GORHAM – The old newspaper article hangs on the wall beside a painted mural depicting Moody’s Collision Service’s 30-year history.
“Moody wins fight for Gorham business,” reads the headline in The Courier Free Press of Windham.
The story describes how the 18-year-old Moody had finally prevailed before the town’s Board of Appeals to keep his new auto garage business open following a “two-month feud” that left a couple of neighbors upset.
Moody started Moody’s Body Shop in October 1977 in a three-bay garage, not knowing he was in violation of town zoning rules. The town’s code enforcement officer told him the shop was in a residential zone and an unauthorized “expansion of a nonconforming use.”
Moody looks backs and realizes he made a mistake in trying to get the entire neighborhood rezoned commercial. Angry neighbors and passionate supporters made for crowded hearings before the appeals board. Because he was only 18 at the time, “I didn’t realize the dynamics of what I was doing,” he said.
Board members ultimately voted 4-3 to approve Moody’s business rather than rezone the entire area.
“That was a defining moment for me,” Moody said recently at his campaign office. “There was a huge outpouring of support from townspeople. I went home that night indebted to the community. It was like a light bulb went on — it’s all about people, and you do what you can to give back.”
Thirty-two years later, Moody has built his little garage into a small empire with five locations in southern Maine. He sold his company’s auto recycling business to a national corporation for millions of dollars.
Amid a slumping economy and gaping state budget shortfalls, Moody said he decided he wasn’t content to sit on the sidelines. He’s running as an independent for governor.
It’s a long shot.
In The Maine Poll, conducted last week for MaineToday Media by the Portland research firm Critical Insights, Moody was supported by 5 percent of likely voters surveyed, about where he stood two weeks before. Democrat Libby Mitchell and Republican Paul LePage were in a statistical dead heat with 30 percent and 29 percent, respectively. Independents Eliot Cutler and Kevin Scott had 9 percent and zero percent, respectively.
Moody, 50, remains upbeat.
He says he’s gaining momentum in an unpredictable race with his message of running state government as he’s run his business: efficiently, with a focus on customer and employee satisfaction and collaboration.
“I think Shawn’s in a really good position now,” said Dennis Bailey, a political consultant for Moody who earlier this year worked on the primary campaign of Democrat Rosa Scarcelli. “He’s got nowhere to go but up. The question is: How far up can he go?”
DISCOVERING PASSION FOR CARS
Moody grew up in a small Cape-style house with a detached two-car garage on Narragansett Street, a short distance from his current campaign headquarters.
His parents, Ann and Chip, divorced when he was about 18 months old. His father relocated to Massachusetts but stayed in contact with the family, which included Shawn’s older brother and sister, Thad and Kim.
That left his mother, a self-employed hairdresser, to raise the children. She worked long hours and sacrificed a lot, Moody said.
Moody said he worshipped his brother and sister growing up, and relied on them as role models.
Thad Moody, who now lives in the original family house, is vice president of operations at Moody’s Collision Centers. Kim Moody teaches nursing at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham and works at Maine Medical Center in Portland. Ann Moody lives at the Inn At Village Square, an assisted-living center in Gorham.
Shawn Moody was 13 when he discovered his passion for cars. Thad had a blue ’64 Impala convertible and was studying mechanics at what was then Southern Maine Vocational Technical Institute.
But that was also a dark time for Moody. His mother, who suffered from depression, had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for about a month. His brother and sister were not living at home at the time.
“I was really living at home alone,” Moody said. “I was scared; I didn’t know what to tell the teachers at school. I felt torn, worried somebody would come and take me away. But I didn’t really think a lot about me; I was just worried about Mom.”
Ann recovered, but realized her job had contributed to her stress and decided to go back to school.
So Moody and his mother rented the house out and moved into a mobile home. Thad and Kim moved in as well. They got by on child-support payments from his father, and Shawn worked as a paperboy.
At 14, Moody started working on cars after school in the garage at the Narragansett Street house. He also started working nights and weekends at a Corvette business.
He rebuilt his first car engine at 15. A year later, he painted his first car.
“I was getting a Ph.D. out there,” he said.
STARTING HIS BUSINESS AT 17
Moody was 16 when his mom remarried and they moved in with Clint Allen, who owned Gorham Auto Parts on Narragansett Street. Ann Moody and Allen divorced less than a year later, but Moody rented a room at Allen’s house.
In the fall of 1977, the 17-year-old Moody decided to start his own business. He got a $6,000 loan, purchased a quarter-acre lot from Allen and built his three-bay, 34-foot by 30-foot plywood garage. “It was nothing fancy,” he said.
During his senior year, Moody was enrolled in a co-op program in which he finished basic school courses at 11 a.m. each day and then went to work at his garage. Since he was self-employed and in the co-op program, “I actually graded myself and I was motivated.”
Mark Eastman of South Paris, Moody’s high school principal at the time, said Moody was technically savvy.
“His first love wasn’t English and history; he was very interested in how things worked and taking things apart and putting them back together,” Eastman said. “I developed a good relationship with him. He was a bit rambunctious — he did end up in my office on occasion — but he really pursued his dream. He’s a fighter; he perseveres.”
Eastman was among those who testified on Moody’s behalf during the zoning hearings on his first garage.
“He didn’t follow protocol, so there was an appeal,” Eastman said. “Several of us were hoping he’d have an opportunity to get a chance and we spoke We felt this is something that could be accomplished, especially with his desire and interest.”
After winning town approval, Moody’s business started to grow and add employees.
