TORCHBEARER

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At Central Missouri Auto Body, they like to say, “Some repairs you see … ours you don’t!” What you do see at the industrious repair shop on Columbia’s north side is the face of the auto body business here. And it’s a decidedly feminine face.

Carol Miller, owner and president of Central Missouri Auto Body, is the lone female in an all-male company. After more than three decades in the business, she’s grown accustomed to the demographic oddity, even if others haven’t.

“Some people are still startled when they find out I own an auto body shop,” Miller says. “Most give me a high-five and say, ‘You go, girl!’ That’s very comforting.”

Others … not so much. New acquaintances — and even a few bankers — sometimes find it difficult to wrap their minds around a woman in the auto body business.

“Some people look at me and say it just doesn’t fit,” she says. “I guess it’s because I don’t have dirty fingernails.”

CAROL MILLER READILY ADMITS she didn’t build her successful business on her own. For 27 years, she ran the shop with her husband, Donnie. It was a partnership forged by college sweethearts.

“We were so young,” she recalls. “But we knew what we wanted to do.”

Miller grew up in St. Louis, one of 13 children. A product of Cor Jesu Academy, one of Missouri’s top all-girl schools, she says her physician father encouraged her to become an accountant, advice she took to heart as she made her way to Columbia and the University of Missouri for a business degree with an emphasis in accountancy. While at Mizzou, she lost her heart to a Columbia College student, Donnie Miller. They married in 1981 after graduating in 1980.

“Donnie always said he wanted to open a body shop. I didn’t know anything about cars, but I did know accounting, so I guess it was a perfect fit,” she says with a laugh.

The newlyweds put their dream on hold for a few years as they found jobs and settled into married life. Miller honed her accounting skills working for Dan Devine’s Coors distributorship and then Columbia Orthopaedic Group. In 1982, the couple purchased a building in Boonville.

“We’d always planned to open a shop in Columbia,” Miller says. “But Donnie’s from Boonville and this was an opportunity to start our own business.”

The Millers moved to Boonville and opened Central Missouri Auto Body in 1982. It was a traditional labor split for the times — Donnie handled the auto work, and Carol took care of the office, tending the books, billing and paperwork while raising the couple’s three daughters and working part-time jobs. After 18 years, they moved to Columbia, but still commuted to their business in Boonville. Three years later, opportunity knocked again.

“An insurance adjuster approached us one day, and asked us to consider opening a shop in Columbia,” she says. “He thought Columbia needed more independent body shops.”

The idea made sense to the Millers, who were entertaining an offer from Rick Ball to buy the body shop adjacent to his Boonville auto dealership. When they found the property at 5353 Highway 763, their business’s journey was complete.

“Finally, we were doing business in Columbia,” Miller says of the move in late 2003.

And business was good. A larger market offered opportunities for growth. The body shop bustled with activity, often with a helping hand from Mother Nature.

“The hailstorm of 2006 really put us on the map,” Miller says. “It took us more than a year to get through all those jobs.”

THE MARRIAGE PARTNERSHIP did not outlast the business partnership, however. When the couple began divorce proceedings in 2009, it sparked a protracted tug-of-war over the family business.

“We both wanted the shop,” Miller says. “I wanted to buy it from him, but he didn’t want to sell.”

As she negotiated with her ex-husband, she went to work at Columbia Independent School while running the financial aspects of the body shop in her off time. By the summer of 2013, Miller had had enough. She quit her CIS job, sold her home and left Columbia.

“What to do?” she asked. “I was jobless and homeless.”

Florida beckoned. And serendipity struck.

Miller joined her two daughters living in the Sunshine State. One is in the Navy, so Miller took care of things on the home front when she deployed. Another daughter became engaged and drafted her mother to help with wedding plans. Miller discovered in November that her ex-husband wanted to sell the auto body shop.

“I had to stay in Florida to help with the wedding, but I had to have that shop,” she says. So began months of long-distance negotiations and a search for financing. She returned to Columbia in February 2014 to wrap up the deal.

