Iron Men (and Women)

Anything with a throttle is all it takes to make life good for this couple

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Joe and Kim RotundaJoe and Kim Rotunda, the owners of Rotunda’s Collision Center on Gauthier Drive in Essex, are self-confessed car nuts since childhood. It’s what brought them together. In 1993, she left her job at a CPA firm and joined him in the business.

There’s little doubt about the importance of cars to Joe and Kim Rotunda, the owners of Rotunda’s Collision Center in Essex. Joe’s father — who’s also Joe — was a car salesman for about a year before opening Joe’s Snack Bar in Jericho. His grandfather Gratton Guyette owned a garage in Essex where Joe spent a lot of time growing up.

Kim confesses that her interest in cars and in Joe can be laid in her father’s lap. “My dad was a real wheeler-dealer,” she says. “We never had a car for more than four months. He loved cars as much as Joe loved cars.”

She admits, too, that her father was a key player in getting the couple together. “My dad was having a complete paint job done on one of his trucks at Joe’s body shop. I was on my way home from work — 5:30 at night — and my dad was pulling into the body shop. He said, ‘Why don’t you come in and check out my car?’ When I left, he started asking Joe if he was single — how things were — and when he got home, he said to me, ‘Why don’t you call up Joe?’”

It was Joe who called Kim, asking her out for a bite to eat, she says, adding with a laugh, “So Dad was right in his glory! And with his love of cars, he got a lot of free body work.”

It’s not as if they were strangers when their romance started. They had known each other as neighbors growing up in Jericho. Kim worked for Joe’s father part time at the snack bar in her youth. Both graduated from Mount Mansfield Union High School, although Joe was nine years ahead of Kim.

He was still in high school when he opened his first body shop at age 17, in rented space in Jericho. Once he graduated, he continued the auto-body business full time, buying a small house with a garage right across the street from the snack bar.

By age 19, he was married, and by age 27, in 1983 when he and Kim connected, he was divorced and supporting two children: a son, Jay (a nickname for Joe), and a daughter, Kerry.

Going through the divorce, he had taken a job with Shearer Chevrolet as a body tech, but continued doing body work after-hours on his own.

Kim was 18 when they began dating, having graduated from high school in her junior year. She earned a two-year legal secretarial degree from Champlain College and, when she and Joe connected, she was working in Burlington for CPA Peter Sweeney.

He and Kim lived in his house in Jericho until 1985, when a fire took everything.

“Jan. 26, 1985,” says Kim. “That morning, there was a huge snowstorm. We woke up to a horrendous crash; a car had come down the hill, hit my car, Joe’s truck, and Joe’s snow machine. Once we had that taken care of — it totaled all three vehicles — my dad came to give us a ride to get a rental car. We ended up going out to dinner that night. Later that evening, we drove into the drive, and I said, ‘Did you leave the lights on in the house?’ By the time I got to the door, all the windows were blowing out.”

Jay and Amanda RotundaTwo of the Rotundas’ three children work in the business. Jay (short for Joe), 30, is the painter and auto-body tech; Amanda, 22, is parts manager.

She pauses a moment, then says, “So we lost everything: all the cars and our animals and our house ... in one day.”

They moved in with Kim’s parents for three months until they could get back on their feet, then moved to Joe’s father’s camp in Colchester. Says Kim, “My dad said, ‘You’ll look back on this a year from now and realize nobody got hurt; that it gave you a fresh start.’ And it was true: We built a house together on Plains Road in Jericho; got married that June; had our daughter, Amanda, two years later.”

A month before the wedding, Kim left Sweeney’s office for a job as advertising coordinator with Farrell Distributing. Joe was still working full time at Shearer — a job he held until 1988, when he decided to go back on his own.

They bought a four-bay garage that had a house with it on Main Street in Essex Junction. They rented out the house to tenants. “Don Richard, the gentleman we bought the house and garage from was kind of crucial in helping me get started,” says Joe. “We didn’t have a lot of money, and he did some creative financing.”

Things were busy. “Kim was helping,” says Joe, “I was running everything. She had a full-time job. There were lots of weekends involved.” He hired his first employee that year.

They worked like this until the end of ’93. “Joe’s kids, at that point, were living with us full time,” says Kim, who quit her job and joined the business. “I have to say that the advertising and human resource experience, doing all the health insurance at Sweeney — those really served me well,” she says.

The option was to stay small or go big, adds Joe. “We decided to go big. We purchased land from Leo Gauthier and built this building.”