In 1988, Moody purchased Allen’s Gorham Auto Parts and bought a garage behind the local Shop ‘n’ Save for a second location offering mechanical work and 24-hour towing service. Moody moved into a small room in the garage that “wasn’t well-insulated.”
Moody purchased adjacent property that Clint Allen had been leasing for a junkyard, a polluted eyesore that the town wanted shut down. That became the location of Moody’s auto recycling business.
In 1999, he sold Gorham Auto Parts to LKQ Corp., which is now a publicly traded company based in Chicago with more than $2 billion in annual revenue. Moody would say only that it was a “multimillion-dollar” deal, and that the transaction left him free of debt.
“We were growing, expanding, but we all agreed that to take the business to a new level, it was a wise move,” Moody said of the sale. “At that point we were recycling 1,200 cars a year and employed close to 20 people.”
Moody spent time traveling around the country for LKQ, meeting with people at other potential acquisition sites and devising business blueprints.
After that ended in 2000, he focused on growing the Moody’s locations. The company now has five body shops, in Gorham, Scarborough, Portland, Biddeford and Sanford. Moody, president and general contractor, has 75 employees with an annual payroll of more than $4 million. About a third of the company is owned by the employees through an employee stock ownership program.
OFFENDED BY ‘JOE THE PLUMBER’
Moody and his wife, Christina, married in 1987 and have four children: Danielle, 22, a recent business graduate from Byrant University in Rhode Island; Jimmy, 20, a junior at Bates College; Ben, 19, a recent graduate of Gorham High School now working at the shop; and Nathan, 16, a junior at the high school.
Christina Moody said she was surprised that her husband wanted to run for governor.
“He’s never been what I’d call a ‘political person,’ but he’s always followed politics, being in business,” she said.
Moody says there were two main reasons he decided to launch his campaign in June. He felt discussion of “Joe the Plumber” during the 2008 presidential campaign “denigrated tradespeople and craftsmen.” Also, he thought the state’s economic woes begged for a leader who understands the challenges facing small businesses, which are the lifeblood of Maine’s economy, he said.
Moody, who refers to his employees as “co-workers,” thinks many of the principles he’s applied to his business could work in state government, from surveying customers (citizens) to open-book management (budgets and payroll) to key performance indicators (monthly financial snapshots).
His company’s mission statement, devised by his employees, is “commitment, strength, growth.”
Moody’s campaign office is in the building that used to house Allen’s junkyard offices on Narragansett Street. Almost every house on the street has a Moody campaign sign in its front yard.
Danielle Moody handles campaign event scheduling.
“The biggest thing we have facing us is name recognition,” she said. “So, when I do scheduling, he’s out from 6 in the morning to 9 at night sometimes, and he’s had a great attitude about it. I’m really proud of him.”
Christina Moody said she’s been impressed by the campaign’s volunteers, which include family, friends and townspeople.
Driving his old Chevrolet pickup around town, Moody waves to passing drivers. As he walks through the collision center, he greets employees by name.
Not everyone in Gorham is an enthusiastic supporter. Carl Phillips, owner of Phillips & Sons Body Shop, said Moody receives favoritism from local officials, which has hurt Phillips’ business and others.
He pointed to a case in 2006 when Moody’s Collision Center received a tax break through the creation of a tax increment financing district, or TIF, in order to extend three-phase power lines up the road so his business could expand. According to a June 21, 2006, story in the American Journal newspaper in Westbrook, Phillips was one of several business owners who criticized the deal.
“Shawn’s the favorite of the town of Gorham. He can do anything,” Phillips said. “I think Shawn is in it for himself more than he is for the people. His main goal in life is to shut down every small body shop and every salvage yard. But I’m not saying he didn’t work hard; I don’t dislike him. He’s just done some things I’m not too pleased with.”
Bob Harmon, president of Norway Savings Bank, said he has known Moody for about 30 years — they played adult-league basketball together — and he has been impressed with Moody’s business savvy, especially without having a college degree. Moody’s has banked with Norway Savings for about six years, he said.
In Harmon’s opinion, Moody is “the type of guy who does business with a handshake.”
“He has high integrity, a very honest person who gets along with people very well, and he has good organizational skills,” Harmon said. “I think he has a long shot — I told him that right from the get-go — but I think he has ambition, a drive and a desire to really work hard at it. When he sets his mind to something, he usually tries to fulfill it.”
Despite Moody’s low poll numbers, Christina Moody thinks her husband’s appeal of being “a real Mainer” is catching on with voters — she points to his Facebook page, which has more than 3,700 friends.
At a live TV debate on Sept. 25, Moody’s regular-guy image stood out. Asked what kind of vehicle he drives, Moody responded in his folksy, “Maine-ah” drawl: “Well, being in the business, we bought a pickup that someone had let go in the river, flooded up the dashboard. We cleaned it out, cleaned the fish out, and vacuumed it up and we’re driving.” Asked if his campaign had deployed “trackers” — people who follow the other campaigns — Moody said he “didn’t know what a tracker was until this all started.”
Eastman, his former high school principal, said he was initially skeptical when Moody told him about his run for governor, but the two talked through his ideas.
“It comes down to a collaborative approach to leadership, built on meeting customers’ needs,” Eastman said. “His desire is to build a model of government that understands issues and problems and uses a team approach to solving those issues. He believes in rewarding good work.
“I didn’t sense a lot of hard-core political savvy,” Eastman continued. “But I think he sees that as his strength.”
Moody said he’s learned a lot since starting his campaign.
“I’m a sponge for knowledge,” he said.