Larry Greider spotted a flaw on the visitor's pickup as soon as it pulled into the lot of Auto Masters Collision and Service Center in Derby. That knack for recognizing opportunities big and small has helped Greider turn Auto Masters, which also has two Wichita locations, into one of the area's largest businesses of its kind.
And it'll soon get bigger.
Construction is under way on an Auto Masters service and collision center at 21st and Hoover in west Wichita. When finished, the 27,000-square-foot facility will be more than twice the space of the current west Wichita location at 737 N. Tyler, which performs only body work. Greider hopes to have it open by October or November.
"It's a big gamble," Greider said of his decision to expand. "We're hoping the service end will help out there."
The former dirt track racer says his first gamble, buying Auto Masters, nearly backfired. His attorney had advised against it, citing the previous owner's financial and tax problems. On the day Greider took over, the telephone company disconnected the phones and the trash company took back its receptacles. Upset customers showed up with warranty issues.
He had a body repair man, a painter and a bookkeeper on staff. Greider had been manager of the body and parts department of a car dealership.
That was 1995. Today, he employs 42 people.
"It was a slow process," he said. "There were some rough times making it."
Greider says the key to his early survival was work for car dealerships. He still does a significant amount of work for the Gorges and Suzuki dealerships.
About five years after buying Auto Masters, he moved farther south on Derby's main drag to a former car dealership at 910 Nelson. Greider and employees did much of the renovation work themselves after hours.
When a property across the street in Derby came up for sale, Greider bought it and added a service department for oil changes, tune-ups and similar work. When he couldn't find someone to operate a car lot on that property, he went into the used-car business himself. He also opened a second used-car lot on West Kellogg about five years ago and a third body shop in downtown Wichita at 1636 E. First St. in 2009.
Still, he hasn't rushed into things. He's owned the land at 21st and Hoover since 2001, waiting for the right time to expand.
"It's just we've gotten more versatile," he said. "We do everything on your car except interior work, which we're trying to add, too."
Auto Masters has also adjusted to a big change in his industry mandated by insurance companies through "direct repair" programs. Much like the health insurers, car insurance providers now direct policy holders to certain body shops for estimates and repairs, rather than have customers obtain estimates themselves. The change saves insurers money and has meant a steady stream of work for Auto Masters, Greider said.
Last year, Auto Masters had sales of about $9 million, which Greider said ranks it among the largest in the Wichita market.
Having a fleet of 60 cars he can offer as free loaners for people getting repairs — even if they're without their own cars for only a few hours — is one of the things that sets Auto Masters apart, he said.
Other factors in the company's success include a low hourly rate for mechanical work and an experienced staff. Painter Jay Cheever and Debbie James, Greider's office manager and sister-in-law, have been with Greider from the beginning. John Corbin, manager of the service department, has been huge in its success, Greider said. Greider's wife, Kim, started helping with bookkeeping a couple of years ago.
Most important is satisfying customers, even if insurance companies are calling many of the shots. Greider keeps a big binder full of thank-you cards that have been returned by customers with glowing comments.
"We wouldn't have grown to where we are today if we didn't have repeat customers," he said.