Wednesday, 31 August 2005 17:00

Why women are succeeding in the collision repair industry...

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 ..and what men can learn from them

Attend any national trade show, conference or association event in the collision industry, and one thing is likely to become apparent: While men may still far outnumber the women, both the number and success level of women involved in the industry is growing rapidly.  

In talking with women shop owners around the country, most can cite one or two specific things they are doing to succeed in what is often perceived as a male-dominated industry. While their stories should be heartening and encouraging to other women involved in the industry, there's a lesson here for men as well: The actions these women cite as the reasons for their business success have little to do with their gender. Because of that, the "secrets" of their accomplishments could be used by anyone who is willing to follow their recipe for success.

Stand up for what's right

Those who oppose insurer ownership of collision repair shops can't point to a lot of victories. Texas passed strict regulations that limit insurer-owned shops, but Allstate, which owns Sterling Collision Centers, promptly filed a suit that has kept the legislation from taking effect. Efforts to pass similar legislation in other states have yet to be successful.

But one shop owner was successful in keeping Sterling out of her community. When the planning board for Bolingbrook, Illinois, in mid-2003 granted Sterling a special use permit to build a shop in that community, Teresa Kostick, general manager and co-owner of All Line CARSTAR, didn't give up the fight, despite having to go up against a much larger opponent.

She began calling everyone she could think of to garner support and get information for her efforts to prevent Sterling from opening in her area. She went to the township trustees and convincingly argued that the three shops already in town were enough to serve the community. Adding a fourth shop, she said, particularly one the size of Sterling's 15,000 sq. ft. model, would likely put one or more of the existing shops out of business.

Her argument prevailed. Trustees voted 5-0 in June of 2003 to not let Sterling build on a property in Bolingbrook.

Kostick's success in the industry points to the importance and value of doing - and standing up for - what's right, even when it means going up against stronger or intimidating foes.

Get involved as a leader in the industry

One key thing the successful women in the collision industry seem to have in common is that although in many ways they are pioneers, they tend to find other women who inspire or guide them. They find these mentors - and then become one themselves for other women - largely by playing an active role in the numerous associations and organizations in the industry.

Geralynn Kottschade is no doubt one of the women inspiring others in the industry. Kottschade, co-owner of Jerry's Body Shop, an 18,000-sq. ft. facility in Mankato, Minnesota, was the first woman to chair the national board of directors of the Automotive Service Association (ASA). It's a position she earned after many years on the board and ASA national committees, and a quarter-century of involvement in the industry.

"I felt there was so much the association and industry have done for my husband Jerry and me that we needed to keep giving back," Kottschade said of her decision to serve on ASA's board. "My parents raised me to be involved, to contribute, and to try to make a difference. When I met Jerry, he was president of the Automotive Service Council of Minnesota, and the first event I attended was their annual convention. So I guess you could call it baptism by fire. It only seems right to be involved in ASA."

Kottschade said there is no shortage of opportunities - and a real need - for anyone, but women in particular, who want to take on leadership roles in the industry. The state and national associations need input and volunteer leaders. The Collision Industry Conference (CIC) has an ongoing need for committee participants and co-chairs. The National Auto Body Council, I-CAR and ASE all seek leaders on a local, state or national level. Kottschade has served on the board of the Collision Industry Electronic Commerce Association (CIECA) - the organization developing standards for the computerized and electronic communications systems used between shops, insurers and vendors.

This involvement pays dividends in any number of ways, Kottschade said. It will improve your own personal leadership skills. It will give you access to some of the most successful people in the industry. And most importantly, it will give you a role in improving the industry, not only for yourself, but for those who follow.

Kottschade is the first to admit that leadership roles in the industry can add yet another challenge for time-strapped business owners. But, she said, the benefits outweigh the downsides, particularly when you see progress being made, even if slowly.

"From the outside, it may sometimes appear that it takes too much time [for industry organizations] to get things done," Kottschade said. "I know as a shop owner I find that hard to understand, since most of us are impatient and action-driven. But progress does happen. I know that ASA volunteers, for example, are committed, and serve the association unselfishly. They are results-oriented and would be frustrated if their service [had] no tangible outcomes."

