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Hot Rod and Restoration Magazine Features Bonnell’s Rod Shop

Restorer Profile: Why Bonnell’s Rod Shop Enlisted Marketing Experts

Scott Bonnell has spent more than 25 years building the name and reputation of the various shops that fall under the Bonnell’s Auto banner. In 1985, he opened his first Bonnell’s Collision location in Fairview, Pennsylvania, and has since opened a second collision center, an auto glass shop and, last year, Bonnell’s Rod Shop.

“The name recognition is [a benefit], people know us for doing quality collision repair and I think that goes along with what we’re doing now,” he said. “People see how serious we are by the facility. In all my businesses that I have, I really feel that [it’s] important to show the customer that you’re serious about what you’re doing and [that] you’re going to do it right. When that customer drops his vehicle off he knows that he can trust us to take care of his vehicle while it’s here and know that it’s in good hands.”

Bonnell advertises his collision and glass businesses on TV and radio, but knew he’d have to take a different track to promote his new rod shop so he decided to focus on internet and social media marketing.

“The social media part, that’s something we’re trying to grow and work on, I know how important it is, especially in the hot rod industry,” he said. “I think social media is a big thing and it’s not so much to market your business as it is just to let people know what you’re doing.”

To help spread the word about the new business to enthusiasts in Fairview and beyond, Bonnell and shop manager Phil Palmer enlisted Fox Marketing.

“The great thing about [Fox Marketing] is [that] they have a vision,” Bonnell said. “They know what the industry is like, they have a great connection with the hot rod industry and they bring a lot to the table. Brian [Fox, owner of Fox Marketing] and Phil talk to each other every day and discuss where we need to be, what we need to be doing, and then Phil relays all that stuff to me. I think it’s great to have that knowledge of the things that you need to be doing, how important it is to try to get vehicles in magazines and talking to the right people, and that’s the kind of stuff that Fox Marketing brings to the table for us.”

Bonnell uses his shop truck to advertise both his collision and hot rod shop.

Fox Marketing set up the rod shop’s website and Facebook page but the shop handles all updates.

“Brian does the design work on the website and then set up our Facebook, and then he works with me and I do all the editing of the website and do the Facebook posts,” Palmer said. “He really feels that stuff needs to be personal to the shop versus it being somebody that’s five hours away just typing some information in the computer. Everything that he’s worked with us on is more of a personal one-on-one thing with our customers and the people that we want [to be our customers].”

Palmer likes sharing project updates and shop news online.

“As we finish a new project or something that’s been here for a little while, I’ll post a picture of it and describe it,” he said. “We attended a car show over the weekend [and] I put up a picture of our vehicles at the show and I talked about it a little bit. I don’t try to push any product or services. I’ll show people a piece of new equipment that came in, like we bought a new planishing hammer [so] I put that on there, just more of an FYI thing than a direct sale.”

Bonnell believes enlisting a marketing-focused company rather than a tech-focused company to help develop his shop’s online strategy was the best decision, and recommends other shops do the same.

“I think that you need to have someone that is in marketing, it’s not someone that knows computers and that’s a computer guru or whatever,” he said. “You need to have someone that understands marketing and advertising because that’s what it’s all about—you’re trying to get your name out there.”

Palmer feels working with a company that understands the custom car hobby is another plus.

“I also think [the marketing company you work with] needs to be automotive-oriented, they’ve got to be car people,” he said. “If you’re selling to car people, the people you’re using need to be car people because they understand how to make things look. Some of the advertising agencies, they don’t understand why people are spending all this money on these old cars. If they don’t understand how, then they can’t sell to them.”


Branching Out

Owner Scott Bonnell stands in front of his new hot rod shop.

Bonnell’s Collision has done restoration work pretty much from the beginning. With more and more customers coming to the shop for this specialized work, Bonnell decided to open a dedicated rod shop.

“We’ve always done a number of hot rods and restorations and we mixed it in with the collision repair,” Bonnell said. “Just in the last year what had happened was the collision business really never slowed down in the summertime and I wasn’t able to get to the hot rod stuff and that sat on the side while we repaired the collision stuff. I just felt that if I was going to [keep] doing [hot rods] that I needed to focus 100 percent on the custom hot rod stuff.”

To house this new business, Bonnell acquired a former diesel mechanical shop located on 5 acres.

“I took a walk through the building and I could already see a vision of where we were going to put things and where the cars would be parked and where the lifts [and] paint booth would be,” he said. “Me and Phil sat down and drew up some ideas and thought about where we needed to place everything.”

Palmer had been doing restoration work at the collision shop and was excited to join Bonnell in his new endeavor.

“Scott and I came together and we knew that we had the same vision and when it came time to open the rod shop, I asked ‘If we could do this, could I manage because I think we can do a lot of good together,’ and we had a lot of the same ideas and we like the same looks and things like that,” he said. “I’ve worked in every aspect of the customs and restoration [business] and covered most all the bases, I even helped out at an upholstery shop for a little while, so I think with all the experience that Scott has and [that I have], we mesh very well and we communicate well, so it was a natural fit.”

Bonnell credits Palmer with helping the rod shop get off to a strong start.

