By EVAN SOLTAS
Shawn Gatta has spent more than half of his life in the auto-detailing business. The owner and manager of the Detail Doctor on Broad Street in Shrewsbury, Gatta, 42, has been bringing out the best in the cars of his customers since he was a teenager in Neptune.
Since then, it’s kept him so busy that when he’s tried to pursue other fields — real estate, for one — he’s found himself lured back by the “first love” he found in detailing.
“There are other things I would like to do,” said Gatta, “but I’m so consumed by this business.” He’s had a real estate license since he was 19, but he’s never found a spare moment to make a single sale or listing.
Earlier this week, redbankgreen stole some time with Gatta’s lunch break he works 66 hours a week, by his count for some insights into the life of a clean-car obsessive.
What drew you to cars at such a young age?
Well, believe it or not, it was just a passion of mine when I was probably about eleven or twelve years old. I just loved cars, and I was waxing my parents’ cars and my brother’s car for free, most likely and my neighbor, Adam Boren, asked me to wax his car, and he was my first ever paying customer, I would say when I was fifteen years old.
I enjoyed it, I enjoyed the result that I got from the finishing of detailing a car. I went from one neighbor to another neighbor to another neighbor, and I ended up when I was fifteen or sixteen years old I was walking door to door cleaning everyone’s car in the neighborhood.
So was it at first a family thing?
No, my father didn’t know how to wax a car. My father actually had his car waxed at a place in Asbury Park, and I remember, you know, him coming home, and I saw the car, and I was blown away by how shiny it was. It was a brown Cadillac, and this is going back to like 1980, and it came back looking so beautiful that it interested me. No, my father was in the insurance business. He knew nothing about waxing cars. I learned on my own.
Was there a moment when you realized that you wanted to keep doing this as a career?
I would say yes. I went to college when I was 17 I was very young for my grade — so I started my college career, which lasted two months at Fairleigh Dickinson in Madison, and when I dropped out of college, I came home and told my mother that I just wanted to detail cars, and she thought I was out of my mind.
You’ve run your business in many ways — going door to door, working out of your car, leasing a building, owning a building. What kinds of lessons have come through that sort of process?
I had a very specific situation where our landlord at our one location doubled our rent after the first year, and I swallowed that, but then after the second year I didn’t learn my lesson, so for the third year he doubled it again, which basically made me and this is a true story have to move out of the building, since I could not afford it, and I was out of the building for three days and they opened up the [name of competitor redacted], which was owned by the landlord, and his idea was to steal my business. It came with some good lessons: sign a longer lease, have options in your lease.
Also, my business used to be 75 or 80 percent wholesale car dealerships — and most of it was one particular dealership. That was a bad idea, because I put all of my eggs in one basket. If they said ‘jump,’ I would have to say ‘how high.’ I went from being at mercy to them to having approximately 7,000 customers that I answer to. I have 7,000 bosses now.
You have a reputation among customers of always being in the building. What keeps you here?
I have a very personal passion for running my company. Other than being with my family, I’d rather be here: I’d rather be here than playing golf, I’d rather be here than sitting on the beach, I’d rather be here than at a bar. I like being here. This is a very happy business. My clients, when we’re done with their cars, are happy. They’re excited. ‘Wow I love that.’
I mean, this isn’t the dentist’s office, it isn’t the insurance office. Who wants to pay their insurance? When my father was collecting money from people, I’m sure they weren’t very happy to pay their insurance. Who wants to pay their insurance? And that’s it I enjoy my employees, I enjoy being here, and I enjoy the detailing process. Taking a car from looking very weathered after two, three, four years of use and making it look like it just came off the showroom floor, there’s a challenge there, and we accomplish it 99.9 percent of the time, so it’s satisfying.
Do you detail your own car, and what are you looking for if you do?
Me personally? Do I detail my own car? No, I don’t detail any cars anymore. I don’t have the time to clean my own car. I’m not saying I wouldn’t, I’m just saying that I don’t have the time. When my employees clean my car, which they do on a regular basis, they know how I like it to perfection. And what kind of car do I drive? I drive a Range Rover, but I don’t know what bearing that has. I always have a dark-colored car, because that looks the best waxed.
Is there a fun car to detail?
I don’t look at the business that way it’s always the challenge of taking a car from not looking great to looking great. We’ve done almost every car in the world when I say almost, I mean obviously I haven’t done Ralph Lauren’s collection. I do Bruce Springsteen‘s collection, and I do a bunch of cars for Bon Jovi. I think it was fun the first time I did a car for Springsteen, you know.
I think maybe more of a customer, like when I did John Mulheren‘s cars, can be fun, because he was passionate about what we were doing to his motorcycles and all of those crazy cars he had. He had like a fire engine and some other things that were very interesting. It’s more the client, and not so much the car.
Can you tell anything about a person when you work on his car?
Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, we have found everything in cars from A to Z, and I’m not mentioning what, but you know, there’s been time we’ve had to call customers, and tell them to come down. But every car shows a person’s personality. Every car.
Do you consider yourself a detail-oriented person?
Absolutely. As anal as they come.
Every part of my financial life is in detailed order, as is any other portion of my life you could imagine. If you go look at my desk or through my files, everything is always in order.
Is detailing recession-proof?
We have found it to be. We’ve been in business through two recessions, I think, and the late 80s weren’t great everyone seemed to be complaining about money, but my business was great. And that all passed, and now we’ve been in a recession for the past five or four years, or at least it seems like that, but we set new record last year and this year we’re going to beat it. So is it recession-proof? I can only guess and say yes.
Finally, what’s most important: a clean car, comfy shoes, or good food?
Well, it’s definitely not comfortable shoes, ’cause I would live in flip-flops, and they are definitely not that comfortable. They’re comfortable to me, but maybe not to anybody else.
And then to decide between a clear car and good food I love good food, so I don’t know. It’s a coin toss to me. I mean, I love a clean car, but I love a good meal. Could I drive around in a dirty car and go to great restaurants? That’s basically what I have to ask myself.
I’d probably go with the food I wouldn’t tell a customer that, I’d rather have a customer want a clean car, but I love food that much, over the clean car probably.