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WIN Chairwoman on Attracting Female Customers

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When Kim White met FinishMaster president and chief financial officer J.A. Lacy at a function in Indianapolis six years ago, they talked about White’s work as a brand manager at a health care company. In a surprise move, Lacy offered her a job on the spot, saying that her experience was perfect for FinishMaster. White accepted, and set out building her skills and learning a new industry as the paint company’s director of national accounts.

So when Lacy suggested another opportunity—this time, with the Women’s Industry Network (WIN)—White didn’t hesitate. She attended one of the organization’s first conferences and fell in love with it. She applied for and was accepted to a board position and a committee position. Then in 2009, she became the organization’s chairwoman. Here, White talks about what WIN is up to this year, why men should care about attracting more women to the industry, and how shops can better appeal to female customers and employees.

 

What does WIN want to accomplish in 2010?
We’d like to get more women to attend our annual conference, May 2–4 at the Peabody Hotel in Orlando, Fla. We’d like to reach more people at NACE, and we want to offer more scholarships. We also want to get better at working with our volunteer organizations. It’s a matter of trying to balance what we do, and to keep a history of what we do, so as people come in and replace us in various roles, we’re building upon [past initiatives] instead of repeating them every year.

WIN has done a great job of growing since its inception. The conference has continued to grow, sponsorship has continued to grow. The number of people volunteering in our committees has grown immensely. It’s through all those efforts that people are building networks and relationships.

 

Can you give us some specifics about how you’re planning to sustain this growth going forward?
In 2008 and 2009, we worked on a strategic plan that’s been instrumental in guiding us as we go forward. We have three primary goals: to grow and retain a diverse and actively engaged workforce; to create a sustainable organizational framework; and to create awareness and visbility among WIN’s target audiences. Those are the three goals that are going to lead us over the next three to five years. Under goal No. 1, we have to enhance membership benefits and seek opportunities to attract and retain members, and make WIN something people really want to be involved with, that is important and valuable to them. All of our committees have their own goals, and all of their [projects] are happening and ongoing.

 

It has to be challenging to keep a relatively new organization running in a still-soft economy. How are you looking out for WIN’s financial future?
We’ve created a financial resources taskforce to help us come up with ideas about how to sustain our long-term viability and sustainability. How do we continue to grow the programs we have? We can’t become solely dependent on our sponsors or members for our revenue. We all know what happens if you put all your eggs in one basket. We’re really trying to be economical with the dollars we have, while growing.

 

For the benefit of folks in the industry who are just becoming aware of the Women’s Industry Network and what it does, give us the quick rundown on its roots.
WIN officially started in 2006. A number of women were involved in its creation: Gerry Kottschade from Jerry’s Body Shop in Mankato, Minn., Trish Serratore from ASE in Leesburg, Va., Frederica Carter from Akzo Nobel Coatings in Norcross, Ga., Kathy Mello from TGIF Body Shop in Fremont, Calif., Gigi Walker from Walker’s Auto Body & Fleet Repair in Concord, Calif., Jeannie Silver from CARSTAR Mundelein in Mundelein, Ill., Marcy Tieger from Symphony Advisers in Irvine, Calif.—and so many more.

Many of these early leaders for WIN had leadership roles in the industry. Gerry was the first female [chairwoman] of NACE, and Jeannie Silver was the first [chairwoman] of the Collision Industry Foundation. [Women] want resources and support, and that’s, in essence, how WIN came to be.

 

Is “women in the industry” an issue that men care about, or that they should care about?
Yes, and the good news is that there are already a number of men who do care. We wouldn’t be here if there weren’t men who cared. For instance, there are many instructors we’ve had the great pleasure of meeting who are men and who are tremendous resources to young women. We do some outreach with instructors at schools, especially when it comes time for the WIN conference. We let them know, “Hey, we have scholarships available to your students.” Every woman who has won a scholarship points to their instructors as critical to their success and why they’re succeeding in this business.

