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Auto collision centers expand in wake of unprecedented growth

Trubilt Collision Center completed its Altoona expansion last fall, Eau Claire project slated for May completion

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January 22, 2024

ALTOONA – After more than 60 years in the Eau Claire area, and just over five years in Altoona, Trubilt Collision Center is undergoing a major expansion in both locations – a move brought on by what owners describe as unprecedented growth.

Purchased in 2018, Co-owner and CEO Luke Salter said the Altoona location (1704 Spooner Ave.) has recently expanded by almost a third of its previous size.

“It didn’t have a good area for our paint department,” he said. “The old booth wasn’t efficient and it didn’t have any of the new technology. In late 2022, we started working with architects and a builder on designing what our new paint shop would be.”

After multiple revisions to the original plans, Salter said the shop broke ground last April and was fully up and running by early October – increasing the space in size by 3,000 square feet, bringing it to just less than 10,000 square feet total. 

“The addition allows us to be more productive, so we can spray more cars in a day,” he said. “Before we were doing two to three cars a day – now they can spray four to six pretty easily. “Plus, from a cleanliness standpoint, the new paint shop helps us keep our paint jobs a lot cleaner, so they have less buffing to do when they’re done painting a vehicle.”   

Over the last five years, Salter said the Altoona location has also consistently increased its staff – going from five to 12 full-time employees.

Eau Claire location also expanding

Salter said steady growth and a second business he and his sister, Amy Wolfe, started also led to an expansion at the Eau Claire location (1631 Harding Ave.), which is the original, and largest, of the two locations.

The Eau Claire shop is currently just less than 15,000 square feet.

Salter said the expansion – which will be completed in May – will add 7,500 square feet and accommodate the Trubilt operation’s growth and its 22 employees.

It will also help support EC Calibrations, a business the siblings started in mid-2020 and grew a whopping 125% in 2023 alone. 

“When vehicles are involved in an accident, a lot of the safety features have to be recalibrated – that requires space,” he said. “Using our current facility in Eau Claire is not efficient and it hurts our production when we have to do calibrations.”

When the Eau Claire shop expansion is finished, Salter said about 50% of it will be for the calibration business.

“The other 50% will be for the auto body or auto collision business,” he said.

Salter said the Altoona location doesn’t have a calibrations department, so any vehicles there that need to be recalibrated are brought to the Eau Claire location – which Salter said is more cost-effective overall than putting in a calibrations department in Altoona.

EC Calibrations, he said, has four full-time employees, including himself and his sister.

History of family ownership

Trubilt Auto Body in Eau Claire was founded in 1949 by Tom Kewan – starting as a small shop with only two repair stalls.

However, according to its website (trubiltcollisioncenter.com), Trubilt was quickly established as “one of the finest shops in the Chippewa Valley.”

That reputation, Salter said, remains to this day.

Duane Dingman purchased the business in 1979, and 18 years later, in 1997, Salter said his father Jerry, purchased the business – and then opened the Altoona location in 2018.

Salter and Wolfe purchased both locations from their father in December 2021. 

Name now defines what they do

With an eye set on future growth, Trubilt Auto Body, Salter said, became Trubilt Collision Center in fall of 2010.

A new logo was also created at that time.  

“Trubilt Auto Body didn’t have a good ring to it,” he said. “Trubilt Collision Center sounds better. We were also getting a lot of calls at the time asking if we did brakes or other mechanical work. Because we don’t, we wanted to make sure the name emphasized auto body work and our customer base knew we were accident-related and not mechanical-related.”

Salter said with auto body as part of the name, customers assumed the shop did oil changes, brake jobs and tire changes.

“We don’t do any of that unless it’s related to a collision,” he said. “If, for example, the brakes on a car went out and the car hit another car, there would be body damage on that vehicle. So, we would fix the brakes when we did the auto body work. But if it’s just worn-out brake pads, tires or whatever it may be just off the street, we don’t do that.” 

Despite the name and logo change, Salter said the team at Trubilt remains committed to maintaining its reputation of providing outstanding and top-notch service, quality repairs and great customer relations.

