(Photography by Brian Baiamonte: Capital City Collision owner Jason Hughes)
The smell of fresh paint fills the air where a dozen empty translucent chairs line the walls of the lobby in anticipation of the customers that will soon fill them. All is quiet until the energetic business owner peeks his head through the doorframe of his back office, his smile wide, beaming with pride.
He’ll be there, he promises, “in one second.”
Jason Hughes disappears around the corner to finish explaining the work he needs done to a ceiling in the next room. The details matter with his grand opening, which, at the time of the interview, was just two weeks away.
The bright, royal blue exterior of Capital City Collision on Scenic Highway stands like a mirage in a neighborhood of boarded-up windows, tattered signage and fading logos once painted vibrantly on businesses opened years and even decades earlier.
Today, many of them stand abandoned. One year ago, Hughes’ warehouse was one of them.
He takes a seat behind a brand new desk, free from clutter and still with its showroom shine. It is for the most part bare, aside from a single picture frame, a gray stapler, and a sleek desktop computer.
It remains uncluttered—but not because Hughes is still building his customer base, as one might think. In fact, business has been so good there’s been no time to clutter up his office with paperwork.
Sitting in the center of his dream that almost never was, he can see ahead into the lobby through the lightly tinted glass lining one wall of his office and through another window into the parking lot, where he watches patrons come and go.
“I probably could have gone anywhere in Baton Rouge to start my business,” Hughes says. “I thought it would be a unique idea to open up my business here since I’m from up here.”
Capital City Collision is located in the epicenter of an area in Baton Rouge plagued by persistent vacancies, according to the Greater Baton Rouge Association of Realtors Commercial Investment Division’s annual TRENDS report on industrial properties for 2015.
Mathew Laborde of Beau Box Commercial Real Estate specializes in industrial properties. He says the larger warehouses in this area are often considered functionally obsolete.
“The buildings are old,” the agent says, “and typically need a ton of work to get ready for occupancy.”
The prolonged vacancy and location become a systemic barrier to entry, often stifling the possibility for economic development.
But for Hughes, the potential he saw in the location motivated him as he navigated through the inherent obstacles that often cause business development to stagnate in north Baton Rouge.
“When you enter an area that you know and you can put that effort and that investment into it, it is just better for you in the end because now you are part of the community,” Hughes explains. “You are revitalizing something you know.”
THE CHALLENGE OF FINANCING
From January to May, Hughes struggled to secure the financing to purchase the foreclosed property.
“The biggest challenge I had to work through was convincing the bank that I could do what I said I was going to do,” Hughes says.
Before setting out to start Capital City Collision, Hughes worked as an independent appraiser for auto insurance companies and opened his own consulting business, which allowed him to work in body shops all over the area. He eventually assumed a management position at a body shop and worked there for about three years. During that time, he began to envision owning his own business.
But when he set out to make that vision a reality, Hughes found financial institutions reluctant to take a chance on him—and on the area—despite his strong business and financial history.
The bank he’d been with for five years turned him down, as did a secondary mortgage company.
“You want to cry some nights because you know in your heart, ‘Man, I know this can work,’” he says. “I know what I’m capable of. I did it in the hood down the street, and I convinced people to come in here. I’ve been generating $60,000 to $70,000 a month consistently.”
Hughes then went to State Bank and Trust Co., which owned the property. He showed them his financial portfolio and laid out his business plan.
“They believed in it,” Hughes says. After much negotiation, he secured the building for $125,000 from the bank and received another loan from Capital One to invest in operating equipment for his new business. To date, he’s spent $170,000 purchasing and renovating the space. His grand opening was Nov. 15.
21ST CENTURY BODY SHOP
Throughout the remodeling process, Hughes put his prior experience in body shops to good use. He developed an innovative business model that seeks to position Capital City Collision as a leader in the Baton Rouge market, while ensuring the company’s viability by proactively addressing the intrinsic challenges of the auto repair industry.
His strategy focuses on efficiency and professionalism, which is reflected in both the layout and operation of the 18,000-square-foot warehouse.
