EDITOR’S NOTE: Since the publication of this article on March 4, The Daily Gazette has learned that John W. Cole is standing trial in Saratoga County Court in connection with a March 2017 crash in Halfmoon. Cole is facing assault, vehicular assault, driving while intoxicated and reckless driving charges for the crash on Sitterly Road that left one of his passengers, Deanna Shapiro, paralyzed. The Daily Gazette reported Cole’s arrest in the case in May 2017 but didn’t include this information in this profile.
COLONIE — John Cole has made a career out of uncrumpling smashed-up cars, and more recently he’s made a career for others out of it.
The Clifton Park resident did his first auto body work in his early teens, trying to scrape together money to buy a car. He spent his 20s and 30s working in other people's body shops, and opened his own shop in his early 40s. Now 53 years old, he has expanded Cole’s Collision Centers to five locations with a total of 85 employees. His ambition is to double the number of employees and shops, if he can find the right people and the right locations, both of which can be challenging.
This is a change from the early days, a dozen years ago, when Cole and his wife used their house as collateral to open the first shop on Central Avenue in Colonie.
“I never really had the intention of having multiple stores,” he says now.
The intention to open that first shop didn’t really set in until he moved from repair work to management. Until that point, he was focused on the cars themselves. Seeing the larger picture of how the operations were run convinced him that there would be a market for a better body shop.
Cole’s father was a district manager for Ryder, in which capacity he sent a lot of business to a local body shop, which in turn hired the young Cole as a part-timer. In subsequent years and decades, he strayed from the field at times but never left.
“I kind of stayed in the industry,” Cole said.
His stint in college studying biology and chemistry was short-lived, and Cole soon found himself back in the body shop full-time. Like his father, he worked multiple jobs, bouncing back and forth between construction work and auto body repair, putting a lot of wear and tear on his back along the way.
“I was on the floor about 17 years, and then I just tried management,” he said. He took a pay cut to relieve the pressure on his back and began the second phase of his career.
Cole found himself dissatisfied there, though, seeing too much emphasis on salesmanship and not enough on service.
“I knew there’s a better way to do this,” he said. “I know there’s a higher level of customer service you can bring to the table.”
But he also came to realize he couldn’t bring about those changes at a business he didn’t own.
In 2006, bankrolled by the loan on the family home and assisted with renovations by friends and family, he opened that first shop on Central Avenue in Colonie.
Barely a year later, the owner of Spa Body Works asked Cole to buy him out.
“He didn’t want to sell it to anyone but me,” Cole said.
He was daunted by the financials but his banker said he could make it work. Cole’s Collision soon had locations in Ballston Spa and Wilton.
Since then, he said, he’s plowed the profits back into the company.
Cole opened his fourth shop in Clifton Park in 2012. He also moved the Colonie headquarters down Central Avenue to a brand-new facility.
And after six years of searching for the right site in Rensselaer County, and two deals that fell through, he opened location No. 5 in North Greenbush in 2017, not far from his boyhood home in Averill Park.
Cole wants additional shops, perhaps even in neighboring states. But as hard as it can be to find the right locations, the bigger obstacle is filling them with workers.
He calls his employees his greatest asset and also his hardest asset to acquire.
“We can only grow as fast as our employees get trained,” Cole said. There’s a shortage of trained technicians, he said, severe enough that the company does its own training and invests in vocational education programs at BOCES, Questar and Hudson Valley Community College.
“I think every blue-collar industry is hurting for good people,” Cole said. “The demography of younger generations is not really tuned to blue-collar jobs.
“Our greatest task is trying to find those guys.”
And they are mostly guys. Cole’s Collision has a female management trainee, and a female painter whom Cole calls one of the best in the region.
But most female employees of Cole’s Collision work in customer service, which Cole said is not his choice but a result of the longstanding division of labor along gender lines -- not many women go into the field. Auto body repair can be heavy work, although it’s not as hard as it once was.
The auto body repair industry has changed markedly since that boy saving up for a car first walked out onto the shop floor.
Safety, cleanliness and technology have advanced tremendously, Cole said.
He recalled an early incident that could have ended very badly: He was using a torch to cut the bumper off an old Plymouth Duster and didn’t realize the gas tank filler pipe was leaking. The flame ignited gasoline fumes and the resulting blast blew him out from under the car. The Duster stayed on its jack stands and they were able to put out the fire and save the vehicle. Cole walked away with minor burns and a cautionary tale to share.
Safety protocols are in place today to reduce that sort of danger to employees, Cole said, and mandatory safety gear protects their eyes, skin and lungs.
There are also steps in place to protect the environment.
The industry has really cleaned up in the past two decades, Cole said, and his shops have been green right from the start.
“It’s an incredible amount of money that goes into each store,” he said, mentioning as examples the quadruple filters on the paint booths and segregation of waste material for disposal by contractors.
Cole aims for the organized functionality of a factory production line and the cleanliness of a dentist’s office.
“Our stores, our grounds, our properties are super-duper clean,” he said.
The efforts of Cole and his employees brought another dividend recently: Cole’s Collision gained certification to repair Jaguar and Land Rover vehicles, one of only 105 such companies in North America. It’s now seeking certification to fix Tesla cars.
These are expensive vehicles that are profitable to repair, Cole said, and having the certifications creates a ready market for his services.
“It’s absolutely a niche audience,” he said.
As he built his business, Cole has had surprises (a deceased coyote wedged behind a bumper) and thrills (meeting celebrities, such as they are, in the auto body repair world) and a good team behind him (he’s had to fire just one manager in his 11-plus years).
As the profits started coming in and debts were paid off, he’s also had the chance to return some of the support he’s received from the communities where he runs his shops.
“The communities that we serve have been very good to us,” Cole said. He has made donations to dozens of charitable organizations, but he’s most partial to those that help children.
“I had a childhood disease, [so] I lean toward Ronald McDonald House and Make-A-Wish,” he said.
Cole’s father told him he could do whatever he wanted despite his problems, as he moved from body cast to wheelchair to crutches. The message stuck.
“As an 8-year-old, I never thought there was anything wrong with me. I did everything they said I couldn’t do,” Cole said.
He and his wife, Regina, have three children ages 16 to 21. The oldest, John and Nicholas, both young men now, are learning the family business. The youngest, Juliana, is still in high school and hasn’t decided on a career yet.