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Boss Ladies – Female Shop Owners Reflect On A Pandemic

Past Female Shop Owners of the Year talk about changes in business – and what has, importantly, stayed the same.

One year in, it seemed appropriate that ShopOwner would look back at one of the most significant disruptions to our business, social and personal lives in most of our histories. However, assuming that we’re already past the challenges is disingenuous. COVID-19 continues to affect people across the globe in vastly different ways.

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March is Women’s History month, so to get a perspective on how the past year has already impacted our industry, we asked three leading female shop owners to comment on their business. Each has been named Female Shop Owner of the Year by the Auto Care Association yet, despite their gender and their success, their stories are different. Their similar ability to adapt to challenges, though, is universally inspirational.

Judy Zimmerman-Walter was named Female Shop Owner of the Year in 2016. Born into the business, she succeeded her father at their family shop in Mechanicsburg, PA. She points to community as a key to making it through the past year.

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Jamie Carlson and her husband Eric own Ervine’s Auto Repair and Grand Rapids Hybrid in Grand Rapids, MI. With a technical background of her own, including service in the U.S. Air Force as an aerospace ground mechanic, her story involves diversity and challenging the conventions of customer interaction. Jamie was Female Shop Owner of the Year in 2019.

Kim Auernheimer was named Female Shop Owner of the Year in 2020 in a virtual celebration during last year’s Virtual AAPEX. Much has changed for Kim and her husband Rob, owners of Cool Springs Automotive in Brentwood, TN, but her ongoing mentorship of other shops continues to pay dividends to her shop and those of her industry friends.

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ShopOwner would like to thank all of our shop owners for participating in this conversation.

Kim Auernheimer, Co-owner,Cool Springs Automotive, Brentwood, TN

More business is better business, right? According to Kim Auernheimer, that’s not necessarily accurate, even in the best of times. 

“My husband Rob opened our shop in 2006 and over the years, I was in the business only to an extent,” she says. “I was also working in commercial real estate in the Nashville area. But in 2011, we got to a critical crossroad – Rob was working 12 hours a day, five and six days a week just to keep up, not understanding how to take things to the next level. He knew how to work on cars because he’s just an expert at it.

Rob and Kim Auernheimer

“But we reached the point where we either needed to close the business because he was working too hard and we still weren’t getting ahead, or hire somebody to come in and help take care of the day-to-day business stuff.”

Not sure who they could find who might care more about the business than them, Kim decided to give up her successful career to come into an industry and a business she knew nothing about.

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“I started attending every kind of training I possibly could to learn as much as possible in order to figure out how to run this business that we were blessed with. And we WERE blessed – we had great technicians and we were busy, doing about 290 cars a month. We thought that was pretty darn good and we were making decent money, but we were so tired.

“I felt like I was in a hamster wheel, just going and going and never getting anywhere. Every once in a while you fly out of that wheel, but like a dummy, you get right back into it start again.”

Kim’s passion for training has allowed her to become a mentor to several shops throughout the United States. She has written and developed training classes on Systems and Process, Branding and Time Management. She has taught courses at various trade events and is also a frequent guest on several industry podcasts. Through her roles as a mentor, trainer and speaker, Kim believes that she is able to teach, encourage and assist shop owners in improving the financial and operational aspects of their business.

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“I am still very active in my business on a day-to-day basis through COVID,” she says, “though I have chosen to slow down my training schedule a bit. As a WORLDPAC Training Institute trainer, I prefer an in-person training process. But my favorite thing is just talking to other shop owners, often on a training trip.”

The story, she says is often the same. “It’s often a husband and wife team, but they can never take time off. They have to close their business to attend this trip. And, they’re excited to be there, but they are kind of stressed.”

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The scenario continues, with the couple wanting to work on their business while they are away because when they’re back home they’re working in the shop, unable to actually make any management decisions. In many cases, Kim is able to help them find a few points to modify that will make all the difference in their business.

In many cases, she says, the situation is just like her own. The solution is to actually be less busy and focus on other things.

“Yes, it sounds counterintuitive, but much of the repair process is just checking it in, getting it up on the rack, doing what we need to do and doing the paperwork. When all you’re doing is trying to get too many cars through the system, the average repair order actually decreases,” she explains. 