“The lobby area: professional,” Hughes points out. “We have policies in place that allow customers to do things or not do things.” Instead of allowing customers to wander into the back of the shop, as is the case in many body shops, they are greeted at a formal reception desk. There is no smoking in front of the shop. Hughes has also committed not to hire family members or people with whom he’s had previous relationships. That way, he can focus strictly on qualified candidates willing to support his vision.
“I’ve also taken technology by storm,” Hughes says. “I would go as far as to say 85% to 90% of body shops are not using the technology I will be using in our shop.”
Hughes business model is based on a simple reality: Time is money.
“If you are not working efficiently, you are losing money,” he explains. “You have to keep those tools in place in order to be efficient and that applies to everything from the front office all the way to the garbage can in the back.”
To achieve that, Hughes plans to use shrewd management techniques. He understands that in the auto industry turnover his high and mechanics follow the work, often jumping to the shop with the most business. Given the transient workforce, he’s also realistic about making a change when necessary, explaining that he envisions his employees working with him instead of for him.
He plans to use incentives like signing bonuses, sophisticated referral programs and community partnerships to foster a strong sense of teamwork and set his shop apart as the only full-service collision center in north Baton Rouge.
As a graduate of Southern University and Scotlandville Magnet High School, Hughes hopes to offer apprenticeships to students of area high schools with the goal of giving them hands-on experience and exposing them to entrepreneurship in an area where they are from.
“There is a drought in this area for economic opportunity,” Hughes says. “When you see the area around LSU, you see apartments and food places popping up everywhere. When I get off the interstate to go to Southern, it is like going back in time to 2001.”
However, he hopes the strategic placement of Capital City Collision, close to the corner of Scenic Highway and Choctaw Drive, just five minutes from downtown and near the interstate and Southern, will attract new traffic to north Baton Rouge.
And he’s not the only one.
A ‘BOLD STEP’
Joe Delpit, the owner of Chicken Shack and the son of the late Thomas Delpit, who established the business in the front of his family’s shotgun home on East Boulevard in 1935, opened the restaurant’s third location in a renovated Popeyes in north Baton Rouge a year ago.
He is still adjusting to the pace of commerce in the area.
While Delpit says that business is better than he anticipated, he also acknowledges a lack of steady traffic bringing customers to the location.
He attributes this mainly to a lack of other development in the area. “We went in because we knew there weren’t any fast food outlets specializing in fried chicken,” Delpit says. “They had all closed.”
He remembers that at one time the area was very busy, full of retail stores, sporting good shops and even supermarkets and pharmacies. “We don’t have that anymore over there,” he says. “But the people are still there. Southern University is still there.”
He believes part of the solution is to develop the type of fundamental infrastructure that communities need in order to prosper; what many in Baton Rouge would overlook as basic conveniences like health care services, a grocery store and maybe even a coffee shop or two.
Raymond Jetson, president and CEO of MetroMorphosis, a nonprofit created with the goal of transforming inner-city neighborhoods, agrees that more sophisticated approaches to business are “few and far between” in north Baton Rouge.
“It think it takes pioneers like this gentleman [Hughes] who would take that bold step but also establish a business proposition that is supportable; that there is a viable, long term-service that can generate income and hire others, hopefully, from inner city neighborhoods and create a recycling of dollars in the inner city,” says Jetson, who is pastor of Star Hill Church.
“That is a critical component to changing the dynamic of some of our lower income neighborhoods.”
Community leaders like Jetson and Senate President Pro-Tem Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, hope that Capital City Collision will be a catalyst for economic development in the community.
Term-limited, Broome is running for East Baton Rouge Parish mayor-president in 2016 and says she is “deeply concerned” about the future of north Baton Rouge and committed to making sure it thrives and prospers like other areas of the city.
“I refuse to give up on north Baton Rouge,” she says. “In fact, part of my goal is to actively recruit economic development initiatives to the area.”
Broome stresses it is incumbent on leaders from all segments of the community to encourage entrepreneurs operating in every part of the city.
She stresses the importance of including African-American owned businesses in that support.
Says Broome: “We have to understand as a community that communities rise and fall together.”