Arlie Overton hit the brakes and stared into his review mirror as he drove away from the business that bears his name - Arlie’s Paint, Body, and Glass, for the last time. He watched the sliding garage door drop like a slow guillotine in the red glow of his taillights.
It felt like a death, but not an execution, more like watching a loved one close their eyes after a three-year bout with cancer.
“It was a part of me,” Overton said.
It had been nearly three years since Arlie’s had been infected with a financial disease. It began with one phone call in 2009. It lasted less than a minute; the voice on the other end of the line telling Arlie that his banker had been shut down. The banker had neglected too many regulations. Overton said he was on top of the world one night and then felt like he was digging out from under a pile of ruinous debt the next day.
Arlie’s was underwater on all of its equipment. All of the assets at Arlie’s, including the new building at the northern edge of Roosevelt were worth less than when they were in 2007, before the economy crashed. It was bad timing.
The business plan Overton carefully crafted called for periodic loans to cover both the substantial fixed costs of building a collision repair shop and continued payments on materials. By itself, one gallon of maroon car paint primer costs $600.
The new banker did not agree with the former plan — he might as well have tossed it out of a window. Overton could not get a new bank because he was leveraged on so many unsecured loans. He was trapped.
Overton started his collision repair business in 2003 with a downtown shop in Marion. He had the simple goal of offering big-city work at a small-town location. He wanted Arlie’s to be the best shop in the area, and he feels he succeeded.
Over most of a decade, Overton established a standard — work to live up to. He knows it was hard on his employees. He remembered having a couple of his guys redo a job multiple times.
“What you did in the areas the customer can’t see are just as important as the areas the customer can see,” Overton explained to the young men who worked for him.
He believes it was that standard that kept Arlie’s so busy. Overton would work in the front of the shop dealing with customers during business hours. He would go home for dinner at 6 p.m., because his family always ate together and he would not miss it. He would stay at home until his youngest children went to bed, usually about 8:30 p.m. Then he would go back to the shop and paint the jobs the guys had repaired or maybe bang out some fenders himself. Sometimes his work day ended at 11 p.m. Sometimes he’d be in the shop until 2 a.m.
Weekends were much the same. Being his own boss, Overton would go to his children’s ball games or events, but he would eventually find his way back into the shop.
To relieve some of the stress in this tortuous routine, Overton took pleasure in some little things. Many times, Shannon Allen would drive by, see Overton’s car parked in the lot, and come in and help his boss for a while. It was not necessary — Overton said he worked those hours so his guys could go home at 6 p.m. — but it was appreciated.
Little things like Josh Whitwell stopping at the shop while making his patrols, Overton relished those late night conversations.
Overton also understood that little things were important to the customer. He always enjoyed handing a customer a small goodie bag they gave out ritually after every repair. It seemed silly to Overton now, but he knew it meant a lot to people.
He also understood that the guy who drops in just to grab a Tootsie Roll out of the tray in the front lobby would be more likely to bring his car in after a wreck if Overton took the time to chat with him; the man would trust Overton because he knew him.
Building relationships were just as important as building quarter panels. A colleague tried to dissuade Overton from entering the collision repair business. It was going to be a constant cycle of hard-line negotiations with insurance adjusters who always wanted to drive down the price.
With a positive approach, Overton feels that many of those insurance people became friends. There was a time for business and a time for friendly conversation and Overton found the right mixture.
“It’s tough to treat somebody bad, if you always treat them good,” Overton said.
Overton worked all those hours and built all those relationships but it could not stop that door from closing Aug. 3.
He was a victim of circumstance as much as anything: wrong business, wrong time. He harbors a few regrets, but is slowly letting them go. He feels God closed that door.
As much as Arlie’s closing felt like a funeral, Overton has taken it as a new beginning. The resurrection, for Overton at least, has already started.
Overton started this past week at Conklin Cars in Newton as a salesman. He’s looking forward to developing his people skills to build new relationships. His relationship with Conklin began with repairs at Arlie’s. Conklin had always been good to him.
“Why would you want to work for somebody when you’ve been your own boss? You would give up that freedom.”
This was a question recently posed to Overton by a fellow entrepreneur.
“What freedom?” Overton responded. “I’m ready to give up some of that responsibility.”
Overton had been a business owner for more than 21 years. He owned a trucking business from 1992 to 2005. Collission repair started as a hobby then became a second job. From 2003 through 2005, he would make trucking runs, bringing groceries to Jefferson City or Omaha at night and work at Arlie’s during the day.
Overton does not believe his days as a entrepreneur are over, but he’s more than willing to take a sabbatical.
There’s a price to pay to be an entrepreneur and Overton paid it. He never missed anything with his family that he wanted to attend, but he was never all there either. Through every movie, every card game, part of his mind was at the shop, planning out the work that needed to be completed later that day.
On his first free weekend, Overton planned to go to Newton and see a movie with his wife, Gina.
He is looking forward to taking the family on a vacation. They have not been able to hop in a car and leave for a week while Arlie’s was in business.
There were a lot of pleasures Overton took away from Arlie’s. One was seeing parents’ cars when he started and then seeing the children in the family coming in with their own vehicles, learning their own lessons. Overton passed down his skills in collision repair down to his son Alan. Alan worked in the shop since he was 13. Overton feels good knowing Alan has a marketable skill to use as a 22-year-old.
Now Overton is looking for the pleasures in his new job. As a car lover, it’s nice to be around vehicles. The famed new-car smell permeates the Conklin show room.
Like that new car straight off the assembly line, Overton is starting fresh, a new beginning. This time he’s willing to take his hands off the wheel and let somebody else drive.