A Female Painter’s Industry Perspective

Feb. 25, 2011
Painter Vivian Spires has been in the industry for 39 years—and counting—and oh, the changes she’s seen.

For Vivian Spires, painting cars is a natural fit. When she started working at Ryan Chevrolet in Monroe, La., she began doing everything from estimates and warranty work to glass work, and then spent four years managing the body shop office. “But I’m the kind of person who likes to work with her hands,” she says. “So I told them I wanted to go the paint route.” It wasn’t a big adjustment for Spires, who had already been helping her husband, James, paint cars in their home-based shop. But it was an adjustment for many of Ryan Chevrolet’s collision center customers.

“Most men had never seen a woman painter and some of them didn’t want me to paint their cars,” Spires says, recalling one Corvette owner in particular who was adamant that he didn’t want a woman painting his car. “The shop manager said, ‘No, really, you do, she’s a good painter,’” Spires says. The customer finally agreed—but insisted on standing outside the booth and watching Spires work the whole time. “But when he saw how good it looked, he was really impressed,” Spires says.

What a difference a few decades makes. Gone are the days when men like that Corvette owner were reluctant to let Spires paint their vehicles. Today, Spires, the head painter at Ryan Chevrolet Cadillac Collision Center, is the painter of choice for some members of the local Corvette club, and on average three to four collision center customers per week request her by name—not wanting the shop’s other painter to handle their vehicles. She’s the pride and joy of the 13-employee Ryan Chevrolet Cadillac Collision Center, and here’s how she made her way.

Breaking Into a Man’s World

Spires got her start in the industry by helping her husband—both at their home shop and in the body shop at Ryan Chevrolet, where James was a bodyman. Spires impressed the body shop manager—she says she and her husband worked well together and were very productive—and he brought her on as an employee in 1972. But after a decade of working both in the shop and office, Spires knew her calling was as a painter. She trained under another painter at the shop for a year, and attended an Akzo Nobel paint school to become a Sikkens-certified painter before handling jobs on her own.

Of course, in those early days, when men didn’t want her near their cars and scrutinized her work, heading into the paint booth wasn’t so easy. But Spires’ strong work ethic, determination, and attention to detail helped her succeed. “I did feel I had to be better [than anyone else],” she admits. “I knew if I was going to succeed I had to be really good, and that made me work a little harder and try to do the best job.”

Spires would stay at the shop late and work on extra vehicles to get more practice. If she had to re-do a paint job, she’d stay up till midnight getting it right so that she didn’t have to spend the entire next day working on it. (“When it was quiet I could actually work better and think what I had to do to make the car right,” she says.) Positive reinforcement along the way helped boost her resolve. “Whenever I would finish a car, and the customer was happy, that told me I was doing something right,” she says. “When the customer accepted me, that made me work a little harder. And I wanted to change the minds of customers who were skeptical at first.”

Hard Work—And Kudos

That work ethic continues today. Spires’ boss, shop manager Jimmy Hobson, recalls a recent day when Spires cut her leg with a box cutter—a wound that required nine stitches—and still came back to the shop later that same day to finish painting a car. “The job was supposed to go, and she wasn’t going to let anything stand in her way,” he says. “She just goes the extra mile on everything she does.”
Fellow painter Stuart McGuire is also quick with praise for Spires: “When I first got here I was amazed that there was a woman in here [painting],” he says. “She’s really been like a mom figure to me, and I’ve learned a lot more from her than I did at school. She’s up there with the best of them.”

Hobson and McGuire aren’t the only ones to recognize Spires’ talent and dedication. In 2006 she was honored as one of Akzo Nobel’s Most Influential Women in the Collision Repair Industry—the first time the award was given to a paint tech. “That was the biggest surprise of my life,” Spires says.

Besides the honor of the award, Spires appreciated the opportunity to bond with other women in the industry. “We had a lot to talk about,” she says. “Most of my friends have very different kinds of jobs, and when I start talking paint, they don’t have a clue. It was nice to have other women to talk to about my work.”

Changing Attitudes, Changing Equipment

Attitudes aren’t the only thing that has changed since Spires entered the industry nearly four decades ago; equipment has, too. Spires started painting in a cross draft booth that she shared with another painter; today she paints out of her own heated downdraft booth. “I look back and wonder how we painted in those,” she says with a laugh.

Paints were different as well. “When I first started we were still shooting acrylic enamels,” she says. Today, using Akzo Nobel’s Lesonal paint, she says spraying and color matching are practically effortless. “The products now are so much easier to spray than they used to be. Years ago you always had trouble with color matching, or they’d wrinkle on you. The new base coats are so easy to spray and the color matches are easier. It’s made it a whole lot easier on painters.” Still, Spires feels her experience with the lesser-quality products of years past serves her well, as she’s more experienced at fixing the occasional color-matching problem that may crop up.

The collision center at Ryan may be making another change in the future, too—to waterborne paint. Shop manager Hobson has been meeting with paint companies for demos. As for Spires, she admits, “I’m a little bit apprehensive [about switching to waterborne]—it’ll be something else I’ll have to learn. It’d be a challenge, [but] I always like a good challenge.”

Certainly, it’s a challenge that more and more body shops are tackling these days, and one that the collision center at Ryan Chevrolet, which repairs roughly 80 cars a month and has monthly revenue of $190,000, will need to make. Spires isn’t so sure that she’ll be around to see the switch: At 61 years of age, she’s contemplating retirement. But don’t count her out just yet.

“I’ve painted people’s cars, and their children’s cars, and now I’m painting their grandkids’ cars,” she says. “A lot of people around town will say, ‘Take it to Ryan and make sure Vivian paints it for you.’ That makes me proud. They’ve accepted me, and they know I’m here, and I’m going to be here if they wreck their car again.”

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