Chop Shop Customs

Nov 30, 2009

Lenny Schaeffer is the owner and operator of Chop Shop Customs in Woburn, Mass. The Boston area is fun and full of history. However, it also presents a few obstacles for young businesses, including fierce competition and a pool of labor of that can be difficult to fish from. Despite that, Chop Shop Customs is one young business that’s making all of the right moves.

The Start

Chop Shop Customs was started by Schaeffer and his wife, Dana, three-and-a-half years ago.

Explaining why the middle-aged couple decided to start the business when they did Schaeffer, in a thick Massachusetts accent, says, “Basically, I wanted to do it sooner rather than later. I had always wanted to open up a shop doing specialty hot rod and restoration work. My wife and I decided that we would be better off to do it soon rather than continue to wait.”

He adds that like many other similar business owners, he started out by working with friends on nights and weekends. It’s a familiar story, and no one was surprised when it grew to be more than just friends, to where Schaeffer was doing this work part time.

Of course, spending New England weekends and evenings wrenching on an assortment of friends’ vehicles wasn’t Schaeffer’s first foray into the automotive industry. With the exception of a short stint in the restaurant business, he’s actually spent the overwhelming majority of his adult life working with cars in one way or another.

Schaeffer says that he began his grease monkey habits at an early age, 14 years-old. Currently 44-years of age, that means Schaeffer has three decades of this work under his belt, and he pretty much always has been self-motivated.

“My full-time job was managing a dealership before I opened this, and I was also a flat-rate technician before I opened Chop Shop Customs. I also worked in restoration shops for many years,” says Schaeffer.

However, despite having a dream to do so and substantial experience, Schaeffer waited until it felt right to start his own business.

“I guess what finally made me decide to go for it was continuing to be pushed toward it by some friends,” says Schaeffer. He also points that while it wasn’t the best it has ever been, the economy three-and-a-half years ago was certainly stronger than it is now.

“I felt it was the right time to do it and leave my 80-hour-a-week dealership management job, and I decided to work 80 hours here instead. I decided that if I was going to put that kind of time into a dealership that I didn’t own, it was time for me to move on and do it in my own business, for myself,” says Schaeffer.

That he has done.

The Cars

When asked what types of cars Chop Shop Customs works on, Schaeffer says that it is quite a broad spectrum.

“For our restoration end, we do a lot of British automobiles, and we also work on quite a few Corvettes. Right now, we’re really all over the board, but primarily, we work on pre-1972 vehicles. That is our main focus,” says Schaeffer.

The founder, owner and operator started off wanting to fine tune and custom tailor mainly 1930s street rod work and 1950s upgraded customs. However, the shop quickly moved into doing a lot of muscle car work, as that profitable trend gained momentum and popularity. Also, it wasn’t as if Schaeffer and his venerable crew of hot-rod veterans didn’t know anything about muscle cars or have an affinity for them. They did.

Schaeffer knows and likes muscle cars very well. In fact, this fan of early rides has actually owned seven Mustangs.

“My knowledge and the knowledge of my employees was just as extensive for those vehicles as it was for more traditional hot rods. We have worked on them continually,” says Schaeffer.

Schaeffer says that he didn’t target muscle cars because, “Up until recently, a lot of more standard collision shops would take on a muscle-car restoration, and the competition for a restoration/metal shop like ours was too high, basically, to compete with. Nowadays, it seems like those collision shops are more specialized, and they’re steering away from doing anything to do with that type of work, custom work. Muscle cars are a significant percentage of my business now,” says Schaeffer.

He has certainly worked on them enough to pick up on a trend within the resto-mod market for muscle cars.

“Right now, just here and there, I’m starting to see some 1970s TransAms and Firebirds come through this place. Some 1970s cars are at least making appearances at the shop for estimates,” says Schaeffer.

Though they’re coming into the shop and asking questions about price, Schaeffer isn’t yet convinced of the commitment the 1970s enthusiasts have for their vehicles. At least, he’s not sure of how much of a financial investment they’re willing to commit to.

“I just don’t know how far along they’re going to go with actually doing the jobs,” says Schaeffer. However, he points out, “My main business is still 1930s to 1960s American and British cars.”

The Work

Stating the types of services offered at Chop Shop Customs, Schaeffer says that they’re basically a full-build shop. As the economy has changed, he has watched trends-”something he developed a keen eye for while running dealerships. Doing so, he has noticed that a lot of changes have taken place.

“We started out as a full-build shop with a focus on metal work, body work and paint. I would say my main business is comprised of those three, but we also have fulltime mechanics for disc brake upgrades, suspension upgrades on muscle cars and motor conversions. We’ve added all of that in the last year-and-a-half as we’ve become more focused on that kind of work,” says Schaeffer.

He adds that he really hasn’t seen many fuel-injection upgrades to older vehicles, though he has seen quite a few suspension upgrades.

“With those, we’re usually just doing Air Ride or upgrading the suspension to Detroit Speed & Engineering, and I’m actually a dealer for Chris Alston’s Chassisworks, so we’re doing a lot of their suspension conversions in Mustangs, which is going very well,” says Schaeffer.

The Employees

The struggle to find quality employees that will get on board with a company’s vision, goals and work ethic is something all business owners have to endure. However, as many business owners and industry insiders will attest to, finding dedicated employees for this type of work in the Northeast is very difficult-”even more so than in many other areas of the country.