That, he said, will never change, no matter how much the shops grow.

Certified for most makes and models

Though Trubilt can repair most makes and models that have body damage, Salter said certain manufacturers have restricted parts sales, sometimes causing a slight delay in work being completed, through no fault of their own. 

“For example, up until December, we could only perform certain repairs on a Tesla,” he said. “But once you got into the structure of the vehicle, Tesla would not sell us the parts for it because we weren’t certified. But three days after Christmas, we received notification we were now certified, so we are now the third approved Tesla collision center in the state of Wisconsin.”

Currently, Salter said there are a few makes Trubilt is not certified on – like Mercedes Benz or BMW.

He said they can perform 90% of the repairs, but some of those vehicles have restricted parts. 

“If our repairs got to a restricted part, the vehicle would then have to go to an authorized Mercedes or BMW collision center,” he said.

Salter said the shop is not certified to work on Toyotas either, because Toyota doesn’t have a certification program for independent body shops – only offering certifications to Toyota dealerships.

“Besides Toyota, Mercedes Benz and BMW, Volkswagen would be the only other one in our market we’re missing,” he said. “And in my opinion, there’s not enough market share with Volkswagen to be worthwhile.”

Trubilt, Salter said, is certified to repair and do work on Chrysler, Ram, Stellantis, Jeep, Honda, Acura, Subaru, Nissan, Hyundai, Ford, GM, Kia and Tesla.

Good neighbors who give back

Salter said there’s more to being a successful business than just doing right by their customers.

He said there’s also the matter of being a good corporate neighbor – something he said the Trubilt team is passionate about. 

“At our Altoona location, 2% of our total sales gets donated to a local charity,” he said. “When the customer picks up their vehicle, we give them a list of 10-12 different charities, and we will donate in their name to them.”

Salter said they started the give-back program in Altoona shortly after purchasing that location. “Eau Claire has a service we offer to our customers called ‘Detail 4 Life,’” he said. “If customers get their vehicle repaired with us, and it is over a certain dollar amount, they get four free cleanings a year for as long as they own the vehicle.”

Caring for Mother Earth 

Being a good corporate neighbor, Salter said, extends to how the Trubilt team takes care of the planet – employing several different green practices, one of which is spraying with waterborne paint. 

Because of the team’s green efforts, in 2010, Salter said Trubilt Collision Center became a proud member of the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce’s Green Business Initiative and earned the distinction of being a “Green Business.”  

Being a local green business, he said, is Trubilt’s way of participating in a nationwide push toward a greener environment.

Eyes set on potential future growth

With two successful locations and a booming calibrations business, Salter said they are extremely proud – but that doesn’t mean they are resting on their laurels, nor are they ruling out any other locations in the future. 

“Growth is always on our mind,” he said. “It’s always at the forefront of what we’re going to be doing next. I can’t say ‘no’ and I can’t say ‘yes.’”

Salter said Trubilt keeps a close eye on market share in the area, while at the same time looking at where their business is coming from.

“We can see – from some programs we have access to – where our customers are coming from,” he said. “So, if we’re not getting work from a certain zip code or a certain part of the surrounding areas, we’ll potentially start looking in that area for growth.” 

As the business continues to grow, Salter said they believe it’s important not only to keep their finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the market but within their own businesses as well and to know what their employees need from them. 

“Every week, Amy and I meet with a different group of people from both locations,” he said. “So, one week we’ll meet with all our technicians off-site. We’ll go out to dinner and work with them on things they need from us from a training standpoint, equipment standpoint, processes standpoint and so on. Another week, it’ll be our front-office staff; another week, our back-office staff.”

Salter said this also gives people from the two stores a chance to compare notes on what problems they might be having and to troubleshoot together.

“It gives them a chance to collaborate on certain things,” he said. “Then the fourth week, Amy and I will meet together so we can put a game plan together of what things we need to get done and how to prioritize everything.”

Doing this, Salter said, helps ensure they stay on top of their employees’ needs and remain alert to any potential issues – making sure no balls get dropped or nothing slips through the cracks.

TBN
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