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“But, when you’re talking about lowering your car count, doing proper inspections on the vehicles and letting the customer know the health condition of that vehicle, your average repair goes up and you’re less tired  – and you don’t have to spend as much on marketing to make sure you drive that car count up.”

Over the past year, Kim says, attention on marketing has changed. “We’ve done more in the way of digital marketing, using more geo-fencing than traditional direct mail, because we want to find people, where they are.” Once things started opening back up in the Nashville area last summer, Kim says, she focused on reaching customers at grocery store, at the home center and at the golf courses. The tried and true email delivery method can still be important, she says, because during the recent snow and ice storm in central Tennessee, Kim sent messages to customers, just to make sure that everyone was okay and reminding them of things to look for when they prepared to drive in the winter weather.

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Kim says though Brentwood is an affluent Nashville neighborhood, her customers span a wide range of demographic. “We have all different walks of life. We know who our target market is, but we don’t always get that target market, so it’s important to train those other customers as well, to help them understand the importance of maintaining their vehicle.”

Jamie Carlson, Co-Owner Ervine’s Auto Repair and Grand Rapids Hybrid, Grand Rapids, MI

With a reputation for hybrid service that rivals that of the Western Michigan automotive dealerships, Ervine’s Auto Repair and Grand Rapids Hybrid and EV have a unique business model that has led to great success for Jamie and Eric Carlson. Passion, perseverance and patience have been the bedrock of their growth. All have been put to the test over the past year.

Jamie Carlson

“Who would have guessed that we would go through what we did, as quickly as we did,” says Jamie. 

“Fortunately, pre-COVID business practices have served us well over the past year,” she says. “We’ve used a paperless cloud-based system since 2017 and, in March of last year, we began offering text-to-pay. Both made it possible for a smooth transition to a completely contactless experience.”

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Yes – you read that right. Completely contactless. Obviously, this has been a change to her traditional in-person customer focus, but it’s one Jamie says customers appreciate. “We spend a little more time when making an appointment, but the payoff now is safe, contactless service, and this makes up for missed in-person conversations. Another benefit has been dedicated time with each customer at the end of the visit.” Despite these positives, however, Jamie says she is looking forward to inviting people in for coffee again and offering whatever type of service suits each customer best. 

An emphasis on the customer’s experience without seeing them in person has required taking high tech even higher, Jamie adds. “One example is our loaner car agreement, which I thought was really pretty high tech before. Now, we send a digital document to each customer before their appointment. The day of their appointment they find their loaner car keys near our front door with a note that says, ‘Good morning, here’s your loaner car’. They grab the keys and go. In the near future, it can be ‘express’ service if desired or a pleasant in-person transaction like the good old days.”

Jamie says every day is a new opportunity to reach customers in some way – and the effort must always be high. “Our reputation is one of our greatest assets and our online reputation is responsible for sending many new customers our way.”

However, she says resting on your reputation is not enough. “I don’t think you can assume people are going to come back just because you did a great job and they gave you a five-star Google review. We strive to live up to that reputation every visit and let our loyal customers know how much we appreciate them.”

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The past 12 months in a nutshell? “We did okay,” Jamie says. “I’m thrilled we were able to keep all of our employees safely employed!”

Judy Zimmerman-Walter Owner, CFO and so much more, Zimmerman’s Automotive,
Mechanicsburg, PA

For Judy Zimmerman-Walter, the automotive repair industry wasn’t just a convenient job opportunity in a town called Mechanicsburg. It was a way of life – and the best way she knew to spend time with her father.

Her father Norman opened the original Zimmerman’s Automotive in 1958, eventually bringing on his father and two younger brothers Paul Jr. and Jay to help out.

Judy Zimmerman

“I’ve always loved cars,” Judy says, “and I used to play at the business as a kid, because that’s the only way I saw my dad. They worked from 7:00 am to 9:00 pm, so I grew up around the cars and shop. I always had a heart for it and I loved cars so, in 1975 after high school, I started in the business.”

Judy says she pumped gas, did the bookkeeping and handled the extensive PennDOT safety inspections. Mostly, she says, she did a lot of paperwork.

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“We had an accountant who did all the legal work, but I kept the daily accounting – I was the bookkeeper. And with Pennsylvania’s inspections, there’s an incredible amount of paperwork, proving that we weren’t just slapping stickers on, wallpapering the windshields.”

