Candace Simas grew up working in the office of her family’s Cumberland auto-body shop, but never thought she would end up running the place – until a crisis struck.
Simas’ father, David Miller, who founded Miller’s Auto Body 30 years ago, was diagnosed with a rare cancer in 2008 and hospitalized in 2010, leaving the business without its only leader.
“I dropped my kids off at school, drove here and have been coming here ever since,” Simas said about coming to the shop after her father became sick. “I had never really thought about it before that. It was pretty abrupt and I really didn’t have a plan right away.”
Two years since Simas took over Miller’s Auto Body, with her brother as shop manager, the family business has stabilized and now appears to be on a solid footing.
In the last two years, the business has added four new employees, renovated the waiting area, replaced the lifts and invested in a new waterborne paint system that produces far less toxic emissions than solvent-based paint.
Simas is still confronting the challenges that all working mothers face, balancing the desire to be with her children with the need to keep the business running smoothly.
But the concerns she had initially about running a business in an industry where female proprietors are rare have faded, at least in part because of the shop’s loyal customer base, which sees continuity in her ownership instead of something unusual.
“I have a huge attachment to this place and love cars, love our customers,” Simas said. “They are like family. Most of our customers are from the town and have seen me grow up here. When they find out I am running things they say they had no idea it wasn’t still my father.”
While the Miller family has stuck together and rallied around the business, it’s almost never been easy.
Before cancer, Miller was one of many Rhode Island body-shop owners who battled insurance companies in a series of long-running disagreements over costs and payment.