“I wouldn’t have opened this business if it wasn’t for Phil,” he said. “I had a vision that Phil would run the shop and I know we could make a go [of] it. He lives and breathes hot rods and old cars and custom paint jobs, that’s what he’s all about. On the weekends, he’s at the car shows and cruise-ins and everybody knows him. I know the work that he has done in the past and I just thought it would be a great opportunity for me to have him as part of this.”


Established System

For better quality control, Bonnell has brought many services in-house, including paint and body work.

Bonnell oversees projects and is involved in the operations of each of his shops, instituting practices across all the shops, such as daily meetings.

“Usually [we discuss] things that need to be accomplished for the day, what’s expected of them, what vehicles are going to be going that day or that week, and if there [are] any parts issues or time constraints or anything like that, that’s all brought up. If someone needs help, we talk about that and try to move techs around so that if [a] technician is working on one thing and he needs help, we try to bring some help to him,” Bonnell said.  “We discuss all that stuff. We have 11 full-time employees [in the hot rod shop] and in my body shops I have 25 at each location, and communication is very important.”

Rod shop staffers meet for 10–15 minutes each day and also have more in-depth total shop meetings once a month. At these longer meetings, Bonnell, Palmer and the staff discuss the vision for the shop and share ideas.

Bonnell believes holding regular staff meetings is essential to successfully operating a growing business.

“When you start to grow or if you want to grow, you need to communicate with your employees what is expected of them,” he said. “If you’re thinking in the back of your mind, ‘I don’t want to take that 10 or 15 minutes because we don’t have the time,’ that time spent [meeting] is so much more important than [any time that may be lost during the meeting] because of what you gain because everybody knows what is expected of them.”

Part of those expectations is to treat customers fairly. The shop’s staffers fill out time sheets listing what work they did on which vehicles, information that’s used for customer invoices. Bonnell and Palmer review all the time sheets and will make adjustments if they feel too many hours were spent on any aspect of the project.

“If Phil feels that the hours are over and above what they should [be] for something that was getting done, he gets with me and we talk about it and a lot of times we’ll cut that down to where I feel comfortable charging the customer,” Bonnell said. “Just because a technician has 20 hours in a certain procedure doesn’t mean we’re going to charge the customer 20 hours. I’ll look the bill over and if we need to adjust it, we adjust it. We understand that there [are] technician restraints and sometimes we give a tech something that he can’t handle, that kind of thing, and he has more time into it than what it should have been, so we try to be as fair as we can.”

In further efforts to control quality and costs for customers, Bonnell tries to keep as many services in-house as possible. The rod shop now does media blasting, which has the added benefit of being another revenue source.

“We knew that it would be [profitable] because of the issues that we’ve had needing that service locally,” Bonnell said. “This way I’m able to control that internally myself. I do that through all my businesses, anything that I can do to control as much of it as I can I do because then I’m able to keep control.

Shop employees fill out a time sheet that lists all the work they did on a vehicle that day.

“With the body shop, we do alignments, state inspections, air conditioning, tires, wheels, we can pretty much do everything that’s needed to be done [in-house],” he continued. “We don’t send anything out, our frames get pulled in-house, everything is done right in-house and it gives [us] better control of the job overall.”

Bonnell also recently invested in interior equipment and sent one of his employees to get trained in leather wrapping and molding.

“Whether you send something out and have it done or you do it in-house, you’re still responsible for that and this way [we’re] able to control the quality,” he said. “That’s always been the issue, the cost involved, with the interior. I may have $30,000 invested in interior equipment but I feel that, down the road, it’s going to pay off. I guess that sets me apart from my competition.”

Bonnell, a former sprint car racer, is a competitor and already envisions his one-year-old shop making waves in the industry.

“I think for myself it’s the challenge of [starting] out with nothing and [seeing] where you go from there,” he said. “It’s the whole procedure of building something that no one else is building, making it look different than anything else that you’ve seen. We’re not there yet, we’ve got a long way to go but we’re going to get there.

“I look and see what Chip Foose has done, that guy is an artist and he can take that piece of art that he draws on a piece of paper and build what he draws, and that’s just amazing,” he said. “Talk about a vision. There are other people that do the same thing, but that’s the kind of stuff [that] we want to get to.”

Palmer agrees.

“We’d like … for people to recognize that we do quality work, not so much that [we’re] better than anybody else but that we can do the things that we’re seeing and to get our vision out, let people see what we see is a cool car and how lines should be and different things,” he said.

“Every shop has their own take on something and I think having your take be rewarded or noticed out in the community, that’s a big deal. I think that’s probably the biggest goal is for people to understand what you’re doing and reflect off of it.”

Bonnell and several of his employees work on one of the shop’s current project cars.

Bonnell’s Rod Shop

Owner:  Scott Bonnell

Address:  8000A Middle Rd., Fairview, Pennsylvania 16415

Phone:  (814) 424-2400


Services Offered: Restoration, custom boot, classic auto mechanics, custom stainless exhaust, media blasting, suspension systems, paint, upholstery, fiberglass repair

Current Project Cars: 1936 Chevy sedan, 1940 Ford coupe, 1955 Chevy Suburban, 1955 Chevy Z10, 1957 Ford Ranchero, 1963 Nash Rambler, 1967 Pontiac GTO, 1968 Chevy Camaro

Number of Employees: 13

Years in Business: 1

Posted By Devlin Smith, Hot Rod and Restoration Magazine