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Front and Center: Toby’s Body and Fender

Keith Tobiason, left, and his father Bob operate Toby’s Body & Fender in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Keith Tobiason, left, and his father Bob operate Toby’s Body & Fender in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland)

When new customers walk into Toby’s Body & Fender, naturally they ask for “Toby.”

So when ownership of the business transfers, the nickname goes with it.

World War II Navy veteran Clyde Tobiason launched Toby’s in 1945.

His son, Bob, took over the shop – and the nickname – three decades later.

A year or so from now, when Bob retires, his son Keith will assume responsibility for the business, and the nickname.

Until then, Bob Tobiason is who you get at 1022 N. Normandie St. when you ask for “Toby.”

During a recent interview, he discussed how the business has evolved, and offered advice for motorists unlucky enough to need his services.

S-R: Where did your dad learn the bodywork trade?

Tobiason: He taught himself. He always had a passion for cars.

S-R: When did you start helping out in the shop?

Tobiason: When I was about 10 years old. My first job was cleanup. By the time I was 15, I was doing prep work on cars at night.

S-R: Where did you go to school?

Tobiason: I graduated from Shadle Park in 1968 and enrolled in Spokane Community College’s automotive trade school. But they were teaching outdated techniques, like melting lead into dents instead of using plastic filler. They preached that lead work was coming back, but it wasn’t. So I left after a year.

S-R: Is training in this industry pretty much ongoing today?

Tobiason: It is. I-CAR (The Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair) offers classes here every year on the latest techniques and new vehicle models coming out.

S-R: When did you take over the business?

Tobiason: In 1975, when my dad was 52 and I was 26.

S-R: How has it evolved?

Tobiason: Like most shops back then, this one was pretty dirty. I’m more into keeping things clean – that’s a pet peeve with me. This is still a body shop, but you never get a second chance to make a first impression. And we get many more women coming here now. When someone walks through the door and sees how clean and organized we are, that reflects on how we’re going to treat their car.

S-R: Did any of your dad’s business philosophy rub off on you?

Tobiason: He always treated customers real well, and I do the same. If a car is hit in the front end but a taillight is out, we take care of that, too. Then if the customer’s neighbor gets in a wreck, they’re more likely to recommend us.

S-R: Has the business ever been at risk?

Tobiason: Sure. This industry is a roller coaster. The economy is a big part of it. And insurance companies keep raising people’s deductibles. It’s not uncommon to see a $1,000 or $2,000 deductible. So if a car is still drivable after an accident, a lot of people today will live with the damage and pocket the insurance money.

S-R: What percentage of people who come here for an estimate actually get the damage repaired?

Tobiason: We have a pretty high success rate. I bet we get 85 to 90 percent of our estimates. For starters, a lot of insurance companies send their customers here. And we take the time to explain our estimates. Once a customer is comfortable with us, we usually land the job.

S-R: From your perspective, are cars better built today?

Tobiason: Way better built, as far as absorbing impact during a collision. In the old days, it was like driving into a rock wall. Nowadays, everything is designed to fold up before it reaches the passenger compartment. But that also makes it more difficult to repair things. We have to replace a lot more than we used to – fenders, computers – which adds considerably to the cost.

S-R: What are you most proud of about the business?

Tobiason: Where I’ve taken it from where it was. My mom passed away in ’68 and my dad let the business go downhill after that. So I had to build it back up myself. Today we’re an AAA-approved repair facility with multiple top shop honors. 

S-R: Are people sometimes surprised when they come to pick up their repaired car?

Tobiason: We get that a lot – people walking right by their car in the lot, not recognizing it. We don’t just fix the dent – we clean the whole car, inside and out.

S-R: Any common misconceptions about this business?

Tobiason: The biggest thing we’re running into is insurance companies pushing us to use after-market parts instead of original equipment from the manufacturer. The after-market stuff isn’t the same quality as O.E. parts – it doesn’t fit as well or perform as well. An after-market headlight might look fine, but it may not have a nice, sharp beam.

S-R: Do insurance estimates tend to come in low?

Tobiason: Yes, because they estimate the cost of repairing only the damage they can see – not hidden damage. If we discover hidden damage, we call and get a supplemental payment. But insurance companies count on a lot of customers never getting the damage repaired, so those customers don’t get paid for the hidden damage.

S-R: What advice would you offer someone whose vehicle needs bodywork?

Tobiason: Used parts are OK, as long as they’re not after-market used. Also, insurance companies sometimes direct clients to particular shops for estimates. That’s fine, but don’t be bullied into going there for repairs. Take your car wherever you feel most comfortable, whether it’s here or somewhere else.

S-R: How much would it take to start a business like this today?

Tobiason: A lot. We have a computerized measuring system for our frame machine, an alignment machine, and a special spray booth that cost us $100,000 (eight years ago). You’d probably be looking at a million bucks to do it right.

S-R: What’s a typical workday for you?

Tobiason: Long. We start at 7 in the morning and normally leave around 6 or 7 in the evening. But no one works a night shift like I used to in high school.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Tobiason: Seeing cars that came in crunched going out looking real nice. Putting a car back the way it was prior to an accident is an art, and it’s much more satisfying to me than, say, working on computers, which I’m not very good at.

S-R: What attitude do you look for when interviewing job applicants?

Tobiason: Someone who’s upbeat – not grumpy or pushy. I want people to come in and have fun with their job, because that’s what I do.

S-R: What’s your busiest time of year?

Tobiason: Winter – snow, slick streets. It’s terrible to live off other people’s misfortunes, but someone has to do it.

This interview was edited and condensed. Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at