by Alana Quartuccio
Auto body associations in Massachusetts have taken on different shapes and forms since it all began decades ago. And there are many men and women who have dedicated their time over the years to help fight the good fight for their fellow collision repairers. New England Automotive Report has been periodically catching up with some of AASP/MA’s earlier leaders to reminisce and see what life is like on the other side of the body shop world. This month, we caught up with Jeff Loeser, former Melrose Auto Body (Saugus) shop owner and former Massachusetts Auto Body Association (MABA) president.
New England Automotive Report: When did you first get into the industry?
Jeff Loeser: As a little kid. My dad bought a body shop the year after I was born, and I probably started working there when I was about 10 years old. When I got into middle school, I would take a bus to school, but I would take a different bus that would bring me to the town line and then grab another bus from a school I didn’t go to, which would give me a ride to my dad’s shop. It was one of those things. I talked to the driver, and he understood. I just said, ‘Listen, I just want to go see my dad.’ And he said, ‘Get on the bus and shut your mouth.’ So they drove me to Saugus. I’d finish my homework on the bus or at my dad’s desk. I did that for years and then worked there all through high school. The day I graduated high school, I went to graduation, threw my hat up in the air, tucked it under my arm, jumped in my car and went to work. I didn’t have a graduation party. I worked. That’s all I did. I worked all my young life. I always had a decent amount of money. I always had a bunch of cars, like five or six at a time. And I didn’t really care about much aside from work and cars.
Fast forward to 1988, my dad got cancer and died within eight weeks. So, I was 25 and now I was the boss with a business to run, a mortgage to pay on the building and a mortgage to pay at my mother’s house where I still lived with her, along with my brother and sister who were both still in school, plus I had a whole bunch of bills and responsibility. It all happened in one day. So, I said to myself, ‘You know what? I am not going to do this forever. I’ll do this until I’m 50.’ I was 25 years old and did not want to get carried out the door like my father. I wound up retiring after 27 years. I missed it by two and a half years due to things beyond my control. But my goal was pretty clear. I almost made the 25 year mark, and I’ve been retired since.
I sold my business in 2016. I kept my building and sold all my shop equipment. And now I play with old cars for fun and I fix old body shop tools, like air tools and spray guns. I’ll either buy stuff on eBay or from a friend, or I’ll just see something and say ‘I remember those; those were good!’ I play with and repair some hydraulics. There was a famous hydraulics company called Porter Ferguson that used to make their stuff right in Somerville, Massachusetts. Porter Ferguson discontinued that line, so I’ll fix those tools and spray guns. I also fix air powered sanders from a company called National Detroit that are very difficult to find these days. I always have tools lying around in various stages of repair waiting for parts. I put them together and turn around and resell them. It keeps me busy, and it’s something I like to do. It’s like playing with Legos for big kids. That’s the best way to describe it. It’s different from working in a spray booth. I don’t really paint anymore, but I will If I have to. I still work on experimental aircraft and boats. Since I retired, I’ve restored a ‘66 Corvette Roadster, a ‘58 Jaguar XK150 and a ‘67 Jaguar E Type. Now, I’m working on a 1952 XK120.
NEAR: How long did you own your shop?
JL: In total, I owned the shop for almost 28 years, although I did run it six years before my father died. When he was still alive, I did everything except the estimating. I just dealt with the people and the cars. I took over the office work after he passed away.
NEAR: How did you get involved with the association (MABA at the time)?
JL: I was approached by MABA’s Executive Director Chris Muise. He came to visit me at my shop. Chris was probably the best salesman I ever met in my life, and that’s not to say that he fed me a bill of goods. He certainly did not! He asked me to consider joining the association and my reaction was ‘You know what, dude, I’m just here fixing cars, and I don’t have time for this.’ I was still pretty new in my career, and I gave it some thought, talked to some people and decided, what the hell did I have to lose, so I wrote him a check, and the rest is history. The association grew rather quickly, to the point where we established chapters so we could hold local meetings for those who knew each other on the local level rather than have everyone drive out to the middle of the state to meet. Each chapter needed its own Board of Directors. My feeling about needing to get involved with that goes the same as my yacht club: If there’s going to be a bunch of people in a room making decisions that are going to affect the way I do things, including how I spend my money, then I am going to be one of those people sitting in that room. That’s how it’s always been with me. So, I got involved with the local chapter, moved up the ranks. I went from chapter director to recording secretary right into the presidency. Unless something has changed since, I believe I am still the youngest person to have held that position. I was about 30 years old when I became president. I got married and had my first kid when I was serving as president. That was another first as no one had gotten married while serving as president before. They were interesting times. We used to have Board meetings in my kitchen.
NEAR: Any memorable things from those years you’d like to reflect on?
JL: I really enjoyed myself. I made a lot of really good, long-lasting friendships. It was nice to see a business transform before my eyes. During my father’s time, body shop owners didn’t talk to each other because it was basically ingrained by their elders to view anybody who did what they did not just as a competitor, but effectively as the enemy. You didn’t want your competitors to know what you were doing. You didn’t want them to know what kind of paint you were spraying. You definitely didn’t want them to know any of your customers’ names. And you absolutely would not think about picking up the phone to ask them to borrow a tool. That all did a 180 degree change. We very quickly figured out that not only are we not enemies – we’re like blood brothers. We were in the same boat, and to a large extent, carrying the same paddle. We’re going in the same direction. We all want the same things. I don’t want to pilfer your customers, and I don’t want you to pilfer mine, but if you need anything, you call me and you can have it.
