Women Who’ve Changed the Industry

Feb. 25, 2011
Three women’s journeys into the collision repair industry started at a very young age.

For people who fall in love with cars, the romance often starts at an early age. Whether it’s playing with toy cars as a child or hanging around an older relative’s garage, car people who fall hard, fall early.

Women—girls—are no exception. As part of our annual issue dedicated to “Women in Collision Repair: Celebrating women who contribute in big ways to the industry,” FenderBender talked to three young women in the industry to find out what drew them to cars and collision repair. The common theme: They were exposed to cars from an early age, either in their community or in their own family. These three remarkable women—award-winners, future shop owners, pioneers—share their experiences of working in a male-dominated industry, and give tips and advice to shop owners who want to attract women to the industry, and to other women considering a career in collision repair.

The Family Woman

Tonnika Haynes was three years old when her dad opened Brown’s Auto & Collision Center Inc. in Chapel Hill, N.C., so she essentially grew up in the shop. In high school she worked there filing invoices and answering phones during summer vacation.

Haynes has always wanted to be where her dad was. “If he was in the shop that’s where I was going to be. I love it,” says Haynes. “I don’t think I would do anything different as far as a job goes.”

Haynes has been working at Brown’s fulltime since graduating in 1999 with a degree in business administration, and in 2002, she was one of Akzo Nobel’s Most Influential Women in the industry for her work as manager of the day-to-day operations of the 17,000-square-foot shop.

Though customers may look for a man to help them when they come into Brown’s, talking with customers is Haynes’ favorite part of the job. “We usually have older customers because we’re close to a lot of retirement homes, so I have grown to love my customers very dearly,” says Haynes. “I love making people happy.”

Haynes credits her father for instilling a love for collision repair in her from a young age. Her father never let her think she couldn’t do the job because she was a woman.

“I’m a dominant woman and I don’t take it if customers turn their nose at me or if they ask to speak to ‘whoever’s in charge,’” says Haynes. “My dad lets them know it’s me. I had a harder time when I was younger, but now I’m pretty much in control.”

The Estimator

Kristen Rothfuss’ love for cars started with her older brother, who was always out in the garage working on his car. Like a true little tag-along, Rothfuss was out there with him as much as she could be.

“I was always interested in what he was doing,” says Rothfuss of her brother Paul. “I was always hanging out in the garage with him while he worked on his Mustang.”

Even though Rothfuss planned on being a history teacher, she got a part-time job in college at a Ford dealership taking care of lease turn-ins, accounts receivable, and eventually, sales. “I enjoyed it, but the pay at a dealership in sales is not steady,” says Rothfuss. “And I really wanted to go to the other side of the coin and do something more hands-on.”

So she looked for a job on the collision side and applied at Nu-Look Collision Centers in Rochester, N.Y. She’s been there for three years now as an estimator and couldn’t be happier.

“My favorite part of the job is taking the car back to the customer,” says Rothfuss. “When they drop their car off, it’s in shambles. And to deliver it back to them and show them that it’s OK is the best part.”

Part of the reason Rothfuss sticks with it is that she likes being a woman in a male-dominated industry.

“It’s been a primarily male-dominated field for so long that I don’t think it’s even considered by women as a career path,” says Rothfuss. “I know that if the idea of working in the collision industry had been presented to me earlier on, I would’ve definitely considered that rather than pursuing a college degree in a field that I wouldn’t use. I enjoy being a woman in the car business because it’s challenging and it’s different to see a woman selling cars or financing cars or writing estimates,” says Rothfuss.

The icing on the cake: Her idolized older brother is now one of Rothfuss’ customers. “It’s funny seeing what his little sister can do for him,” says Rothfuss.

The Technician

When she was a little girl, Soraya Gonzalez often walked past La Palma Park in Anaheim, Calif. La Palma wasn’t just any park; it was the site of car shows all summer long, and the place that first sparked Gonzalez’s interest in cars.

“It seemed that every summer they had a car show (there),” says Gonzalez. “I can remember that they would just be lined up on the streets and in the park. I never actually looked at the cars up close. I just admired them while I passed by.”

Even though 21-year-old Gonzalez was always interested in cars growing up, she didn’t dream of becoming a collision repair technician until it was time to decide what to study in college. She initially went to the College of Western Idaho for her collision repair studies. Now, she is at Boise State University finishing her degree in business and fine arts.

“I kind of just landed in collision repair. I’m someone who likes to work with my hands and to do artistic things,” says Gonzalez. “I really wanted to learn to paint cars and make them pretty.”

Having interned at shops for college, Gonzalez knows how it feels to be a woman in a male-dominated industry. Initially, it’s intimidating to work in a shop where it’s usually all male technicians, says Gonzalez.

“They are wary of new people and sometimes even more so of females because they don’t know what to expect.” But she was never turned away from a shop because she was a woman. “If someone had an issue with the fact that I was there, I didn’t worry about it. It was their problem to deal with as they saw fit.”

Gonzalez’s spunk and love for the industry has spelled early success for her. In 2010 she took seventh place in the automotive refinishing technology category at the SkillsUSA competition. She was also the top-scoring female, and because of that she received the Women’s Industry Network (WIN) scholarship to attend NACE, and she also got a 2011 WIN membership.

But in the end, it’s not about being a woman, says Gonzalez, who hopes to have her own shop someday. “It’s about working hard and doing what you’re good at. I just happen to kick ass at what I do and am better than some guys in a male-dominated industry.”

Start ’Em Early

Informing girls at a young age that they can have a career in the collision repair industry is important not only for girls, but for what women bring to the industry. For the first time, the Girl Scouts of America attended Automotive Service and Repair Week (ASRW) in Las Vegas in 2010. Collision Hub hosted 43 Girl Scouts from Nevada at the event, with the hope of teaching them about careers in the collision repair industry.

“They were very excited and in love with the collision repair industry after that event,” says Kristen Felder, Collision Hub founder and CEO. “Girl Scouts wants to expand beyond Nevada and to make it an annual event. Each of the girls went away with excitement about the industry and their own tool kit from Sterling Auto Body. We believe that [the event] will be the beginning of a wonderful mentoring program between the Girl Scouts and the collision repair industry at large.”

Women and men are different, and that’s OK, says Marina Shoemaker, director of dealer development for General Motor’s Women’s Retail Network. Women employees can bring certain perspectives to a shop that might have been lacking. This is especially important since female consumers play a key role in making automotive purchases and decisions.

“Creativity, attention to detail, process efficiencies and ‘intuitive’ customer care are but some of the many components women are capable of contributing to in the retail environment,” says Shoemaker.

Not only do women bring a fresh perspective on collision repair, but they’ll help your business grow too, says Kim White, director of the Women’s Industry Network (WIN). And here’s how:

1. Women are the next generation of technicians. With a shortage of technicians coming up through the ranks, now is the time to recruit female technicians to fill those roles men have traditionally filled. “We don’t reach out to 50 percent of the population who could, and have, demonstrated success in this business,” says White.

2. People buy from people that look like them. Successful businesses understand that they need to have people in their business that can relate to other people. Walking into a collision repair shop is an overwhelming, unfamiliar experience for many women, so they are going to lean toward those people who make them feel comfortable. “Men are capable of making women feel comfortable, but there’s a natural tendency for all of us to go to someone who looks like us,” says White. “From a marketing standpoint, it’s just good business to have women working in your business.”

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