Miller went through three lenders in Columbia, to no avail.

“The first loan officer — a woman — had a preconceived notion,” she says. “She asked me, ‘How can a woman run this business?’ ”

Her second loan application failed as well. “The second loan officer was a man,” she says. “He stalled for weeks, and kept promising me he’d have an answer for me soon. Then, he called one day and had me drive across town to get my answer. It was ‘no.’ He could have told me that over the phone.”

Her third try was with the bank that held the original note when the Millers purchased the property in 2003. “He said ‘no,’ too,” Miller says. “Finally, I just went out of town to get financing. I found a small-town bank in western Missouri that was willing to take a chance on me. No hassles.”

Miller has been sole owner of Central Missouri Auto Body since May 30, 2014.

BUSINESS IS BOOMING. In the nearly two years since Miller bought the business outright, revenue has grown 22 percent. Customer numbers are up, nearing her goal of repairing 90 cars a month. She’s considering expansion.

“This business is bursting at the seams,” she says proudly. “We need more space.”

Miller estimates 97 percent of her business is insurance work. She advertises a bit — and makes her own radio commercials — but credits most of the growth to word of mouth.

“We have a reputation for integrity, and going above and beyond for customer service,” she says. “I have talented technicians who do excellent work. Word gets around.”

Service reviews on Yelp and Facebook echo the praise for the shop’s work and the little extras customers have come to expect — from same-day service to free loaner cars. Miller often receives handwritten thank-you notes from satisfied customers. One recently declared she “truly demonstrates God’s love.”

In collision repair work these days, customers obtain an estimate directly from the body shop, which then sends photos to the insurance adjuster who approves the work and issues payment. Miller confounded an insurer when she discovered a job had cost less than the estimate. She sent a check for the overpayment to the insurance company and got a letter in return.

“The letter said the company had never received money back before,” she says. “I guess they just expected us to pocket the difference, but I’m not wired that way. I’m an accountant. Everything goes in its own place, and I didn’t have a place to put an overpayment.”

MILLER’S LEADERSHIP STYLE encourages autonomy in her 14 employees.

“My responsibility is to offer the job,” she says. “The employee’s responsibility is to do the job. I hire professionals to do the work while I take care of the administration.”

The progression she went through to buy the business helped her get a fresh start, she says. “It helped to be away for a while, at CIS and in Florida,” she says. “Working at Columbia Independent School gave me confidence. I observed how my supervisor dealt with employees. She made it all so human. We all make mistakes, she said, so we just learn from them and go on.”

She has found support from relationships with other women in business as well. She joined the Women’s Network in Columbia two years ago and last year attended the conference of the Women’s Industry Network, a national organization for women in the collision repair industry.

“What’s cool about those meetings is everyone wants to share ideas, and they’re enthusiastic about sharing,” she says.

Her network reaches wide. “Carol is a very determined individual,” says Danielle Harrison, a commercial lending officer at Landmark Bank. “Professionally, she is flourishing in a male-dominated industry. In her personal life, she challenges herself to grow, pushing herself both physically and mentally while preparing for triathlons.”

The physical challenges of her newfound passion provide release and renewal. Nancy Yaeger, manager at Ultramax Sports Columbia, has found much to admire in Miller’s approach to life.

“Carol is a strong businesswoman who is passionate about her business,” Yaeger says. “She’s not afraid to speak her mind and share her opinion, but she does so in a way that is not defensive or in a threatening manner, so you always want to hear what she has to say. Being a woman in a business that’s dominated by men, she knows the importance of encouraging other women.”

“I have a legacy,” Miller says. “I want to take care of it.” She counts herself among the fans of inspirational author Mike Dooley, who reminds his readers “thoughts become things — choose wisely (the good ones).” She’s happy with the wisdom of her choice to own her business.

“There is no doubt about it,” she says. “I love coming into work every day.”

 

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