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.
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.
Miller had been a vocal critic of the insurance industry through the 1990s, arguing that the companies short-changed repair shops and conspired to hold down what they could charge for labor.
In 2002, Miller was arrested and charged by the State Police with insurance fraud after a criminal investigation he believed was cooked up by the insurers.
After the charges were dropped by the Rhode Island attorney general, Miller sued Metropolitan Property and Casualty Insurance Co. and Amica Mutual Insurance Co. for abusing the legal process.
This year a jury awarded Miller more than $2 million from the two insurance companies for initiating the criminal probe against Miller and then withholding key information from investigators.
Simas said the verdict was vindication for her father and the family, which endured stress, financial hardship and bad publicity from the arrest.
Given the tight margins, Miller’s Auto Body focuses on high-end work and making the experience as pleasant as possible, hence the new equipment and refurbished waiting room.
Of course, all that work doesn’t leave as much time for her three children – 6- and 7-year-old boys and a 14-year-old step-daughter.
“I would like to say it has gotten easier, but at the same time as I get used to it, my kids are getting older and they are becoming more involved in activities,” Simas said. •