Here’s a good story: Back in late 1999 into 2000, I closed down my shop to remodel. No matter what we did, there was one car that we could not get done in time before we shut down. My friend and colleague Ernie Nickole very graciously told me I could send my guys and all the materials to his shop with whatever tools they might need, and he’d set them up at his shop. He told me he could have my guys paint in his booth or he’d have his guys spray it, whatever I wanted. And he told me, ‘Don’t even consider offering me a dime because I don’t want to hear it.’ Can you imagine that? We went from the way my dad grew in this business to this in a very short time. It’s quite a testament to the formation of MABA. And this type of camaraderie frightened the insurance companies quite badly to the point that they infiltrated the association through a few people and destroyed it, and then we became partners in AASP National.
NEAR: You broke from MABA to help organize AASP/MA. What led to that?
JL: After the president of MABA at the time had me and Rick Starbard escorted out of the Board room by the police – a move that came out of nowhere – Rick and I talked about AASP. A small group of us got together and contacted AASP to let them know what we had to offer, who we were, where we came from and how we got to where we were, and they were very interested in opening up a chapter in Massachusetts. So, they basically adopted us, like an orphan child searching for a place to sleep. They graciously took us in and listened to what we had to say, and then we were off and running. I stayed in the background as my day at the big table was kind of over. My goals at that point had shifted toward preparing to retire and sell my business.
NEAR: Now all these years later, AASP/MA is the one left standing. How do you feel about that?
JL: It doesn’t surprise me one bit. MABA was losing members by the fistful mostly because of the people who were in charge.
NEAR: When did you decide to retire and why?
JL: At 25 years old, I had a plan to retire at 50, and I wound up retiring at age 52 and change.
NEAR: Do you think the industry has changed since you stepped away?
JL: Based on some of the things I’m hearing, it’s changed quite dramatically. The insurance industry seems to have used COVID-19 as a foothold to go wild and do the things that they always wanted to do and could never get away with in Massachusetts. For instance, taking photos of cars to send to the insurance company used to be forbidden, and then all of a sudden, that just went away. All you had to say was ‘due to COVID,’ and you could do whatever you want. It’s amazing, stunning actually. I hear things and get little tidbits here and there, but largely, I stay out of the body shop business and the entire industry. I’m not a rear view mirror guy. I don’t live in the rear view mirror; I don’t look in it.
NEAR: Do you have any hobbies you’d like to share?
JL: When I went to vocational school for high school, believe it or not, I went four years for carpentry. So, in high school we built four houses, and I’ve remodeled two of my own. I helped a whole bunch of my friends do very expensive renovations including some additions.
NEAR: Looking back now, some years removed, what comes to mind when you think about your time in the body shop industry?
JL: It actually saddens me to see this industry be captured and enslaved by the insurance industry, much like the medical industry. My doctor just retired, and I’m having a hell of a time finding a new doctor. He just gave up and retired. He decided he had enough money, and he didn’t need to do it and work for nothing. And in my opinion, the body shop industry has been captured and for all intents and purposes destroyed. It’s very difficult to make any money in that business unless you absolutely run a factory, and to me, that’s not repairing cars. I got into that business because I liked working on cars, and I liked doing a really nice job. I treated everybody’s car as if it belonged to me.
NEAR: What do you miss most? Least?
JL: What I miss the least is fighting over two-tenths of an hour or fighting over nickels and dimes for a tube of seam sealer. What I do miss is my friends. I miss the camaraderie. When I was a member of MABA and later when we went to AASP, I made some of the best friends I ever had. I’ll put it to you this way: When I got married, most of my friends, aside from lifelong friends, were from my business. I could point to any particular table and see Lucky Papageorg, Ernie Nickole the guys from Atlas Auto Body, Donald Smoot from Boston’s Advanced Automotive or the guys from Today’s Collision…this one and that one and right down the list. I’m still friends with all of them. We may not talk all the time, but we’re still friends. I just bumped into Kevin Kyes at a Zac Brown concert.
NEAR: What is the one thing you think you got out of this industry you would not have gotten if you didn’t pick this career?
JL: Most body shop guys will tell you this: When you can take a car that hits something at 40 miles an hour and make it drivable again in a quality way, you can fix anything. Anything from toasters to washing machines to the roof of your own house. Every body man I know can fix anything. It doesn’t matter what it is or how complicated it is. Because we have had to fix electrical, plumbing, even glass and very complicated mechanical issues like the inside doors on BMWs. I loved my job. I love fixing the impossible. Give me the most ridiculous, impossible thing to fix.
NEAR: Anything you want to say to your old body shop colleagues?
JL: I hope they’re all doing well, those who are still in the business – and for those who got out, God bless you. The people who know how to reach me, know how to reach me and the people who don’t know how to reach me, I’m not that hard to find.
Want more? Check out the January 2024 issue of New England Automotive Report!