As a child growing up in Mattapan, Willie Hicks Jr. often visited his father’s auto body shop on the corner of Blue Hill and Talbot Avenues in Dorchester and hacked around. He did not learn much about cars, but said he gleaned a lot from his dad about hard work and integrity.
“My dad built this place,’’ Hicks Jr. said, scanning the 13,500 square-foot shop. “He has a ton of principle, a lot of know-how, and belief in people that has enabled him to put together a terrific team. And he’s old school, especially when it comes to hard work.’’
Willie E. Hicks Sr. has been in the auto repair business for 42 years, and last month his son and employees surprised him on his 75th birthday with a lunchtime party in the middle of the shop, Hicks Auto Body. It was a no-frills fete, reflective of the boss’s low-tone personality.
“I’m just thankful that we’ve been able to serve the community this long,’’ Hicks Sr. said.
The business is more than just a place where cars are repaired. It has over the decades become a symbol of success in a community that has struggled with crime and blight.
Hicks Jr., 43, the vice president, recounted his most difficult day at the shop, which occurred last June, when a gunman chased a man down Harvard Street toward Talbot Avenue, and the victim sought cover inside the shop.
The gunman followed and shot the fleeing man, and also shot two workers inside the shop.
All three men recovered, but Hicks Jr. said the incident could have been much worse. His father usually arrives at the shop at around 6 a.m. and begins his day in the same section where the shooting occurred.
“I was glad that dad wasn’t here, because it was one day that he finally took for himself to go fishing,’’ said Hicks Jr.
The father and son company does not have a large budget to spend on advertising, and counts largely on word-of-mouth.
“When customers are satisfied, that says a lot about the person in charge,’’ said William E. Dickerson II, pastor of the Greater Love Tabernacle, which is around the corner from the shop.
“I grew up in the neighborhood, and saw the success with my own eyes. He’s extended his good will toward us, supporting us whenever we have a special event. In these tough economic times, the fact that he continues to thrive and support the community is a testament to his resiliency.’’
The shop is also beneficial to other businesses in the area, providing a built-in lunch crowd at Sun Pizza at 870 Blue Hill Ave.
“Yeah, their workers come in here every day,’’ said owner Harry Hazomoumas. “Listen, we’ve been here for 20 years, so we know that you don’t stick around for a long time without working hard. If he’s been in business that long, obviously, he’s doing something right.’’
The shop at 10 Talbot Ave. has 10 employees and can handle up to 30 cars at a time. It has partnered with or sponsored events in recent years by many local organizations, including the Boys & Girls Club of Boston, located across the street, and the Dorchester Pop Warner football program.
“We do a lot because there’s a lot to be done,’’ Hicks Jr. said. “Every time something happens in the community, people tend to look on elected officials. Their terms are two and four years, but we’ve been here for 42 years, so I think every business in their community should care enough to walk out of their front door and pick up pieces of paper and help anybody they can.’’
Hicks Jr. said the shop gets loads of requests for sponsorships, which requires them to be selective, to chose the ones that “are very meaningful and close to our heart.’’
Hicks Sr. grew up in South Carolina, working on tractors. He moved to upstate New York, where he gained experience in auto body repair. From there, he moved to Boston and partnered with a longtime friend to open a small auto body shop in Roxbury. After several years, he bought out the partner and moved to the current location in 1970.
“My dad doesn’t have any partners . . . just him and Uncle Sam, and we’ve been fortunate.
Hicks Jr. said when he was growing up, he did not consider taking over or even working in the shop. His dreams were of playing in the NFL. He was the starting quarterback at Boston College from 1987-1990 and earned a degree in communications, hoping to eventually work as a sports broadcaster or in sports marketing. He said he had opportunities to enter the advertising field and even Wall Street.
“But I declined and came here,’’ he said.