Mary Burke and Burt LairdThe staff includes several females — unusual for this business. Mary Burke is assistant manager/estimator; Burt Laird is general manager.

It was a big move, says Kim, “because we didn’t sell the house immediately where he had had our business; so we had a shop rental and a house rental, and the tenants weren’t always good about paying.

The 5,300-square-foot building on Gauthier Drive was completed in 1994. “We took on a couple more employees,” Joe says, “so I had three plus myself. Since then, we’ve put on three additions, and it’s now a little over 11,000 square feet.” They plan to expand the lobby to show off Joe’s collection of antique gas pumps and memorabilia, says Joe. “We had all the permits in hand before the economy went south. We’re just waiting for a little upturn.”

In addition to Kim and Joe, the company has 12 employees. Among them are two other Rotundas. Joe’s son, Jay, 30, is the painter and auto-body tech; their daughter, Amanda, 22, is parts manager. “She likes cars more than any guy I know,” says Kim. Joe’s daughter Kerry, 28, is a full-time hairdresser.

Things have changed considerably in the auto-body business in the last 20 years, he says. “A lot of people still have that view of a body shop with car seats for an office — a little place on the corner. But a lot of shops now, it’s like walking into a hotel lobby: really clean.” Rotunda’s is like that.

“We’re also seeing a lot more women coming into this industry,” he continues, “because it’s a lot more respectful than it used to be. We have four women working for us.”

He lists them: Mary Burke, an estimator, who came from a large insurance company as an adjuster; Amanda, the parts manager; Kim, who takes care of all the insurance, payroll, and the accounting; and Erica Rouelle, a painter.

“Around the corner,” he continues, “we’re looking at a waterborne paint that’s hugely environmentally friendly. I already use some — getting ready for that shift in the next year or so. My ’64 Corvette I just restored, we sprayed it in the waterborne.

“We mix all our own paint,” says Joe. “The formulas are all computerized. PPG has the paint code. One color might have four or five variances, and the painters are great at adding a little here and a little there.”

Computers have positively influenced other parts of the business, as well. There’s a program for frame straightening and one for paperwork. “That’s huge,” says Joe. “When we started, it all was handwritten — really time-consuming and not as accurate.”

Interface with insurance companies has evolved, too. “A lot of them have referral shops they trust. They send customers to the shop; the shop writes an estimate, repairs the car, and bills the company for it.”

Called DRPs — direct-pay insurance companies — they work directly with body shops to simplify the process, so the customer has no out-of-pocket.

“In the old school,” says Joe, “insurance companies had people run around and get three estimates. Now you decide where you want to get your car repaired.”

Joe treats his customers well, says Dave Whitcomb, the owner of Dave Whitcomb’s Service Center in Essex, who has known Joe since childhood. “We do a lot of mechanical stuff for his body shop. He goes way beyond what he has to, I’ll tell you. Joe takes care of a lot of stuff he doesn’t have to.”

That’s true of the way he treats employees, too. “Our employees have been with us for a long time,” says Joe. “We consider them friends and family.”

“That’s putting it lightly,” says Kim, interrupting with a laugh.

“We try to do a lot for them,” Joe continues. “We have some pretty extravagant Christmas parties. We’ll go to Stowe or Burlington or Smugglers’ Notch; have a band come in. We get everybody rooms so nobody has to drive.”

“On top of that,” adds Kim, “each summer Joe takes the guys four-wheeling to Maine. And we have huge benefits. We carry more than 90 percent of the health insurance bill ourselves and give Christmas bonuses; you can get up to a month off a year. You know where I think that comes from?” she asks. “We know how it feels to be on the other end.”

Outside of work, the Rotundas do things related to ... cars. “We’ve always had quirky cars,” says Kim. “I had a ’66 Mustang I sold to Lee Bodette, the radio guy. It was red.”

Recently, Kim was on a road trip with her sister and daughter, in a car she’d just bought. Her sister was driving it, says Kim, “because she doesn’t get to have so many different cars. We were talking, and my daughter said, ‘Mom, how many vehicles have you had?’ because at one time Joe was buying and selling cars as well, so I would drive a car for a month, buy it, then pick up something else.”

She came up with a list of 27., and that did not include Joe’s vehicles, which took the total past 50. “The first nice vehicle Joe did was a ’55 Ford pickup, black,” she muses. “When we met, he was driving that ... I think that was the kicker.” •