Initial reports of a freak afternoon hailstorm that pounded parts of the Roanoke Valley on Aug. 1 quickly made their way to Orlando, Florida. Brandon Peterson, a businessman based there, swung into action.
He booked an airline ticket for his manager-scout Austin Detzel. Detzel landed at the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport within 48 hours then rented a car and drove around assessing damage.
He soon reckoned that nickel-, quarter- and golf-ball-sized ice chunks had ravaged potentially thousands of vehicles in southwest Roanoke County and Roanoke’s southwest quadrant. A few days later, Peterson and Cody Cline showed up, pulling a trailer full of specialized tools.
The trio are auto-body specialists in a field known as paintless dent repair. They chase hailstorms, moving from state to state, often spending months repairing dents and dings in the wake of bad storms like the one here, or worse.
Auto Hail Specialist is set up on Brambleton Avenue across from the Cave Spring Corners shopping center in a space formerly occupied by Perdue Cabinets, a custom cabinetry shop that closed months ago.
“It’s something I have never heard of,” said landlord Richard Perdue. Detzel “knocked on the door and I said, ‘Show me the money.’ ” They struck a deal for a temporary lease.
“There’s thousands of cars damaged, and the [local] body shops and dealerships are not going to be able to cover that alone,” Peterson told me when I dropped in Tuesday at Auto Hail Specialist. (One of those cars was my 15-year-old Volvo. I’ll get to its estimate in a minute.)
I learned about this industry from my across-the-street neighbor Don Proffitt, whose Ford SUV is a lot newer than my sedan. The dings to his red Edge resulted in more than $6,000 in damage. Newer models — especially those with comprehensive coverage — are probably worth fixing.
Proffitt said he got his estimate from Dent Tamers, a Tennessee-based hail-chasing outfit set up at the Thompson Collision Repair on Merriman Road in the Starkey area. Some local paintless dent repair companies are doing the same. One is the local franchisee of Colors on Parade, which has set up a temporary hail damage center in the Tanglewood area at 3830 Electric Road, franchise co-owner Phil Barker said.
“We work directly with more than 30 different insurance companies,” Peterson told me. He said his estimates are based on repair pricing guides published by insurers. That makes for few disputes when adjusters come around.
Paintless dent repair has been around a while. It’s different than traditional auto body work, which typically involves filling dents with putty and then sanding and priming. With the paintless technique, technicians use specialized rods and other tools to push dents out from the inside.
Sometimes the technicians pull dents out using hot glue and pulling tools. The process preserves a vehicle’s original paint. When it’s done right, you can’t tell it’s been done at all.
“We’re like massage therapists for cars,” Peterson said. “We know how to mold the metal and make it flat without having to repaint.” The process works on steel and aluminum, he added.
Peterson’s sensitive to the notion that some might consider him a pop-up vendor who won’t be around long.
“We’re a service that helps repair Mother Nature’s disasters,” he told me. “There’s thousands of people here unhappy that storm happened. We’re not coming here and trying to sell anybody something they don’t need.”
He said customers don’t pay until they’ve seen their repaired cars and he offers warranties by networking with local paintless dent repair techs and body shops that will be around after he’s gone. Robert Lynch, who operates in Roanoke under the name Dent Dudes, confirmed he’s talked about such an arrangement with Auto Hail Specialist.
In the wake of the Aug. 1 storm, “We have more than we can do,” Lynch told me. “Sometimes, it can get pretty overwhelming, when 1,000 customers want their car fixed yesterday.”
One of Auto Hail Specialist’s satisfied customers is David Schulz. Although he lives in the Starkey Road area, where the hail wasn’t severe, the storm caught Schulz driving his 2008 Porsche Cayenne on Electric Road near Brambleton.
Hail caused more than 100 dime- to half-dollar-sized dents in Schulz’s SUV. The damage estimate was $3,400, Schulz said. Auto Hail Specialist fixed every one of them in a day. His out-of-pocket cost was his $500 deductible.
“It’s perfect,” Schulz said. “I can’t see any evidence of [the damage].” When I asked if he was satisfied, he said, “Yeah, definitely.”
Peterson, 36, told me an interesting back story about how he got in the business. He grew up in Florida and was raised by his mother after his parents divorced. By his late teens, he had no contact with his dad. Then his mom died of a heart attack.
“I was homeless when I was a teenager. My mom died when I was 17, and I lived in a truck,” Peterson said. “I was responsible for myself.”
He got into auto-body painting and did that for three years. He said he got five promotions during that time, but not one raise. After the fifth promotion, he asked his boss for a $2 per hour pay hike. The guy offered 25 cents.
That day, Peterson found another job with a paintless dent repair company and spent three years honing his skills. But its owner laid him off after the 2008 recession, when business flatlined. His ex-boss suggested Peterson try hail-chasing, which the boss had done some years earlier in Texas.
“He said, ‘You’re young, single, you don’t have a mortgage,’ ” Peterson told me. He hit the road soon afterward and hasn’t looked back.
“My first big deal was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” he said. That was his first year as a “traveling entrepreneur.” After a bad hailstorm there, “I worked with seven body shops who needed my help. I was 25 years old.”
How much money did he make his first year?
“I don’t know if I want to tell you. Let’s just say, I found success,” Peterson said. By the end of 2018, he noted, he had 35 people working for him. Right now he has technicians in four locations.
“I’m chasing hailstorms, I’m chasing money,” Peterson said. “This is the American dream, what I’m doing.”
And what about my car, the 2004 Volvo? The dings and dents are spread over the hood and roof and on the passenger side, which faced the direction from which the hail flew Aug. 1. Peterson estimated the repair would cost about $3,000.
But the car’s book value is about $2,000. That means it’s effectively totaled. My insurer would wind up with the car if I turned in a claim.
For that amount, I couldn’t get another car that runs as well. So I’m out of luck — as usual.