Against the Grain

March 1, 2012
Three women shop operators share how they rose to the top and what they’re doing to influence collision repair in their shops and beyond.

Growing up as an only daughter with two brothers, DeLee Powell never thought she’d end up at the helm of the family body shop, Baker’s Collision Repair Specialists in Mansfield, Ohio.

“I don’t think my dad ever thought so, either,” she says.

But Powell has made a career out of surpassing expectations. Now 58 (the same age as the business) she runs and owns the 18,500-square-foot shop, which pulls in $3.2 million annually thanks largely to her management. She has more than 40 years of industry experience and countless shops now turn to her for advice.

Though female shop operators are still the minority by a long shot in this industry, Powell is among a gradually growing pool of women who have climbed the collision repair ladder. FenderBender talked with Powell and two other successful women operators to learn their strategies for making it to management, the challenges they’ve faced along the way, and what influence they’ve had as women in collision repair.

The Family Business

DeLee Powell started working in accounting at Baker’s Collision Repair Specialists when she was 15. At the time, one of her female cousins worked at another family shop. Powell decided that if her cousin could do it, so could she.

“If it hadn’t been for that close connection, I don’t know if I would be in it,” Powell says.

She has been involved in collision repair in one way or another since, including as a parts, body and equipment jobber and a consultant with her younger brother’s business, Baker Business Systems.  Powell also worked as a contract consultant with Mitchell International. Consulting allowed her to meet with shop operators throughout the U.S. and absorb a wealth of information about the industry.

When her older brother chose to relocate in 2001, Powell decided she was ready to take over, first as a manager and ultimately as owner.

Her key to advancement: “If you have good management and people know they are going to be treated fairly and justly, it doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman,” Powell says. “Maybe some employees were hesitant at first, but because of our small community, I have a reputation for being knowledgeable and I’m involved in so many different organizations.”

Powell also believes strongly in giving back to the community and is involved in numerous organizations, such as the rotary club and Salvation Army.

Her greatest challenge as a woman operator: “I’m sure there have been challenges. I just never acknowledged them,” Powell says. “I can remember when I first took over, one of the insurance adjusters asked, ‘How do you get all these guys to listen to you?’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
Powell says the biggest obstacle to getting more females involved in the industry is actually the mindset of young women.

“I don’t think the roadblock is actually the guys. A lot of times I think the roadblock is the girl,” she says. “I think it takes a person saying, ‘Hey I can do this.’ Having the confidence, having a mentor.”

The female influence in her shop: Powell says she always hires the best people for the job, and at her facility, several of those happen to be women. Her female employees advertise their presence by wearing pink. The shirts make women staffers stand out, which helps female customers feel more comfortable.

“I think it is important for more women to be in this industry, because women can relate to other women better in some instances and the majority of consumers requiring our services are women,” Powell says.

Powell is also looking into offering a basic-repair course for women as a way to provide a community service and connect with more potential customers.

A Chance Career

Tammy Horvat, manager of Nagy’s Collision Specialists’ Wadsworth, Ohio, location, was a Wal-Mart personnel manager before applying for her first automotive job as a secretary at a Ford dealership’s body shop.

She had no background in collision repair, but she quickly developed an interest in the industry, and when the shop manager left after a couple of years, she was offered the job. Horvat passed on it, but began taking I-CAR courses and learning more about every aspect of the business. When the manager position opened again a couple of years later, she took it.

Unfortunately, the dealership closed soon afterward, forcing Horvat to find a new position. A colleague referred her to Nagy’s.

“We really just rolled the dice,” says Nagy’s owner Ron Nagy about hiring Horvat. “We liked that she was a manager of dealership body shop.”

Horvat, now 44, has worked as a manager in two Nagy’s facilities since her hire and Nagy says she has proven to be a star employee—extremely detail oriented, organized and a standout estimate writer.

“She doesn’t have a 15-year background coming up from the shop, but I think it works in her favor, because she doesn’t carry a chip on shoulder,” Nagy says.

Her key to advancement: Horvat says turning down the initial management offer at the Ford dealership was a wise move. She says she was not familiar enough with all aspects of the repair process to be successful at that time. She encourages other women shop operators looking to move up in the industry to first develop a firm grasp of the business.

“I’m glad I waited,” Horvat says. “I wanted to really know what I was talking about. I didn’t want to try to wing it. I wanted to learn the insurance needs, how to work with them. I really wanted to feel confident. When I did take it, I was comfortable. “

Her greatest challenge as a woman operator: “I had to work very hard to develop a reputation that I did know what I was talking about,” Horvat says. “Sometimes people would be surprised when I walk to their car and [they would] say, ‘You do estimates?’ I had to work at that. I also had to prove to myself that I was knowledgeable.”

The female influence in her shop: Horvat says she and her staff recognize that it’s beneficial to have a male and female mix when it comes to customer interaction.

“Sometimes a woman might be more emotionally involved with another woman who has just been in an accident. I can relate to that,” Horvat says.” “Maybe a man would work better with a man. The important thing is to take care of customers, to do the work, and have them leave and be really happy.”

Seizing an Opportunity

Kristi Festa, 27, is another shop operator who entered the industry by chance, with no knowledge of collision repair.

The co-owner of RockStars & Custom Cars and Star Auto Body was a college student haggling for a car at a dealership in Orange City, Fla., when the general manager overheard her and offered her a job as a secretary. She took it, and while earning a degree in international business with a minor in marketing, she worked her way to estimator, assistant manager and manager. When her boss decided to open his own independent shop a few years ago, she moved there, but the shop went belly-up after four months.

So, she and colleague Shawn Marasco, a custom fabricator and body technician, decided to take over the business and turn it into a custom shop, based on the skill set of the crew. RockStars & Custom Cars was born.

"It was very time consuming to transform the feel and equipment in the shop, but with the passion we all had it was well worth the effort," Festa says.

A separate, 2,200-square-foot collision center called Star Auto Body was added during the winter of 2011, to meet a growing demand for the service. Festa says the shop was getting referrals for collision work, but insurance companies weren’t sure what to make of the custom facility. The body shop addition smoothed the claims process and created a clear destination for collision repairs, which have already contributed big to the business.

Her key to advancement: Festa says she took a risk opening a new shop at a young age. But she was confident in her abilities and tireless in her efforts to be successful. It required constant learning, aggressive marketing—largely at local auto events—around-the-clock work, and trust in her colleagues.

Her greatest challenge as a woman operator: Festa says she has never experienced hurdles as a female in a mostly male industry.

“I don’t think I face challenges being a female,” she says. “I actually find that people are often much more receptive to working with women.”

The female influence in her shop: Festa says she hosts repair workshops for girls and women age 16 and up. The course is not just a marketing tactic, or a way to empower women to perform their own repairs, though it accomplishes both of those things. Festa says the course is also offered as a way to give women interested in a collision repair career a chance to learn more about the industry.

“There are a lot of girls who are interested in cars,” Festa says. “This can be a really eye-opening experience.”

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