Some if not most of Liisa Thomas’ customers are surprised to know she is the owner of Body Works Collision Inc. in Imperial Beach. Not to worry. She is used to it. Thomas is not just a pretty face behind the desk, she knows cars and has worked on them since she was 10 years old in her hometown in Massachusetts. Thomas has spent her entire career doing body work and recently she opened a shop on 10th Street.
Thomas has many fond memories of her childhood spent working on cars that came from a junk yard with a group of friends, all boys of course. Thomas’ best friend’s dad had a friend who owned a junkyard who provided the group with old cars. Thomas and her friends fixed the old cars and drove them to an abandoned ski mountain until they broke and then fixed once again.
“We kind of figured things out on our own…we’d work on miscellaneous small jobs to fix the cars,” she recalled. Thinking of her childhood, she added, “What other 11 year-old drives through the woods in a truck? We had such a good time at such as young age.”
The group of kids that worked together on cars all ended up having a job in the car business.
Her family was supportive of what turned out to be her passion. Thomas graduated from a trade high school where she studied auto body, then started working at a large body collision shop in the suburbs of Boston. At that time, as a woman, she was a pioneer in the business because there were not many females who worked in the mechanical and body collision repair business.
“It was a fight. I had to grow some thick skin. I was up for the battle,” she said. Eventually she bought her own body shop in the suburbs and in 2012 she came to California with the idea of living in a beach community and opening a shop.
Thomas had a system to decide which community she wanted to move to. She spent eight hours in each beach city starting in North County. She did that twice and found she liked Imperial Beach the most. “I didn’t just hang out at the beach, I walked the streets, went to businesses, engaged the community. By far Imperial Beach was the most welcoming, friendly, cool community,” she said.
After Thomas chose Imperial Beach as her new hometown, she opened a body shop in Chula Vista. When the lease expired on the Chula Vista shop in November 2017 she decided she wanted to live, play and work in Imperial Beach and looked for a location. Thomas found a place on 10th Street but the process took longer than she expected. She spent the next two years trying to open while using her savings.
She can’t say enough positive things about her community who showed up at the council chamber during a meeting for a conditional use permit for her shop to support her. “I believe in this community, they wrapped their arms around me. I’m so grateful, I feel so humbled and thankful for that. It solidifies I’ve chosen the best community,” she said.
The large building that houses the shop has had many lives. It was an electric supply company, a tow yard for Gene’s 76, a plumbing supply company and automotive parts and resale.
Thomas was finally able to open this past February and then COVID-19 hit. Business was slow at first since people were not driving but now that people are back on the road, things are picking up. Thomas not only works on individuals’ cars but she has contracts with the cities of Chula Vista, Coronado, Imperial Beach lifeguards and the Navy fleet.
“I’m fair. I’m honest. I do a good job. I want you to come back when you need me. I know I have people’s lives in my hands. While driving down the highway if that vehicle doesn’t perform the way it’s supposed to, I take it seriously,” she said. Her focus is to make her customers feel they are not going through the process alone after an accident.
“It’s about beautifying cars - who doesn’t like to put make up on cars?” she joked.
Although she spends most of her time on the business end of the shop she gives a hand when necessary. “My team is phenomenal, they feel comfortable coming to me if they run into a problem,” she said.
Thomas knows that many women admit to mechanics and auto shops that they don’t know anything about cars and that puts them at a disadvantage. She wants to change that, and once the pandemic is over she plans on offering Car Care Clinics for women so they can learn the basics. Her office has a huge tool box she painted a shade of fuchsia herself using the paint in her shop.
Thomas still loves what she does for a living after the many years she has been doing it. “I don’t get up thinking I have to go to work. Not very often people get that in life,” she said.
The back of the shop where the employees work on cars is very clean. She is very conscious of the environment and she proudly shows a vacuum sander her employees use that eliminate the dust you would expect in a body shop. It keeps cars, the shop and neighborhood cleaner, including her hair. The brand new paint booth has filters that trap contaminants before they can escape which keeps everyone safe.
“My priorities are safety, quality and honesty,” she said proudly.
BodyWorks Collision Inc., 753 10th Street, 619-420-6300. Hours: Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday by appointment. Sunday closed. For more information log on www.BodyWorkCollisionsinc.com. Check out the shop’s FB page.