Eustis Body Shop Grows to Six Locations in 40 Years
Although Doug Keller has lived most of his life in the small rural town of Eustis, no one can accuse him of small thinking. This enterprising entrepreneur started the Eustis Body Shop, a progressive auto-body repair center that has been growing since its beginning in 1979.
From his home base in Eustis, population 373, Doug has expanded The Eustis Body Shop to four other locations: Lexington, Grand Island, Kearney and Cozad. And, he will open a sixth location in Lincoln in June.
It all started with Doug’s early love of cars. He was always reading “Hot Rod” magazines and dreaming of owning and fixing up old classic cars. In junior high, he scavenged farmsteads for cars to restore. By the time Doug was a sophomore in high school, he had decided to study auto-body repair at Southeast Community College in Milford. He applied early because of the college’s two-year waiting list. School taught him that, to make money, collision repair was the profession, and restoring old cars had to be a hobby you did in your spare time. After graduation, he worked for a year at a company in Lexington, but he always dreamed of opening his own business.
Thanks to his grandfather, Clarence, and some help from the community, his dream became reality in his hometown. In 1979, when Doug was barely out of school, his grandfather helped him secure a loan, and they bought the building that Eustis Body Shop still occupies today. It was in bad shape at that time and needed a lot of work. Doug couldn’t afford all the remodeling expense to make it habitable, so the folks in Eustis were happy to pitch in to help one of their own get established. Men who were retired donated their time doing repairs, like shingling the roof.
“They would spend whole days up there in the hot sun,” Doug recalled.
The first few years, Doug struggled to make it financially. He realized he needed to know more about accounting and managing a business, so he enrolled in evening classes at the University of Nebraska while running his business during the day. After completing his four-year-degree, Doug decided to continue his education and earned a master’s in business administration.
Meanwhile, it was difficult to keep the business going, and it was operating “strictly hand to mouth,” Doug said. When he and his wife Deb, who was from Omaha, married in 1983, she told her girlfriends, “We are going to live in Eustis until Doug finds a real job.” The two of them sacrificed and scrimped, and the first baby came along. And, Doug persevered in working on his business. Photo: Doug Keller 2
Growing the Business
In 1981, Doug hired Dave Berke, now the company’s vice president, and he helped grow the business. They started attracting customers from towns around the area: Cambridge, McCook, Edison, Johnson Lake, Elwood and Curtis. By 1988, they were looking to expand and took over the Ford body shop in Lexington with Berke as manager. Later, they moved into a new building.
In 1991, Doug learned about a long-established body shop business for sale in Grand Island, and he felt it was the right moment to move into a larger city. Doug Miotke was hired as the manager and still manages there today. In 1997, they built a new building in Kearney, which became their largest operation, with 13 employees. Glen Brown, originally a technician in Eustis, has been the manager since the beginning. Eustis Body Shop then expanded to Cozad in 2006.
Their most recent venture is a new building being constructed in southeast Lincoln. He decided to try out a new market in Lincoln after carefully studying several communities across Nebraska using a sophisticated mapping software that shows demographics and growth potential. His son-in-law, Ryan Clark, lives in Lincoln and is training to take over management when Eustis Body Shop opens in June. Ryan, who has a background in the medical field, is learning the business from the ground up. He has been apprenticing at the Eustis shop since last summer, working during the week and commuting back to Lincoln on weekends.
Adapting to Changing Technology
Like other industries, the body shop business has changed profoundly over the years, much of it driven by technology. Cars are not built the same as they were in the 1950s. Even cars made a decade ago are less complicated than today’s cars with all the driver-assist features.
“There might be 25 computers on board, controlling all the systems,” Doug said of the new model vehicles. “The bumper alone might have six sensors to warn the driver if he gets too close to other cars.” The technician has to pre-scan the vehicle before starting the repairs and avoid damaging the sensors and then conduct a post-scan to make sure everything is in working order.
A few years ago, Ford decided to build the Ford 150 with an aluminum body to meet fuel economy standards. Other manufacturers have also introduced aluminum alloys into their cars. Working with these metals is different from steel and creates new challenges for even the most seasoned technicians. The company has gone the extra mile to train employees on the latest techniques, bringing in specialists to conduct classes on the new methods.
To keep up with the challenges of running a successful business, about 10 years ago Doug became part of a consulting and self-help organization sponsored by Axalta Coating Systems, a supplier of car paints. He travels with and learns from other owner/operators of collision repair companies from around the country. In Doug’s group, there are participants from Des Moines, Minneapolis, Fayetteville, Arkansas and Pittsburg. They travel to other participants’ shops and consult for three days, comparing notes on best practices.
The managers at the five locations place a premium on hiring employees who are committed to the quality of work customers have come to expect. The task has become more difficult because nationally there are fewer young people applying for work at body shops, even though it is a field where a high school graduate who wants to learn has a good chance of getting a job with decent wages and benefits. .
“We like to find somebody who has a passion for cars, and we look at how they present themselves,” Doug said. “We usually try to look at their car and see how well kept it is.”
Doug hasn’t forgotten his own path into the business. About half of new hires are graduates of Nebraska community colleges in Milford, Hastings and North Platte.
Investing in employees helps Eustis Body Shop retain them long term. About 20 employees own stock in the company, and several have taken on key roles. Jerud Banzhaf, the manager in Eustis who has been with them for 13 years, started working part-time when he was in high school. He continued to work at the shop while attending UNK to earn a degree in construction management. But, Doug said, they convinced him he had a future with the body shop, and he changed his emphasis to business.
After Jerud earned his degree, he came back to Eustis and became the manager. Another employee, Joe Bihlmaier, had an interest in auto mechanics when he was in high school, and Doug gave him space in the body shop. After earning his degree in auto mechanics, Joe worked in other jobs in Eustis and Gothenburg until 2006, when he was hired back as a mechanic in the Eustis Body Shop. He now runs the Eustis Mechanic Shop located a few blocks away.
Small Town Values
Through all the change over the years, there has been one constant for Doug and his wife, Deb: their love of small-town life in Eustis. Doug stables two horses on his brother’s farm and rides a few times a week. They have a cabin at Johnson Lake, which is one of four lakes in an area of the state known for its natural beauty. Eustis boasts several thriving businesses, a good K-12 school and an active senior center.
Doug said it is important for him to contribute back to the community that has supported him. He has done that by serving as an assistant Boy Scout leader for many years and participating in the Lions Club (along with Jerud) and sponsors the leader dogs program that provides guide dogs for the blind. Many employees of the Eustis Body Shops in their other locations have also given back to the community, including Dave Berke and Glen Brown, who are long- time members of volunteer fire departments.
Eustis Body Shop has undergone tremendous growth in the past 39 years and looks forward to continued progress in the future, a reflection of the hometown values of a native son who made good.
For more information…
Eustis Body Shop
110 N Main St
Eustis, NE 69028