"We don't do full collision work. We do nips and tucks — not reconstructive surgery," said Colin Wheeler, president and owner of Acupaint LLC, an auto body repair shop that specializes in cosmetic repairs.
"We do very little work for insurance companies. Our average retail invoice is $100 to $150 over the typical $500 deductible. Most people don't claim the work under their insurance," said Wheeler, a mechanical and production engineer who left the trade in 1989, and later worked for a Hartford auto body shop. In July 2000, he launched Acupaint with a $40,000 loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration.
"I always wanted to have my own business," said Wheeler, 50, whose company employs six people.
Eighty percent of Acupaint's clients are auto dealers and car rental companies. But the economic downturn, which has T-boned the nation's automakers, is putting a dent in the company's revenue, Wheeler said. Sales are down 14 percent this year, the result of a decline in auto rentals and the closure of several local auto dealers, he said.
"In terms of profit, we're down only 2 to 3 percent. When money becomes tight you become a bit more efficient," said Wheeler, who declined to give additional financial details.
The faltering economy has also ruined Wheeler's plans to open a second location and buy his own building. He leases an 8,000-square-foot shop in Bloomfield, and next year the five-year lease is up, he said.
Unlike most auto body repair shops, there are no frame machines on site.
"We focus heavily on color matching," said Wheeler, who stocks thousands of dollars worth of auto paint that can cost more than $100 a quart. Paint is mixed by the gram in Dixie cups — a single cupful will cover a bumper corner — and is applied under special lights that mimic the full-spectrum of natural light.
Unlike some larger auto body repair shops where employees specialize in pulling dents, filling or painting, technicians at Acupaint typically complete the entire job themselves, said Shelly Bourgoin, an industry veteran with nearly 30 years experience.
"I often need to get the car done and back the next day," said Bourgoin, who was gently sanding the passenger door of a silver 2007 Nissan Maxima.
"You have to have the eye for this kind of bodywork," she said.