Providing his views on this subject, Schaeffer sighs and says, “Truthfully, in four years, I’ve been through a lot of employees. I won’t hire anymore trade school graduates unless they come from a background in which they’ve already had automotive experience. It’s a tough situation, because I know those schools are very big supporters of the hobby. But, a lot of those kids don’t realize that nine months of school doesn’t make you a hot rod builder.”

Despite those initial frustrations, Schaeffer has found a way to put together a very well experience group of guys for Chop Shop Customs.

“My best luck with finding good guys, having worked in this business for 25 years, is pulling in people that I have worked with in the past. For example, Rick, my shop foreman, I’ve known since 1988, and he’s an excellent metal fabricator,” says Schaeffer.

He adds that word-of-mouth helps. When weeding through potential hires, Schaeffer says the qualities that make an employee desirable to him are a genuine love of cars and a desire to work at Chop Shop Customs or a shop like it.

“It’s not just any old shop that they want to work at. They want to work here. They legitimately want to do this for a living. When I’m looking for employees, I do not want people that watch clocks. I want them to be dedicated to the cars, a finished project and attention to detail,” says Schaeffer.

After four years in business, Schaeffer has now established a really good crew with those sought-after attributes. However, he has observed something about his current crew that causes him to stop and think about the industry’s future. It’s nothing negative against them, they all have years of valuable experience, and they have all worked on award-winning vehicles at some point during their careers. It’s their age.

“I’m realizing that the crew I have is all over 40, which bothers me to an extent. I’ve been building cars, basically, since I was 14. And, it shouldn’t be that way. I find that the dedication and work ethic with a lot of kids now isn’t there. That’s a very personal and concerning opinion, and I don’t know if that’s just because I’m getting older or not,” says Schaeffer.

He’s frustrated with schools, noting they don’t teach restoration at the high-school level, and at the trade-school level, a four-month crash is not going to teach someone this trade. “When I was learning, I worked for free as an apprentice in a shop with guys that knew what they were doing. They were willing to teach those that wanted to learn. I find that a lot of people won’t do that now. It’s not that I’m looking for something for nothing; it’s just that in order to be on my payroll, you have to produce billable hours for customers. It’s a tough business,” says Schaeffer.

“In an employee, I’m looking for people who are in the hobby and own cars. Generally, if they’re younger guys, their fathers are into cars. They grew up in the hobby and in the business. That makes a much better employee for this business. You could have a dedicated and a hardworking individual, but in this business, you also have to be tenacious. You’ve got to be able to focus, and you’ve got to be able to self-manage,” says Schaeffer.

He adds that he goes down to NASCAR country, sees the prevalence of dedication and youth, and he just wishes that he could find it.

The Customers

Who are Chop Shop Customs’ customers? According to Schaeffer, the demographics are all over the board. However, due to positive word-of-mouth, Chop Shop Customs has been able to draw in desirable clients.

“Generally, a customer’s average age ranges from 40 to 60. They’re a multiple car owner. In other words, what they make, I don’t know. But, I do look at what they own for cars,” says Schaeffer.

If you can, Schaeffer says it’s definitely better to work with people who have experience with cars-whether they buy and sell them or they’re dedicated enthusiasts.

“I have customers that love the build part of it,” says Schaeffer. “And yes, they’re okay with showing it, but they actually love the build end of it and they’re involved. They’re into the car that they’re building, and they’re into the shop, and I find that customer is the best customer. I find that their financial standing isn’t the most important thing; it’s just important that they’re realistic on the cost.”

Schaeffer adds that in four years, he has already learned a lot of hard lessons. “You can tell somebody that it’s $25,000 for a particular piece, and they hear $10,000, and that’s definitely a first-time builder mistake. They don’t realize what it costs.”

Schaeffer is working on a Jaguar for one of his customers, the second project he’s worked on with the client, for whom he also maintains his other cars. The operator of the client’s former shop retired, and Schaeffer inherited this customer’s cars.

“When you get a customer like that, they’re super. They’ve already been schooled on what these projects cost. They’re well-educated customers, and I deal better with well-educated customers,” says Schaeffer.

Of course, not all of Chop Shop Customs’ clients are quite that easy to work with.

“The other customer I get comes in because I have an old school shop. I do not have a showroom. I don’t even have an office staff; I have a girl that comes in during the morning and does the books,” says Schaeffer.

“I guess my best customers are educated, and they’ve been through all of the big restoration shops, all of the fluff and buff in there, and they realize that they’re paying for that. So, when they come into a shop like mine, they realize that they’re not going to get the pretty showroom, but they’re going to get the quality work. My whole crew has, at one time, worked for all of those upper restoration shops. In one form or another, all of my crew have produced trophy-winning work for other places,” says Schaeffer.

Word of Mouth

That crew has helped Schaeffer to establish a great reputation for Chop Shop Customs, allowing them to rely on word-of-mouth for most of their marketing. That word of mouth has brought in great customers, allowing Schaeffer to work on classics morning and night, which he loves. In fact Schaeffer loves most aspects of running his own business, paper work being the notable exception.

With their clients, experience and work ethic, when looking into the shop’s future, one can only see Chop Shop Cusotms’ reputation strengthening, and more paper cuts for Schaeffer.