Padgett keeps the region rolling along
New London — Padgett & Sons has seen a lot of changes over the past four decades, and if Jimmy Padgett Jr. has anything to say about it, the second-generation auto body and towing business on Truman Street will see many more in the years ahead.
That's because, even as others worry about drones and self-driving cars cutting into the towing and car-repair business, Padgett is looking ahead and feels optimistic. In fact, he is so bullish on the towing business that he recently purchased a huge, heavy-duty recovery truck and is fishing around for a larger space than his current cramped lot.
"Commercial property is still very high priced, but I think it will pay off in the end," Padgett said. "We've got a great crew here now ... we've all clicked like a team."
Padgett said it could take up to six years before he finds the right parcel of 3 to 4 acres, preferably in New London, and gets all the various approvals. He said it's possible the business will land in Waterford or Groton, but "we would like to stay in New London if we could."
Padgett has bought and torn down three adjoining houses to his property, including a former soup kitchen, but still is running out of room.
"I need to find a different piece of property to help us grow," he said, gesturing toward his lot that has several huge trucks cleverly positioned near damaged cars to clear the driveway for customers. "We're too tight here."
Padgett & Sons started 40 years ago, in December 1977, when Padgett's father, Jimmy Sr., a former Navy man with car-repair experience, started Padgett's Auto Body.
At the time, his sons, Jimmy Jr. and Tom, were teenagers, and both ended up joining him in the business, while other family members helped with financing, accounting and other facets of the operation.
"When we opened up it really was a family business," Padgett said.
Tom is still there, focusing on the auto body side, while Jimmy Jr. takes care of the towing end, now aided by manager Nate Welles. Jimmy Sr. has maintained his association with the business.
The business always did towing, Padgett said, but that side of the business has become a bigger part of the pie in the past few years as auto dealerships, which once eschewed such work, started dealing with collision repairs on a more regular basis.
So Padgett started looking to expand the towing operation, focusing on largescale highway-recovery operations that can take as many as a dozen workers up to half a day to clear.
"Our main job is to clear the highway and get traffic flowing again," Padgett said. "It's all hands on deck."
To help with recovery operations, Padgett just last month bought a new rotator truck that has a flexible boom, similar to a crane, that can maneuver to lift trucks that fall down embankments while keeping at least one lane of a highway open.
He recalls several recent recovery operations, one of which involved a truck whose trailer flipped over on Interstate 95 in Pawcatuck while hauling a steel roll. Another occurred in March at Exit 90 when a truck went over the embankment.
His crew, in addition to removing the vehicle, often needs to remove guardrails, cut trees and recover cargo as part of such operations, Padgett said.
Less glamorous but a key to Padgett's business are the regular car and truck tows that his shop coordinates largely through its partnership with the worldwide travel association AAA. Padgett is one of AAA's go-to towing businesses, as it has been for almost 30 years.
"We don't make a lot of money with it, but we're meeting new people and have become better established," Padgett said.
The AAA referrals lead to a steady flow of business that keeps Padgett's 15 to 19 employees busy year-round, 24/7. The employees include a dispatcher who can view the whereabouts (and even speed) of Padgett's trucks on a large computer screen in the main office area.
Padgett has another computer screen in his office, where he writes estimates for people, and says the technology has made it easier for people to understand the bills.
Padgett, who has 12 tow and service trucks on site and across the street, brought in a priest, the Rev. Mark O'Donnell, to bless his latest rotator truck. He blessed the business as well.
"I never had my business blessed before," he smiled. "I definitely have a strong faith. ... I know God guides me."
He calls New London a "sleeping giant" and expects the city to come into its own in the near future, once people are able to put aside egos and petty differences. At 57, Padgett thinks about retirement but also says he'd like to keep working in some capacity until he's 85.
"It's challenging but it's fun," he said. "I don't think I'll ever really retire."
Padgett acknowleged Michael Buscetto Jr., who has acted as a mentor in the towing business, as well as Don Chapman, a retired fireman who still works at Padgett's most every day.
He mentions his nephew Tom and towing manager Welles as two likely replacements, but has no immediate plans to step down.
As for the towing business itself, he said, even with driverless cars there will still be breakdowns. An expanded business will allow him also to work on the larger trucks that his current site doesn't have the capacity to handle.
"I still think there's a need for us," Padgett said, "and I think it's going to grow."
What: Padgett & Sons
Where: 61 Truman St., New London
Who: Jimmy Padgett
Employees: 15 to 19
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