Most people think of the business slowdowns related to COVID-19 in terms of the travel, retail, real estate, and food service industries.
It doesn’t leap to mind that an auto body repair shop would also suffer.
But that’s exactly what happened to Tom Bemiller, owner-operator of Ed’s Auto Body, part of The Aureus Group, located in Brookhaven.
The work-at-home orders meant fewer employees commuting to offices. That drop-off almost immediately cut into his bottom line. Less highway time curtails those on-road occurrences of things that send car owners to body shops.
You can’t get a door ding when your car sits in the driveway all day.
Then, amidst the decline in business, Mother Nature dealt Bemiller another blow.
In early August 2020, Hurricane Isaias roared across the East Coast. A logjam near the shop caused water from Chester Creek to overflow into the service bays, office, and work areas. Worse, the deluge hit at high tide, when local streams were swollen anyway.
“We ended up with five feet of water throughout the entire facility,” Bemiller recalled. “Everything in the building was wasted.”
When the waters receded, the full extent of the damage became clear. Electronics were ruined; equipment was gummed with sludge; the office was unsalvageable.
The aftermath necessitated a complete rebuild.
Bemiller immediately reached out for help. One of his earliest calls was to Geoff Sheehan, his go-to guy at Meridian Bank.
Sheehan remembers that Ed’s Auto Body was just beginning to claw its way back from its pandemic-related decline in business.
“We were starting to see light at the end of the tunnel last summer,” said Sheehan, Senior Vice President at Meridian Bank. “And then I get a text message from Tom with a picture of the shop under five feet of water. And I just got a knot in my stomach for him.”
Sheehan remembers his response as being less banker-ly and more like that of a friend and neighbor.
“Many bankers would immediately start thinking about collateral damage and exposure and default,” he said. “I’ve known Tom for a long time; weathered a lot of ups and downs with him over the years. I knew this would set him back. But I also knew he would find a way to work through it.”
Working together, the businessman and banker brought the site back. Where possible, to keep finances in line, Bemiller and his staff undertook restoration projects on their own.
“We painted the inside of the shop ourselves because my guy was there, and that was something he could do,” said Bemiller. “Anything that we could do ourselves, we did.”
He also kept up with repairs as he was able. He shifted work to his two other shop locations, offering perks like tow-truck pickups and drop-offs from customers’ homes.
“We certainly lost revenue,” Bemiller said. “But a lot of people went for it. They said, ‘Sure. I’ve been getting my car fixed here for years. You’re a trusty guy. No problem.’ So, we were able to continue, but just in a different capacity.”
The rebuild also took on a visionary stance. Bemiller decided to not just return the shop to its pre-flood state, but also improve it. “We held nothing back. We outfitted Ed’s with the latest state-of-the-art equipment, better than what we had before. We now have a beautiful customer care center.”
Other property upgrades included a newly paved parking lot and a new HVAC system.
Early summer will bring a grand re-opening.
Bemiller is quick to recognize the role Meridian Bank played in this resurrection.
“I’ve been a business owner for eight years and people have advised me over the years: make sure you have a great relationship with a local bank. I now completely understand why. I was able to call my banker at 11:00 at night, and he picked up the phone. Our strong business relationship enabled Geoff and Meridian to work with me throughout the entire process. I would have gone out of business if they weren’t there throughout all this.”
Sheehan sees this kind of client bridge-building — long term, visionary, personal, guiding them through the ups and downs both business and personal — as essential to his success at Meridian.
“I’ve been at this company doing what I do for 15 years,” he said. “I’ve sat at kitchen tables; I’ve sat in rooms where husbands and wives were in tears; I’ve asked people to pledge their house to keep their businesses going. You don’t forget lessons like that.”