51 auto

Dave Koziel, left, and Corbin Kostyn are bridging generation gaps and laying the groundwork for the future as co-owners of 51 Auto Body. The Business News photo by Jerry Rhoden

Most business owners would give virtually anything to see the future, but at 51 Auto Body, Dave Koziel sees tomorrow working right alongside him today.

That’s because the future of the shop, at 1910 Old Hwy 51 in Mosinee just south of the power plant, lies in Corbin Kostyn.

Kostyn, 27, began working for Koziel and Koziel’s former business partner, Joe Spychalla, about five years ago. When Spychalla retired in 2017, Koziel, 60, saw an opportunity to reinvigorate the business and set its course with fresh young talent.

“He’s a rising star in this industry,” Koziel said of Kostyn. The latter bought 50 percent of the business in December of 2017.

Koziel’s high opinion of Kostyn’s abilities may stem from recognizing a bit of himself in the young entrepreneur. In Koziel’s formative years in the industry, he found himself immersed in a culture he hoped to change by opening his own shop.

“It was faster-paced,” he recalled. “I wanted to be more deliberate.”

Kostyn recalled a similar setting at his previous stop.

He has an uncle who was working at Precision Body and Frame in Weston, and Kostyn found himself working on cars as a teenager.

“I liked it, and I was good at it,” he said. Which is what drove him to pursue studies in the automotive technician program at Northcentral Technical College’s Antigo campus. Afterward, he worked at a larger body shop in the area where he received, he said, “great mentoring.” But like Koziel, Kostyn felt a call toward a smaller shop and little more deliberate pace.

And like Koziel before him, Kostyn also is learning some of the aspects of business ownership one doesn’t always learn in a classroom.

“You don’t get to work 8-hour days anymore,” Koziel said with a knowing smile.

“You can prepare as much as you want,” Kostyn said, “but then the door buzzer goes off or the phone rings ...”

“I’ve always been really passionate about this industry,” he said, “and the most rewarding thing is making those wheels turn.”

Even if he doesn’t get to turn the wrenches with the frequency that he did when he was exclusively on the shop floor, Kostyn has learned how to control the chaos and incorporate it into his routine. That’s also where Koziel comes in.

“You’ve got to have a vision to make a business successful,” Koziel said. “And after about two years, Corbin started showing me something. I hated to see him go somewhere else and not get that chance, so we pursued a partnership.”

Like any such arrangement, there are times when it can be challenging.

“It’s like a marriage,” Koziel said. “You just try to have more good times than bad.”

And there are times when it can be a builtin support system.

“Partnerships are hard,” Koziel said. “But it’s nice knowing that you can take a vacation or go somewhere and the business is in good hands.”

They wind up deferring to each other’s strengths, and they play to type with this duo; Koziel with his industry experience and Kostyn with his tech savviness.

“He even bought the same cell phone as I have so I can help him with it,” Kostyn said.

But both are serious about the competitiveness in the automotive industry and realize that attracting talent is one side of the coin while keeping the five full-time employees they have is the other. And not helping much with the “coin” aspect of the analogy are insurance companies, which so often stringently cap what they’ll pay body shops.

“There are times we’ll be arguing with them on the phone over $40,” Koziel said, shaking his head.

Thus, shops are ultimately limited in what they can pay employees. So, shops like 51 Auto Body try to find as many ways as they can to compensate staff. And with sales having risen about 10 percent each of the past couple of years, 51 Auto Body is finding itself in an fortunate position.

“You try to give them benefits,” Koziel said. “Let them work on their own cars …”

That’s where Kostyn sometimes finds his peace; those quiet hours when the shop is closed, the phones aren’t ringing, and it’s just him, his truck, and his tools. And probably Baxter, the 2-year-old black lab that greets visitors and keeps things light.

“I’ve learned patience,” he said. “You find yourself wanting to do it all at once. You can prep yourself, but you still have to jump into the pond. Fortunately, I’ve had good coaches.”