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Female Employees Boost Your Bottom Line

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Like many women in the collision repair industry, Kathy Mello has made a career out of simply doing what needs to get done at her husband’s shop.

Mello’s husband owns TGIF Body Shop Inc. in Fremont, Calif. At first, Mello helped out when she could between raising the couple’s children. But as the children—and the shop—grew, Mello started taking on more responsibility at the shop. Today, she’s the company’s chief financial officer, secretary, marketer and chief operations officer.

“This was never my dream, but I realized we were helping people who are in a tough situation,” Mello says. “Where we are, public transportation isn’t that great, so if you’re out of your car, it’s really upsetting.”

Mello’s heartfelt empathy for her customers—in speaking about her customers, Mello’s tone of voice is downright maternal—might help to answer that murky question male-dominated industries face: Why does everyone keep telling us we need gender diversity? Is there really something to what might be called the X-chromosome factor? Does the sex of the person fixing your car, or taking your information over the phone, or writing up an estimate make a meaningful difference?

Well, yes, it can. In an industry that serves people who are typically in crisis, creating a nurturing, concerned and yes, feminine, customer care culture is going to bring in business. Not to mention that it creates a more family-friendly work environment for all workers, not just women.

Plus, 60 percent of the drivers on the road are women, according to Jody DeVere, CEO of AskPatty.com Inc., a Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based company that helps the automotive industry become more female-friendly. That means that more than half your customers should be female. And if they’re not, says DeVere, you’re doing something wrong.

“I’m not a proponent of the idea that women [customers] always want to talk to another woman [employee]. They just want to talk to someone with a high level of knowledge, who’s going to give them good service and treat them with respect,” DeVere says. “However, the reason shops need a gender mix [among employees] is because having women there changes the culture automatically. It’s a cultural issue. It’s about diversity.”

So how do you create a female-friendly workplace? DeVere, Mello and other industry experts talk about the attitudes and offerings that bring women through the door.

Female-Friendly Employer

Rollie Benjamin has seen lots of changes over the 25 years he’s been running ABRA Auto Body & Glass, headquartered in Minneapolis. One of those changes has been the entrance of women into the collision repair industry. Benjamin estimates that one in six of the company’s 1,200 employees are female. That’s up from “the low single-digits” 20 years ago. ABRA has 98 locations nationwide.
Another change Benjamin has seen during the past 25 years is that some employees—many of them women—are coming into management positions in body shops with little or no technical training. And he thinks that’s just fine.

“The industry has definitely become more automated and more information-based than it was 10 or 20 years ago,” Benjamin says. “Now, you don’t need a technical background to be successful. I wouldn’t have said that 25 years ago.”

While Benjamin admits he wishes he knew of more ways to get more women into the collision repair industry, his company has some success in fostering gender diversity. Of 79 branch managers, nine are female. One of the company’s three regional business development directors is a woman, and nine of ABRA’s 13 account executives are female. ABRA’s vice president of human resources, Julie Watkin, has been with the company for about three years.

“It’s good for your employee base to somewhat mirror your customer base,” says Watkin. “When you’re trying to put yourself in the shoes of your customer, and you’re trying to [ascertain] how they would view that customer experience, if you don’t have women working in your center, you might be missing that perspective.”

Like DeVere, Watkin says it’s not necessary that the employee interacting with a female customer also be a woman. She just truly believes that having gender diversity makes for a better workplace for everyone, which makes for happier employees, which makes for a better customer experience, which makes for higher profits.

“As women have moved into the workplace, we’ve seen more and more men playing a more active role in raising their families,” Watkins says. “There’s no longer a stigma when a man says he has to leave at a certain time to attend to daycare responsibilities. I see more men willing to admit they’re playing an active role in raising their families.”

ABRA offers a slew of so-called female-friendly benefits and policies, which end up benefiting male workers as much as they benefit female ones, Watkin says.

• Medical insurance that covers family members for all full-time workers. “That’s a big plus, especially for working single mothers” who are the family’s sole benefits provider, Watkin says.

• Maternity leave that’s partially paid. In most cases, women who’ve just had a child can take up to 12 weeks off their job, in accordance with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). ABRA also pays the employee for part of that time, a benefit that is not required by law. Male employees are also eligible for FMLA, although at ABRA they are not paid unless they use vacation time. “When [FMLA] came into being, many employers wondered how to deal with such a long absence,” says Benjamin. “We’ve found we’re able to deal with it well. Obviously, it’s just really important to accommodate that in the workplace.”

• Emergency policies that create a back-up plan if an employee has to leave work suddenly, whether because of a family emergency or some other unexpected, critical situation. “We have to be willing and able to offer our employees some flexibility, and accommodating that in a retail environment can be challenging,” Watkin says. The ABRA emphasis on teamwork and cross-training makes it possible for someone else to step in and maintain productivity if an employee has to leave.

To further cultivate a female-friendly work environment, DeVere says, a repair center needs to have a few, key policies in place:

• Clear and enforced sexual harassment policies. You’ve heard it time and again, but it bears repeating: “What guys can think is joking and flirting can really put a business in jeopardy,” DeVere says. (See our “Legal Check-Up” story for more on protecting yourself against sexual harassment claims.)

• Flex-scheduling. For women with small children—especially single mothers—working nights and weekends may be impossible. And while it might feel like you’re giving a single mother special treatment by not requiring her to work an undesirable weekend shift, that can be a worthwhile exception to make. Single mothers tend to make very loyal, reliable and committed workers because they’re often the sole family supporter, DeVere says. Flex-scheduling is just as critical for male employees, some of whom might be single parents themselves, DeVere adds. “Allowing them time to take care of critical family issues makes everyone better employees.”

• A top-down culture of respect that starts with the owner of the company and pervades all leadership positions. “It can be challenging, working in a male-dominated industry,” says Mello. It’s important for people in the top echelons of the company to make it clear that women managers, for example, are to be treated with as much respect as male ones, no matter their level of technical expertise.

“Women can sometimes be intimidated. There might have been negative situations in the past where women, because of their lack of knowledge, have been taken advantage of. Treating female customers with respect, having female employees, it all helps build a bridge toward trust for women in this industry,” Mello says. “Not to mention,” she adds, laughing, “women make better color matches than men.”

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