 

There are some objective reasons that women in collision repair are good for business, right? Tell us about that.
Any employment environment is enhanced when there is diversity in the workforce. Studies have shown that a diverse workforce is a more productive workforce.

There’s also a shortage of technicians, yet we’re only looking at 50 percent of the population—the men. Lots of women are interested in being in this industry.

Finally, a significant number of people who make the car repair decisions are women, yet a body shop can be a very intimating place to go. Having women in that shop environment helps female customers feel more comfortable. The more you can make your customer feel at ease in your business, the more likely you’ll get that sale.

 

How does WIN support women as they prepare to enter the industry?
Our annual conference is one of the greatest programs that WIN offers women. It is a personal and professional development conference. Women learn what’s going on in the industry, from what’s happening with lean to understanding things like how to read a financial statement—things that will help them be better skilled at their job.

Then there are the personal development aspects, which include discussions around process improvement, conflict management, how to improve communication—those personal skills that make us better employees and better participants in an organization. This is something people can really do to help themselves.

 

Who are some of the up-and-coming young women in collision repair?
Rachel Fonseca [see our article on mentoring, "Winning Women"] excelled at SkillsUSA. She’s done a lot with the local media and has done a good job getting news out about the industry. She’s definitely a young woman to watch in the years to come. She’s dedicated and devoted to the industry.

 

Where can shop managers go to find the Rachels in their communities?
Every community includes women who are doing great things. Finding them can be difficult. As we see more women active in the industry, we’d like to see them on the boards of industry associations and working as instructors in the technical schools.

 

Do women bring a more family-focused culture to shops?
They can, but that’s an issue that affects men and women. If you’re a devoted and hard-working employee, you have to learn how to balance work and family. There are men who feel the same way. The interesting thing about this industry is that it’s very family friendly, period. I don’t think that’s male- or female-dominated. A number of collision repair businesses are passed from generation to generation. I don’t see that as much in other industries.

Oftentimes, you’ll find women in the roles that are more nurturing. They’ll many times be looking at HR policies or determining how we meet the needs of the customers while also making a profit. How do we treat our employees? That’s part of what they’re bringing to business, that nurturing aspect. I don’t think anyone wants to be called a shop mom, though: It’s more that they tend to be thoughtful and caring.

 

What are some specific things shops can do to attract female employees?
Get involved with the local [technical] schools and provide an internship or apprenticeship. That’s one way to bring people—women, too—up on the technical side. You want women to think, “This is going to be a comfortable environment,” and that management is not going to tolerate inappropriate language or behavior in the shop.

Women want to be treated fairly; they want to be compensated the same as men. Don’t differentiate based on what you think they may need. Step away from the “Well, she’s a woman.” We can go down that rabbit hole… that she’s going to want time off because she’s going to have babies. You don’t know if you don’t hire her. And if you have a really good tech, does that even matter?

Treat your women fairly; create an environment they feel comfortable and safe working in. Then be open to their ideas and suggestions.

 

And how about customers? Women make 60 percent of car-related decisions; how can shops draw on that potential customer base?
Create a friendly and clean atmosphere. [Women] like to be educated; they want to be reassured. Tell her what will happen, what to expect, what delays may occur, who they can call if they have questions. I think the basics work for both men and women. Body shops have a historically poor image—that they’re dirty. We know that’s not the case in all instances.

 

How are successful shops creating a female-friendly atmosphere?
The more successful shops have recognized if they have a clean, comfortable waiting room for [women] to sit in and relax, they’ll have a more inviting atmosphere. And when potential customers feel more comfortable, they’ll give you their business. If this were your wife, or your mother, or your daughter, would this be a place they would do business? Is this a place you would want them to do business? These are the questions you should be asking yourself as you try to attract women to your shop.

 

What is the next conversation we ought to be having in the industry regarding women?
How do we get more women involved in the industry? How do we get more women involved in leadership? And then, how do we keep the ones we have?

As more women leverage into positions of authority and leadership, this industry is a much better place for women to be seen, and that’s more attractive to the women wanting to come in. They think, “If she did it, I can do it, too.”

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