up 23 percent from the previous single-week high. The division, which typically services about 350 cars in a seven-day stretch, worked on 640 cars during its record week.

Bobby & Steve's has eight independently owned locations in the Twin Cities metro, and they have been “breaking records companywide,” Scheeler said.

Darrell Amberson-president of Lehman's Garage, Inc., an auto body shop with six Twin Cities locations-said that the Eagan shop normally takes in five to eight cars on a Monday, but it took in 22 vehicles on the Monday following the December 11 snowstorm. The shop hasn't extended its retail hours yet, but its employees are working overtime and on Saturdays when the shop isn't typically open.

Dennis Steinke, general manager at the Abra Auto Body & Glass in east Bloomington, said that his location has serviced between 15 and 25 cars each day since the December 11 blizzard, considerably more than the 12 to 15 he sees on a typical good day. The flurry of activity has prompted the shop to encourage customers with less-urgent repairs to keep driving until Abra can fit them in-which, for most, is about two weeks out.

Abra has more than 20 stores in the metro area, and Steinke said most-including his-are running at 160 to 170 percent of their typical car capacity. All 17 of Steinke's employees are working mandatory overtime, and Abra is looking at opening additional area shops to accommodate the current influx of repair requests.

According to Matt Laible, a spokesman for the City of Minneapolis, the severe weather has resulted in five declared snow emergencies-the most the city has ever declared prior to Christmas, and only one emergency shy of the all-time season record, which was set in 2000-2001. The snow emergencies have been a financial burden to the city but a boon to six towing companies under contract to tow during snow emergencies.

The six companies receive up to $144 per vehicle, according to documents from the city's impound lot. During a typical Minneapolis snow emergency, upwards of 8,000 vehicles are ticketed, and between 1,500 and 2,000 vehicles are towed to the impound lot. “There just isn't enough towing capacity” to move all of the ticketed cars, Laible said.

Plus, the amount of snow this season “makes it just plain difficult” for tow trucks to move vehicles efficiently. For example, the snow emergency declared on December 13 had an atypical number of tows, at only 886.

Business was so hectic in late December that the six companies couldn't spare time for interviews. “We're drowning in phone calls,” a receptionist at the Minneapolis office of Rapid Recovery, Inc., said Wednesday. A frantic employee at Minneapolis-based Schmit Towing said that same day that the company's staff was “too swamped” to talk-and the snowstorms caused the spike in demand.

Some towing companies, like Duke's Cars & Towing, do not assist the city but rather tow for individual customers who have gone in the ditch or need tows for other reasons.

Owner Duke Cano said that his shops in Minneapolis and St. Paul have seen 60 percent more tows this month versus last December-but it's been difficult to keep up with demand during huge storms, since the company's trucks get stuck, too.

Still, more snow has meant more profits for Cano, who says that this season is the busiest he's seen since the famed blizzard on Halloween in 1991. “But maybe this one was a little tougher,” he added.

Bob Kroth, owner of Minneapolis-based Parkway Lawn Service, who has been removing snow for 30 years, has turned away “at least 500” requests for snow service within the past couple of weeks alone. Due to impossibly high demand, Parkway and at least a handful of other local snow-removal companies have indicated on their phone messages and Web sites that they aren't taking on any new clients for the winter.

Kroth said Wednesday that his phone hasn't rung so much since the 1991 blizzard, which has “been good for business and it's bad for business.”

Approximately 80 percent of Kroth's 400 customers are residential, and they pay a flat monthly fee for snow removal throughout the winter months. Most years, Kroth would have visited those customers about three or four times by now; this year, he's already hit double-digits for some.

The December 11 blizzard cost Kroth about $20,000 because of the overtime he had to pay and two transmissions that burned out while his crew worked to clear that snow-no small thing for his almost-$1 million company. However, Kroth's commercial clients-who pay per job-have helped to offset his residential-related losses.

The truly shocking part of Kroth's recent demand: “As best as I can figure, we are the highest-price snow contractor in Minneapolis.” His residential rates start at $229 per month-about $100 more than most of his competitors. It's months like this when Kroth is particularly glad that his rates are what they are.

Despite the snow and the numerous car crashes resulting from it, local hospitals-namely, Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis and Regions Hospital in St. Paul-experienced lower-than-normal patient volume around the time of the December 11 blizzard, presumably because most people didn't want to brave the icy, snow-covered roads.

And despite thehandful of industries that have seen a boost in sales as a result of the snowstorms, state economist Tom Stinson warns that the overall effect on Minnesota has been negative. While there has certainly been higher demand for snowblowers, snowmobiles, and other winter-centric products, most retailers have been hurt by the snowfall-especially due to its timing.

“There isn't really a good measure out there” for tracking the economic impact of the storms, Stinson said. “But if you're looking for good news, it's harder to come up with, as spending is down.”

Stinson pointed to one tangible measure-sales tax receipts. He said that, while it's too early to be certain, the state does not expect to reach its forecast for sales tax receipts because the snowstorms fell on some of the busiest holiday shopping days of the year, and the hazardous conditions kept people at home.

Says Stinson: “My guess is that the snowstorms coming at this time of year will result in a net loss for the Minnesota economy.”