Original article published in the Mower County Independent, Thursday, September 14, 2023. Reprinted with permission and gratitude.
By Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy
There’s possibly an occasion when he’s feeling that it’s time for new tread, but never a day when taking them apart and putting them back together has worn on him so much as to blow a gasket.
“It wasn’t Hot Wheels that started this. The first car memory I have was when we were living in a trailer park in St. Charles—I was probably 8 years old at the time—and my mom’s friend Dave Nolting had a custom-built 1946 Ford coupe of some kind with pearlescent pink and purple paint. That car, being all shiny and sitting in the trailer park, was probably the most expensive thing I had seen in my life, and it showed that you can have more,” recounted Melartin, Spring Valley resident and proprietor of Matt’s Body Shop, speaking on a different occasion about just how the curiosity pulled him under the hood and got him tangled up in the belts and gears. Of course, this is the guy who’s dismantled so many different household appliances—including ones his mother didn’t want him to when he was still a kid—and motorcycles, cars and trucks, that he’s lost track of the actual number of his own vehicles that he’s either taken apart to reassemble for fun or to revamp into something entirely different or to sell for change to buy something new, like that Dairy Queen hamburger he delivered in trade for a car he sold to someone else the very next day.
Though he’s always had a wrench or screwdriver in hand, he hasn’t always owned Matt’s. He’s been an employee of the United States government— twice deployed overseas—making his current enterprise veteran-owned, and he’s also worked in construction, as just before he bought Matt’s from Chris Czapiewski in March 2021, he was employed by Terry Fetterly Construction. He’d long considered opening his own repair shop, but upon the occasion which presented itself to him while he and his wife, Oy, were living in New Jersey, they decided to spend the money instead to move home to Minnesota—specifically Spring Valley, because that’s where his grandparents, Curt and Barb Osterhus and his mom, Sarah Osterhus, awaited his return. Approximately ten vehicles, revving up the idea for a town festival, and an occupational epiphany later, he chose to seize the moment when Czapiewski and longtime Matt’s employee Dave Blazing offered to remain at the body shop to help him get comfortable in the driver’s seat. “Chris and Dave stayed on with me, and Dave was here for six months. Chris said he’d stay a year, and he ended up being here with me for two years,” Melartin recounted, “and the first day after the papers were signed, Chris and Dave were here, and the phone rang. They looked at each other, and you could tell that they were thinking, ‘This is not my rodeo anymore,’ so I thought, ‘I’d better get that.’”
Melartin credits his time in the military and his work for Fetterly Construction for giving him the training he needed to become a business owner. “I liked working for Fetterly. He was very ethical and empowering— the type of leader I try to be–not a micromanager. The people I have working for me are better than ever. Chris is an amazing body man, and the mechanics I have working for me are amazing, too. They can easily figure out what’s going on with a car. I think it’s important to put people in a place where they’re going to excel. I always, in the back of my mind, had the idea that I wanted to be a business owner. You’re always learning, learning, learning. Leadership abilities have always been important to me. I was a leader in the military, and now I’m in marketing, customer service, numbers– being an owner, you have to know your numbers. Being an owner is a huge blessing. I’m happy with the deal, and I owe them for their help. Flexibility is something that took the longest time to get used to, but I’m the first one in and the last one out.”
He immediately got busy overhauling the accounting system, “setting up processes and policies to make the shop more automated if I’m gone or the mechanic is gone,” and assessing how efficient the building was in relation to service turnaround time, which, at the time that he bought the shop, was an important factor simply because it was mid-pandemic and supply and demand greatly affected how satisfied the end users of all products and services were if they did or didn’t receive what they expected. A few tweaks here and a wrench-turn there, and he had expanded the body shop to include more services than tires and buffing out scratches and removing dents – now offering mechanical services, “a proper, full analysis of vehicles so that customers know in a reasonable amount of time if it’s feasible or economical to repair” a car, and in case of close encounters with road-rashed deer, “if they bring it to me, I’ll give them just a curbside estimate so that they know that if it’s between $6,000 and $8,000, they know that they can total it out.”
“It’s grown significantly. The community had a need for experienced mechanics…also, everyone was backed up. Me and the other shop owners were backed up and people had nowhere to go with their cars because it was a supply-and-demand issue. But I was able to expand the mechanical portion of my business. I’ve updated quite a bit of the equipment…and pretty much immediately, I decided that the biggest hindrance was that we had only one overhead door, so anytime someone parked in front of that door, the bay would be blocked. It slowed down efficiency, and I wanted to do oil changes and mechanical service. I knew that I had to add a side door to make it usable.”
The sale of an easement across the back of the lot to the Penz Group and Chevrolet of Spring Valley for the construction of the new Chevrolet dealership allowed Melartin to expand the shop by an entire service bay to make it more accessible and efficient for his business to operate.
“I added a door to the side to make it usable. With the new dealership, it presented me with an opportunity to sell and allowed me to build a 1,500- square-foot expansion. That gave us three more doors, so we’re not always jammed up. I’ve added that extra bay and two lifts. There’s a flat bay for mechanical and tires. That freed up room in the body shop for body shop work so we can move more efficiently. That means there’s quicker turnaround for repairing a car. The turnaround could be…about three weeks if it’s a very, very big job (to repair and rebuild a car), but that’s helped get turnaround to about a week to a week and a half or so.”
Melartin feels that his customers should receive exactly the parts and service they expect, even if their insurance companies insist that they don’t need to pay for repairs to a specific standard. “One of the benefits I’ve focused on is that we work for the customer. There are a few good insurance companies that want to take care of their customers, but a lot of insurance companies try to force people into [taking less on a claim]. I’m not one of those shops. I work for the customer, and one of the benefits for my customers is that I do the full analysis.” Additionally, he’s willing to “do pre-purchase inspections so that people can make better decisions…I’d highly suggest that anyone looking to buy a used vehicle ought to have it checked by a body shop and mechanical shop, and we’re both.”
He continued, “Spring Valley deserves a place to have a vehicle properly inspected and repaired after an accident, somewhere where they can get quality repairs, and to do that, you have to take care of employees and customers and charge appropriately for services. I’ve kept a lot of longtime customers, and I’m really happy that that transition went smoothly for the community. That’s great.”
Nearly three years into business ownership, Melartin is satisfied that he’s chosen work with tread that aligns with a balanced life–just enough working on cars each day that he can go home to his own family at night and be certain that he’s had a good time…and his mom won’t even be looking for the parts of her toaster anymore.
Matt’s Body Shop is located at 1140 N. Broadway, Spring Valley, and is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, stop in with questions or call 507- 346-2161 or log onto the shop’s website at www.mattsbodyshop.com.
Courtesy of the Mower County Independent, 135 E Main St. LeRoy, MN 55951, (507)-324-5325