Auto shops offer advice, grapple with COVID-19 impacts


Nelson’s Automotive (2314 E. Hennepin Ave.) shut down in March 2020 just like everyone else did as they waited to see what the impact of COVID-19 would be. They opened back up a few weeks later when they were deemed an essential service.
But business has been slower in the past year as people drive their vehicles less, according to owner Nick Nelson. Nelson’s staff fix a lot of commuter cars – and with the work from home orders, these vehicles aren’t getting as many miles on them. “It slowed us down,” said Nelson. “The industry is down 30% as a whole.”
He’s hopeful that things will change as people get vaccinated and the restrictions ease. The prediction is that more folks will opt to drive instead of fly this summer, which will translate into increased business for small auto repair shops, he pointed out.

Shifting and changing
Nelson was able to keep almost all of his employees at his three locations thanks to a PPP loan. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without that,” he observed. “The fact that we’re still around and running – I am thankful every day.” He doesn’t plan to apply for the second round of loans, as he’d like to see it go to those who really need it.
To keep staff and customers safe, “we basically changed everything,” said Nelson. Staff began wearing masks and gloves, and they implemented new disinfecting protocols. Due to the high cost of disposable masks, they switched to reusable gaiters with the Nelson’s logo.
It was hard to find spit shield screens, and even the glass and plexiglass material was tough to come by last spring. He hunted around for the materials and when he found it, Nelson made the screens himself. He plans to keep them in place even after the COVID-19 threat has diminished.
There was a period of time where he worried about getting parts and supplies, but even when it was slow, they still received what they needed from their suppliers.
He was glad to avoid damage during the civil unrest last summer. Nelson and a few buddies spent four nights at the Nicollet shop located behind the former K-Mart in Minneapolis to look after the repair shop.
Nelson suspects that many of his staff had COVID-19 two weeks before the shutdown. He was the first one to get sick shortly after a surgery in February, and it ran through the rest of his employees. “We were all deathly ill,” recalled Nelson. “It was the worst flu I’ve ever had in my life.” No one has been sick since, although a few employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and they’ve taken the proper precautions.
Keeping his staff energized and excited is the number one thing Nelson says he does every day as a manager. But he knows how important employee morale is. Nelson worked as a mechanic for years before starting his own business in 2007, and recognizes how demoralizing a cold, dark shop can be. And so they shut down on major holidays and try to take 4-5 days off to give people the opportunity to recuperate. They plan to take their annual work camping trip up north in June. “I really try not to overwork the guys,” said Nelson.

Building relationships
One issue Twin Cities residents are dealing with right now is catalytic converter thefts. “We help people deal with insurance companies,” said Nelson. The part is required by law, but with an average cost of $1,000 the replacement can be a financial hardship for people. “We try to work with people and make it cheaper and more affordable,” said Nelson. One way they do that is looking at aftermarket options. They also have financing available for more expensive repairs, as they recognize that there are folks on a fixed income and those with families who need help paying for repairs.
Nelson’s staff encourage customers to use their remote option for drop-offs and to pay via credit card. It’s an option they always had, but more people are using it now. “I want people to know they can call us. There are no stupid questions,” said Nelson. “We will talk you through the good-better -best options.”
For the Nelson’s Auto staff, it’s all about building relationships. “I want people to feel like they can build a long-term relationship with us and bring us their cars for years to come,” said Nelson.

Long-time customer support
Latuff Brothers Auto Body has been fixing vehicles at the junction of the Midway, Frogtown and Rondo neighborhoods since 1933. The shop was started by three brothers – Joe, Mike, and John – who focused on treating their customers the way they wanted to be treated and doing the right thing even if it isn’t the easiest way to do something. These values helped them make it through the Great Depression and the drop in business during COVID-19.
The fourth generation of Latuff family members is involved today. Pete Latuff is the owner, his son Robert manages the front office and does estimates, and William Latuff manages shop production.
Some technicians at the shop have been there over 30 years. Jamison Randall, a Lake Phalen resident, is celebrating his 13th anniversary with Latuff this year. “COVID-19 had a sizeable impact on the auto body industry. Since the stay-at-home order went into effect March of 2020 vehicle traffic levels decreased by as much as 70%,” he observed. “Statistically, auto insurance claims have decreased over the last year by about 30% thus reducing the potential number of customers that would require our services.” Plus, some neighbors were concerned about leaving their homes and didn’t seek repair services.
Latuff responded with continuing to focus on leading in technology and personalized customer service. “We were able to provide contactless service through our auto damage estimate tool, DocuSign forms, and free pick-up and delivery of the vehicles,” said Randall. “We have many long-time customers and referral partners that have kept us going strong. Latuff Brothers has been able to operate and serve customers without having to lay off any of our staff.
“Latuff Brothers Auto Body would like to thank the community for all the support they’ve shown in the challenging years of light rail construction and into the COVID-19 pandemic. We are proud to serve this neighborhood for the last 88 years.”  


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