The Remarkable Career of the Collisionista

May 8, 2023
Even in retirement, Petra Schroeder is helping to ensure the future of collision repair.

The city of Wuppertal, Germany, may not sound familiar, but you likely know one of its most famous exports. Aspirin was patented in 1899 by the Bayer company, which began life in 1863 in what is now a part of Wuppertal. One of the city’s lesser-known exports globally is Petra Schroeder, though in the world of collision repair she can properly be considered a star. 

Though she likely didn’t know it at the time, Schroeder’s journey to the United States and a half-century association with collision repair began when she took a job with the German chemical company Herberts in 1969. Herberts is nearly as old as the Bayer company, founded in 1866 in the same town. By the time Schroeder began as an apprentice, the company was known for its popular Standox brand of automotive refinishes. 

Fast forward to 1995 and Schroeder came to the U.S. as the Standox director of technical services. In 1999 came a merger with DuPont, which ultimately resulted in the formation of the Axalta brand known around the industry today. In the midst of all those changes, Schroeder chose to stay in the U.S. permanently, and she also developed a passion for collision repair and its people that has endured long past her retirement from Axalta in 2016. 

While Schroeder is no longer actively working in collision repair in a professional sense, everyone knows her title. Schroeder says she isn’t big on titles but had to have one to register for conferences. She came up with “Collisionista,” and that’s what everyone knows her as today. You’ll often find her at industry events moving all about a room, making connections and advocating for the organizations she volunteers with today such as the Collision Industry Foundation (CIF). 

“It's really the people, I say this from my personal standpoint only, my business has given me the opportunity to make friendships for life that started with the business side,” says Schroeder. “… But it's also the absolute mesmerizing, magical work that body shops do to repair a car that doesn't look like a car when it enters the shop, and bring it back to the previous life and sometimes even better than what it was before.” 

The Genesis of Giving Back 

If tracing the thread of Schroeder’s career seems complicated, it’s really only one job under several different brands servicing the collision repair industry. The myriad ways Schroeder is involved in the industry today is much more extensive. To specify a few, she’s been a member of the Women’s Industry Network (WIN) since 2006, was chair from 2016 to 2018, and in 2018 was named one of the organization’s Most Influential Women. She’s a past board member of the National Auto Body Council. And while she maintains an affiliation with many organizations a current focus of her efforts is CIF, for which she has been a trustee since 2011 and is currently secretary. 

Founded in 2001, CIF describes itself as “the charitable arm of the collision repair industry.” The Foundation is dedicated to helping collision repair professionals in need, whether that’s from a personal loss or the result of a national disaster. CIF has pitched in to help people affected by everything from Hurricane Katrina to COVID-19—more than $275,000 distributed to nearly 700 applicants in the latter case. One of Schroeder’s duties as secretary is to call applicants who have reached out in search of aid. While her still-present German accent occasionally confuses some applicants—even prompting some hang-ups, she says—helping people in their time of need is one of her greatest rewards. 

“When you hear the joy that, ‘Wow there's somebody or an organization that cares,’ I can’t describe the emotion, the positive emotion that I have from that,” Schroeder says. 

While CIF lists many donors and has helped many, many people in its two decades and counting, Schroeder would like to increase awareness. While of course not wishing for natural disasters to happen to anyone, she knows that when they do happen there are more people in need who could be applying.  

The topic of raising awareness comes up a lot when speaking to Schroeder. When not raising awareness—and dollars—for CIF, Schroeder has a passion for raising up the collision repair industry as a whole through awareness. 

“My personal goal that I hope the industry would buy into is making more people aware of what the collision industry means today,” says Schroeder. “That it is not a secondary choice, that it has great opportunities for people that enjoy working with their hands or computers or managing. This is a great industry.” 

At the January Collision Industry Conference in Palm Springs, California, Schroeder wasn’t originally a scheduled speaker. But with the largest assembled crowd in CIC history in front of her, she took to the podium shortly after the lunch break to make a passionate appeal to raise the profile of the collision repair industry to help solve its biggest challenges. She entreated the professionals in the room to unite under a mission statement to this effect, and advocated for some methods of promotion including getting a celebrity endorser aligned with the automotive industry. 

“I would call it a personal plea, that we all need to work together for the benefit of everybody,” says Schroeder. “That's basically my goal. This is my larger picture that I want to work on.” 

“Everybody” is a key word. Schroeder is quick to point out she wants to help anyone wanting to get into collision repair and show them it’s a great trade, regardless of their background. It’d be understandable if Schroeder was singularly focused on fostering opportunities for women in collision repair. After all, in the late 60s, in Germany, Schroeder was nothing short of a trailblazer as a woman in the automotive industry. More than 50 years later, opportunities for women still lag behind. In the 2022 FenderBender Industry Survey of shop leaders, 92% of respondents were male. 

Anything But “Retired” 

While Schroeder’s current volunteer work is focused around CIF, she pays special attention to doing what she can for women entering the industry or moving up within it. She offers whatever time and resources she has, whether that’s some advice or making a professional connection.  

“I stay in touch with the some of the scholarship winners from WIN,” says Schroeder. “In fact, I just talked to somebody who was now leading up the SkillsUSA collision repair session, and she was a scholarship winner from WIN. So I stay in touch with these young women, or not so young women anymore, and try to be a sounding board, not so much a mentor. Because every time we talk, and they think I'm their mentor, they are a mentor to me, because they change, they share things with me that I collect, or I put into my mental bag.” 

While Schroeder is retired and in theory has plenty of time available for volunteer work, this much volunteer work has to make one wonder how she does it all. She likes to unplug with a game of tennis, or spending time with her seven grandchildren.  

“My husband would probably say that I work far too much consider that I am retired,” she laughs, “but he's fully supportive of what I'm doing.” 

But Schroeder has no plans to slow down anytime soon. As long as she’s feeling mentally and physically healthy, she’ll keep working on her mission to raise the profile of the collision repair industry. It’s too important a mission to stop now. 

“The collision repair industry is a great industry to work in,” Schroeder says. “But it's not very well known as such, we still have a kind of a blue eye or a black eye being looked at a dirty job. And that's not the case. Because collision repair is so much advanced.” 

About the Author

Todd Kortemeier

Todd Kortemeier is former editor of FenderBender magazine.

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