Life on the Other Side: Longtime Shop Owners Share Why They Got Out

by Alana Quartuccio

Owning a business is one helluva an investment…and as every collision repair shop owner knows, it’s more than a financial one.

The expense goes beyond mere dollar signs. You find yourself spending countless hours at your desk which costs you dinner and social time with family and friends, and you pay dearly by not taking a vacation year after year because you simply cannot afford any time off. But building a business, supporting your family, taking care of customers and fixing cars are why you got into it. You put your heart and soul into your business. You live for the blood, sweat and tears…until one day, you realize it’s time to move on. 

“I didn’t have the strength to fight anymore; it was time to walk away,” declares Anthony Trama, who recently sold Bloomfield Auto Body after a successful 24-year run. 

Trama realized it was time to leave the industry two years ago, just when business started to recover from the pandemic. “I decided I wanted to get out of the business and semi-retire. It was about a two-year process. Despite things rebounding post-COVID, I still felt the struggles from insurance company battles. They tighten the noose more and more every year. I also had issues with the labor shortage. Those were the two major factors that led to my decision to get out.” He also decided that investing into more equipment and training to keep up with the continuous growth of ADAS and electric vehicle production was not something he wanted to be a part of in the near future. 

Looking back, Trama recalls why he got into it in the first place. “In the very beginning, it was a love affair with the cars, the process of fixing and repairing them and the joy of working on them. Then, that changed, and the focus became geared toward customer satisfaction and dealing with the insurance companies. I was driven by the customers’ love of the final product, but near the end, it became too much. The insurance companies made it twice as hard to make the same or less money.” Those daily battles with the insurance companies “sucked the joy” out of the things he did love most: serving the customers. And he’s not the only one whose decision to get out was impacted by dealings with insurers. 

After 34 years, Matt Casiano is walking away from his business, C&D Auto Body of South Hackensack. His flirtation with the idea of getting out of owning a collision repair business started a couple of years back. Now, he is working on taking more time for himself with plans to get his boating captain’s license as he pursues a different career path. 

“I was never DRP for any insurance company, but I got sick of dealing with the BS you need to accept in order to get paid,” shares Casiano. 

Repairing cars and helping customers is what drove him in this business. “I was their advocate,” he says of his customers. “I would advocate for them, and inform them so they could maximize their pay on a total loss. I’d do everything I could to make sure the insurance companies took as little advantage of them as possible.” 

The camaraderie and solving problems for others is what made him love it, but he decided it was time to move on. “I realized if I put the time and effort into anything else, I’d do better. The return on the time and effort you put in is low compared to other ventures.”

For Robbie Berman, his only regret is that he didn’t do it sooner. Berman sold Robbie’s Automotive and Collision Specialists in Dover two years ago after 39 years in the business. He says he’s happier, healthier and is just enjoying life. 

“I love the industry, but now being on the outside and not being a part of it anymore, I see a lot of terrible things about it. I talk to a lot of people who are still in it, and I feel the training and quality of repairs are going in the opposite direction of where the cars are going. Everyone I talk to asks me if I know of anyone looking for work; it was hard to find help when I was doing it. So, I don’t miss it. I have one regret: that I didn’t get out sooner. Now, I’m enjoying life and I have less stress. I am probably in the greatest shape of my life as I have time to eat right. When I was in the business, I had no balance. You never knew when seven or eight things would hit at once.” 

Second generation business owner Glenn Villacari said goodbye to his longtime business, Parkway Auto Body (with locations in Nutley and Lyndhurst), when he retired earlier this year after spending his entire life in the business. Villacari’s father started Parkway Auto Body in 1957. Although he didn’t come on board full time until 1979, the shop was a part of his life from the time he was a young child. He remembers hiding in the back of his father’s car when he drove to work on a Saturday so he could spend the day at the shop.

“It was in the family, so I just took a liking to it,” he reflects. “Spent all my summer vacations during high school at the shop.” 

The freedom from the daily grind is still sinking in as he gets used to having more time to himself. “Every day is Friday,” he jokes about his new lifestyle, sharing a story about going to a recent event on a Sunday. Feeling tired, he said to his wife, “It’s going to be so hard to go to work tomorrow. Oh hey, wait a minute, I don’t have to go.” 

“The freedom is good,” he adds. “I’m involved in a couple of things that are keeping me busy, but nothing that is taking up a ton of my time.” 

Villacari admits it took some time for him to commit to selling at first. He was approached by a few companies over the years. He would go back and forth on the idea, get cold feet and say no. His change of heart came when the thought occurred to him that he’d had the Nutley shop – the primary location for his business – for 20 years and how fast that time went. 

“Not to sound cliché, but I thought, ‘It seems like yesterday.’ Time goes by so fast, and if I am blessed to get another 20 years, that will likely fly by too. I had never known what it was like to not work. I have a grandson now, so that’s certainly a reality check. I’d like to travel, do things that I’ve thought about doing but never had time. Hopefully, I can enjoy as many years as possible doing what I want to do, and I couldn’t have done that with all the responsibility that I had.” 