Get involved in the community

When Jeanne Silver, vice president and co-owner of Butterfield Bodyworks CARSTAR in Mundelien, Illinois, was named 2004 "Collision Repair Executive of the Year" by one of the national industry magazines this past December, it wasn't just because of the success of her shop. The shop's growth has been impressive; two years after opening for business in 1996, the shop had annual sales of $1.2 million, and it now does more than $2 million in annual sales.

But the award more recognizes that Silver, like past winners, "devotes a large amount of time and effort to improving their world, and making a difference." She is known for "the enthusiasm and passion she puts into everything she does" - including significant involvement in the community in which her business is located.

She has been active, for example, in the local Business Development Commission and Chamber of Commerce. She's involved in youth activities and academic programs, including welcoming individual and groups of students in for tours of the shop or to job shadow. She's involved in child car safety seat installation and inspection programs. As committee chair of Mundelien Mainstreet, an organization working to revitalize the community's downtown area, she orchestrated the Mundelien Guitar Festival, a two-day event that raised more than $30,000.

Her involvement has been well recognized outside the industry. In 2001, for example, she was named Illinois Small Business Person of the Year by the Illinois governor's office.

Silver said the involvement has obvious benefits for the business. Her activities put her in contact with hundreds of potential employees and keeps her company's name in the local spotlight. But, she said, the real reward is knowing others have benefited because of your efforts.

"I believe in giving back as much as I've been given," Silver said. "And I hope I can set an example for other women to believe in themselves, believe in others, and achieve their potential."

Never stop marketing

Too many shop owners don't spend enough time thinking about marketing until the flow of work coming into the shop slows down. But the successful women in the industry tend to recognize the importance of continual marketing efforts.

Valerie White's title says it all. While she and her husband, Steve, have two shops in the St. Louis, Missouri, area, her title isn't co-owner or vice president. It is Director of Marketing.

White is always looking for new ways to get and keep the White Auto Body name in front of potential customers and referral sources. The company offers continuing education classes for insurance agents and adjusters. It has an attractive, easy-to-navigate website (www.whiteautobody.com). It participates in career and job fairs. White is a member of the Vision St. Charles County Leadership Program, giving her regular opportunities to promote her company to other business leaders. She frequently makes marketing presentations to graduate-level students at Lindenwood University.

Although White says they view their ongoing efforts to repair and give away vehicles to families in need as more of a chance to give back to their community rather than a marketing tactic, their good deeds have also generated a lot of positive publicity for the business as well.

Understand the value of teamwork

Whether it's improving the productivity of the shop, or the effectiveness of industry organizations, women in the industry recognize the need to get people working together.

"I firmly believe you're either part of the solution or part of the problem," said Kelly Swenson, a past president of the California Autobody Association (CAA). "I feel if you're going to complain, you better be willing to help. I'd rather try to be part of the solution than the problem."

Swenson, vice president and part owner of Carty's Collision Center in Ontario, California, got her start in the industry when she worked in the shop her father, Mike McCarty, operated in Los Angeles. She left the industry to work "for corporate America" for some time, but returned about a dozen years ago when her father asked her to manage another shop he wanted to open in Ontario, about 40 miles east of Los Angeles. She is now part-owner of the shop.

Swenson said her first involvement in the industry beyond the shop was when she and her father didn't want to have to send employees more than an hour's drive away for I-CAR training. When Swenson was told the I-CAR classes would be offered in their shop if they signed up 30 people, she signed up 50.

She served as president of the CAA chapter in her area, merged two near-by chapters and served as president of the new chapter, and then was asked to join CAA's executive board. She became president in 2004.

She said she doesn't pretend to know all the solutions to the challenges facing the industry, but she does know the best way to solve them is to work together.

"I think all of us in our industry make poor decisions at times in trying to solve our problems - poor choices that are not good for the whole industry," Swenson said. "I want the people in our industry to realize they're not alone. They're one of many. We're all in the same boat. A lot of us face the same issues every day. You're really not the only one. I'd like to see the autobody industry become more unified. That's my hope."

Keys to success

Whether it's through building teams, thinking big or taking an active role in their community and industry, a growing number of women are reaching new levels of success in the collision repair industry. Their hard work and dedication is likely to inspire even more women to see the opportunities the industry offers them, as well as to raise the bar for everyone - men and women - in the industry.

John Yoswick is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore., who has been writing about the automotive industry since 1988.

 

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