Monday profile: Cooper's love for cars turns into career

July 15, 2013 9:49:23 AM

Nathan Gregory - ngregory@cdispatch.com

 

Tucked away behind the main storefront of Bob's Paint & Auto Body in Columbus is a shop with a couple of antique cars, one of which is a black 1961 Chevrolet Corvette -- the latest project Tom Cooper and two of his employees have been working on for several months. 

 

A comprehensive restoration of the car is about 75 percent complete, he says, because they've had to do so from the frame up. It didn't have a single washer or grommet to begin with, Cooper says. 

 

Cooper, 56, recently took over day-to-day operations of the now 27-year-old business after the retirement of Bob Taylor.  

 

Most customers know to go there when they've just been in an accident, need a new paint job or have to have their windshield replaced, but Cooper has a noticeable partiality to the area reserved for the antiques, a spot that doesn't receive much foot traffic, he admits. 

 

"The old car stuff is really what we love. I guess that's our driving force. The new cars, we do that so we can make some extra money. This is inspiration," Cooper said. "This place doesn't get a lot of action. Not too many people come back here." 

 

Cooper's interest in old cars began after he left his native Aberdeen for Buffalo, N.Y. His father's job assignment prompted the family to move there, and Cooper would go with him every time he went to a drag strip to watch races. 

 

"I always really liked the older cars in the muscle car era back in the 70s and really got that in my system. That's where I started -- just working on old cars," Cooper said. "Being able to do that, getting your first job in a body shop as a helper and then with that interest, I just put the time and the effort and that carried me up the ladder to here." 

 

While in Buffalo, Cooper worked in body shops in western New York coming out of high school. He would eventually meet his wife (the couple now has three adult children). It was after the two married that they agreed to move back to his native state.  

 

"We decided to move down here where the weather was a little bit warmer and there was a little less rust in my industry. I was always looking for rust-free cars," he joked. "That guided me here. It didn't take long to get rooted in." 

 

A friend referred him to Bob Taylor, who was opening the repair shop. Cooper, who at the time was refurbishing cars, joined the business as a painter and worked his way through the ranks to his current position. Aside from a brief absence, Cooper has been with the shop in come capacity ever since. Bob and his wife, Janice, who still works at the business, owned and ran the shop before passing the keys to Cooper earlier this year. 

 

Though his personal interest is in restoring old cars back to life, Cooper knows full well that component is secondary to what the majority of traffic the shop receives -- late-model repairs. He said interaction with his clients is his favorite part of his day-to-day routine. 

 

"I like the car part of it, but I like dealing with the customers," he said. "You listen. You see what the customer needs and you're not just trying to sell them a bunch of stuff that costs money whether they need it or not. Your goal is to listen and give them exactly what you can at a reasonable price. You strive for quality so when everything is done, everyone seems to be happy with everything in the end. Word of mouth is our strongest advertisement, and I think that's been a big success in why we stay so busy." 

 

Cooper said another benefit of being in Columbus is getting to meet military personnel at Columbus Air Force Base. Some of his clientele are stationed at CAFB, he said.  

 

"Sometimes we're the first ones they get to meet," he said. "As soon as they get checked in at the base they have to take care of repairs. We see a good bit of that, so we try to as a small-town business, welcome those people. Part of what being a small town is to anyone that comes through is to show that hospitality and concern."

Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.