Unlike some who were driven to leave the industry predominantly due to frustrations, it was truly the lifestyle change that led to Villacari’s decision. “I enjoyed this business a lot. It’s given me everything I have, but it is difficult. There were hard times, good times and bad times. But I was used to it; I grew up in it.” 

Villacari has fond memories of the early years, being part of AASP/NJ, building his team and watching the business grow over the years. 

“I built lifelong relationships. I will miss that stuff. I can’t say there was one reason that made me want to get out except the life perspective. It wasn’t about the insurance companies or how difficult they were to deal with. I always looked at the business like it was a game and you had a rule book for each insurance company. You had to know how to deal with them. We had great relationships with some insurance companies and not-so-great relationships with others. That’s the way the business went. It was a great journey.” 

Trama is loving life outside the body shop. He does miss his shop, his customers and the people he worked with, but he admits that he was totally burned out. “For 24 years, it was full throttle, non-stop work, work, work. It was work over everything else. I didn’t want my health to deteriorate and become a sick old man who missed out on a lot of stuff. Now, I’m focusing on the next 10 years…slowing it down and getting to enjoy things away from the constant rat race. I am enjoying the downtime and waking up when I want.

“I’m pretty content knowing that I can wake up and do what I want without being burdened by having to go work,” he continues. “One of the best things is Sunday night. I’m sure every shop owner has that feeling of dread as Monday comes along. Who isn’t going to show up? What cars are going to come in? What parts won’t come in? No words can explain how great it is to feel so carefree on a Sunday night.”

Although Trama doesn’t have set plans for the future, he’s enjoying the time to work on projects around the house he never had time for previously. Trama devoted many years serving on AASP/NJ’s Board of Directors and will continue on as an Honorary Board member. 

Berman has been helping some of his fellow body shop owners in their quest to sell and get out of the business. His advice to anyone considering it is, “Get out while you’re young enough to travel and see things. I think the biggest problem is that too many people retire in their late 60s or early 70s, and they don’t have the energy to do what they want to do. It’s too late. Time is more valuable than money, and that is something I didn’t realize back then.”

Not having the income he used to have doesn’t matter to him, as he is enjoying himself and is finding the time to be more valuable than income. “I’m not saying money isn’t important, but when you really look at how much time you have left, you think about how you want to enjoy it. I don’t get up in the morning sad about what I have to deal with. I never knew what was going to come at me when I got in the shop every morning.”

Six months into his retirement, Villacari says, “It’s a lot to get used to, not having to worry about others. It’s strange waking up and not having to think about the problems that may arise that day.”

He admits the thing he liked least about the collision repair world was the hours. “Going to work in the pitch black hours of the morning. Telling my wife I’d be home for dinner at 5pm or 6pm, only to have her call me at 8pm asking where I was after I was delayed yet again because a customer walked in late. It was all part of making it work.”

He loved the challenges the business end brought forth. Treating customers right and having curb appeal were big components of Parkway Auto Body’s success. If something failed, he learned a better way to fix it. Villacari was inspired by challenges. He believed strongly in educating and training his staff which he found to be a cost of doing business. “People would tell me I was wasting money by spending it on training employees who may leave. I didn’t see it that way. I looked at it like I trained a lot of people in the industry, and that made the industry better wherever they went. If I didn’t invest in training, my business wouldn’t have been in the position it was when it came time to sell.” 

Trama is in full agreement when it comes to continuously working hard at the business. The path may be different for every shop owner when it comes time to sell their shop, but he too believes it was the great reviews and customer satisfaction that sold his business. “I think one has to have an exit strategy from day one, and that is based on making good financial decisions for your business as well as good personal ones. I feel those factors are key in helping to set you up to get out. Never let the business run down or lose its status. Start early and never give up on the shop. Work hard until the end.” 

Berman loves everything about his life since he left the industry. He misses “the good people [he] worked with on a daily basis, the customers, the employees, the vendors and the appraisers who wanted cars fixed the right way, but I don’t miss haggling with the insurance companies to get paid a fair amount to repair the car to pre-accident condition.

“But after one year, I don’t miss the collision business at all. I still work with people, solving different problems. I was lucky to get out when I did so I can enjoy what’s left of my time on earth. I’d urge other shop owners to start thinking about their exit strategy now so they can do all the things they’d like to do while they still can.”

Casiano is content with his decision to leave the industry as he looks toward the future for not only himself but for his kids. “I realized I don’t want them going into this business. Not that it’s a horrible industry; I’ve had a lot of success, but I want something different for them.” 

While he has stepped away from owning a collision repair shop, he may consider working in the industry in some type of consulting role, while he also contemplates other ventures. Meantime, he is truly enjoying the time “to do the things I like to do, like skiing and boating. It doesn’t matter what business you’re in; if you put in a lot of time, you won’t get that time back. I figure in 30 years time, I probably worked as much as people do in 50 years. It’s time to stop and smell the roses for a bit.” 

Want more? Check out the November 2023 issue of New Jersey Automotive!