Former MABA Head Bob Johnson Misses the People, Not the Insurance Woes

by Alana Quartuccio

Many faces have made contributions in fighting for the betterment of the collision repair landscape in the Commonwealth. New England Automotive Report has been on a mission to track down some of the auto body association leaders who have helped pave the way over the years. This month, we caught up with Bob Johnson, former owner of Grove Auto Body and Massachusetts Auto Body Association (MABA) Plymouth County chapter president, to learn about what he’s been up to since he retired from collision repair life. 

New England Automotive Report: When did you first get into the industry?

Bob Johnson: When I was 16….I liked cars, so I used to buy all the hot rod magazines, and I got interested in customized cars. A friend of mine, who is still a friend today, lived next door to me at the time, and he banged up his mother’s car. He and I fixed it in the backyard, so that’s what kind of started it. The body shop that I wanted to work at, Easton Auto Body, was friends with that family. The shop guy saw the car when it was damaged, and then he saw it fixed and asked if another body shop did it. When they told him it was their son and the kid next door, he told them to send me over, and he’d set me up with a job. I kept pestering him until they hired me. 

NEAR: Tell us about your shop. How long did you own it? 

BJ: My shop was Grove Auto Body. I started the business in 1970 and sold it in 2001.

NEAR: How did you get involved with the association (MABA at the time)? 

BJ: I was introduced to John Jason, who owned Centerville Auto Body in Brockton, and Paul Ridley, who was on the MABA Board at the time, and we all became friends. We all decided to get involved at the time as it was all coming apart.

NEAR: Were you an officer of MABA? How long did you serve? Any memorable things from those years you’d like to reflect on? 

BJ: I was on the Board of Directors for seven years, and I was president of the Plymouth County Chapter for two years. We had term limits, something which the government should have today (chuckles). John was the first president of the chapter, and then he got sick. God bless his soul, that guy worked his tail off regardless of whether he was ill or not; it didn’t matter. When he passed away, I became president, and I did it for two years. Getting involved with the association was one of the best things I ever did in my life because I made so many friends. The body shop owners in the area were all good friends, and many still are today, even though some are gone or some sold their shops. We’re still all friends. 

NEAR: When did you decide to retire, and why?

BJ: I couldn’t take the fighting and arguing with the insurance companies anymore. I had enough. I just finally had it one day while working on a car in the shop. At one time, I had as many as nine employees, but I had cut it way back to about five or six. It was a day in August that was hotter than hell. I got up off the creeper, and my knee snapped, and it hurt. I have bad knees. I stood up and said, ‘This is it, I’m done.’ I walked from the back room, through the paint shop and body shop to the office, and I said to the girl working in the office, who I was seeing at the time, ‘You better decide what you want to do with the rest of your life, because next year at this time, I won’t be here.” She asked me what I wanted to do and I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I do know what I am not going to do: be here. I’m done.’ Three months later, Danny Sullivan from DJ Sullivan Collision Center called to ask me if I was still interested in selling the business, I said ‘Yes, we need to talk,’ and that was the end of it. 

NEAR: What have you been doing in the time since you retired?

BJ: I left in 2001, and I started a sign business (truck lettering, boat lettering signs). Nobody tells me what my labor rate is going to be…nobody says, ‘We don’t pay for that.’ I don’t hear any of that anymore, and it’s like a breath of fresh air. 

NEAR: Do you think the industry has changed since you stepped away?

BJ: As per what I hear from a close friend of mine, it’s gotten worse. Now, some shops are charging a copay, and I think that’s a very smart move. But you have to get everybody to do it. I know of at least three shops right now who are doing this, and the customers are paying it. What do you do when you go to the doctor? It’s the same thing. But if you’re on all these damn referral lists and program lists, you can’t do that because you agree that all you want to get paid is what the insurance company will pay. And that is the biggest problem with this industry, and it always has been. If you sign on to say that X amount of dollars is all you need and then there’s shops like mine that weren’t on any lists, why should i have to get the same amount that they get? 

NEAR: Do you have any hobbies you’d like to share?

BJ: Yes, I have two hot rods. One is a Pro Street ‘57 Chevy, and I have an ‘87 Grand Marquis that my mother bought brand new. 

NEAR: What comes to mind when you think about your time in the body shop industry?

BJ: It was okay at one time. You could make a good living at it, but it got to the point where things were so bad some of the big shops began ‘stealing’ to make up the difference. I talk to people who work for them. They’re not putting stuff on the cars, or they won’t straighten that or fix this, and that is how they make up the difference. That’s not fair because you’re not cheating the insurance company; you’re cheating the customer. It’s just not right. I had one of these shops call up one day, back when I was on the Board, and ask me, ‘What are we going to do about the labor rate?’ and I said, ‘Wait a minute, did you say we? You are on every referral list in the state that says I have to work for that labor rate and you are telling me that we have a problem?’ I hung up on him. What a stupid thing to ask, ‘What are we going to do about the labor rate?’ He was the problem. 

NEAR: What do you miss the most? The least? 

BJ: What I miss about the body shop industry is my people. The other shops. We all became good friends. We all worked very, very hard to make a difference. We had meetings once a month. We had good turnouts. We had like 20 people turn out for a meeting on a Wednesday night. And we shared a lot of information. Not anti-trust stuff, just information about how you can make your shop run better and stuff like that. We worked hard, and I miss that camaraderie, but like I said, I am still friends with most of them today, those who are still with us. What I miss the least – I am just so happy to not be arguing with some bonehead appraiser who never fixed a car in his life and wouldn’t know which end of the screwdriver to use but wants to tell me how to fix the car and what he’s not paying me for. That is frustrating. 

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?

BJ: At one time, you could make a good living in that business, and you were proud of what you did. I did a lot of high-end cars. We didn’t specialize in it, but I did a lot of work for a Ferrari dealership and Porsche and BMW dealerships. It was very satisfying. These people buy $100,000 cars, and then they crash it and want to see it be corrected. I remember a customer saying, ‘Wow, it looks like nothing ever happened to it!’ That’s the way it is supposed to be. I do miss the customers. I don’t miss insurance appraisers. I am still friends with a couple of them who were ok guys, they were just doing their job. But there were some of them that would lie and tell you they were going to pay for something, and then you’d get the sheet and see all the things they left out.

NEAR: Anything else you’d like to share with your former colleagues and friends? 

BJ: I miss them. I miss the people. We had a good thing. It was like a family here in Plymouth County. 

Want more? Check out the February 2024 issue of New England Automotive Report!