“If this is what you truly love, don’t let anyone stop you. Nothing that you truly like is ever easy. Strive to be thought of as one of the most qualified PEOPLE in the industry, not one of the most qualified women.”

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Today, Zimmerman’s Automotive consists of a 20,000 sq.ft. facility with a 12-bay service shop, a 35-car auto sales lot and a quick-lube oil change center. “Since 1958, we’ve grown and kept pace with ever-changing automotive technology,” says Judy. “We’ve added services that will be real assets for our customers, but we’ve never changed the values in being a family-owned business. Trust, respect and integrity define how we do business.”

Judy adds she has always recognized the value of the relationship. “I want to have a relationship with my customers so that they know they can trust me and my staff.”

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Over the past year, she says, those relationships have been critical.

Pennsylvania’s initial shutdown, Judy says, kept people off the street, out of the repair bays and away from the car lot. She had to make the tough decision to reduce staff hours and lay off employees because of the uncertainty.  “People got very scared and they stayed home for a while,” she says, “and sales plummeted. 

“It was probably the most challenging time I’ve ever seen in business,” she admits. “I’ve heard some business owners say, ‘Oh, we got busier than ever.’ While I’m happy for them, it didn’t happen that way in South Central PA.”

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Though she’s hesitant to look back as if the problems have already passed into memory, Judy says she is eager to look for bright spots. “We need to figure out how we’re going to continue moving through.”

Recognizing that cars have become a personal “safe zone,” to many people, Judy says her company’s used car lot has become an important part of the community. “They don’t really want to take the bus, they don’t really want to rideshare, they don’t really want to go with a taxi. They really don’t want to do a carpool for the entire soccer team. All of a sudden, you had the market in a different way.”

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Luckily, she says, Pennsylvania’s strict inspections mean the affordable cars on her lot are also extremely reliable – just like her service and repair staff.

Stressing the sense of community her family had built over the decades in Mechanicsburg, she says proactive conversations became the norm.

“We spend a little more time when making an appointment, but the payoff now is safe, contactless service, and this makes up for missed in-person conversations.”

“We reached out and said, ‘Why don’t we get your car and help you keep it going for that time you need to go somewhere?’ One of my team [members] told me that he would call people just to check on them. He talked to a guy once for half an hour who hadn’t seen anybody in three weeks. His kids would leave stuff at the door, but not come in. They wouldn’t let him go anywhere or do anything. He needed some medicine, so we went to a drugstore for him.

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“One lady needed to do something, but didn’t have a mask. We took her some. These were very unconventional things we did, but it made a difference,” Judy says proudly. “And they’re remembering that.”  

Judy says these simple acts of community project an air of professionalism that some other shops may think are too expensive. “They should just realize that in the long run professionalism can be economical, as well. I think we stand out to our customers because we are involved in our community in which we live.” 

Judy reflects on how generous people can be. “I think people now recognize that as you move along in life not sure how good you have it, you realize there are people right in front of you who don’t have it so good.”

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Part of her empathy, she says, comes naturally because she’s a woman – but so does her energy. In addition to her numerous industry accolades she is proud to serve as a mentor to women in her community and her industry. She is very involved in her community as an educator, business owner and friend and is well respected as a female in the automotive aftermarket – but encourages her contemporaries to look past her gender. 

“One of the most important things I tell both men and women is, ‘Don’t assume that I don’t know something just because I’m female. You need to understand that I think differently than a male does, but that’s okay.’”

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She says she has a three-part mantra for success in the industry.

“One, I need to have a keen awareness of myself – I have to know what I really want and who I am. Two, I need a tough skin. And three, I must have a sense of humor. You just have to learn to laugh,” she says.

Her advice to women looking to thrive in this industry?

“If this is what you truly love, don’t let anyone stop you. Go for it. Nothing that you truly like is ever easy,” she says. “Don’t pull the, ‘Oh I’m a female, you’re being mean to me,’ card. Go for it. Just push forward. If somebody gets in your way, go around them.

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“Strive to be thought of as one of the most qualified PEOPLE in the industry, not one of the most qualified women,” Judy advises.

Obviously, attention to customers’ needs and challenges will continue to be important. These shop owners are proof that dealing with a global pandemic often comes down to the most local of conversations.

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