Daughter-Mom Shop is Invested in Experience
Demeny Pollitt’s foray into auto shop ownership six years ago was the result of an all-too common series of experiences. As a female customer, her shop interactions left her feeling disrespected, uninformed and taken advantage of.
“I started thinking that there were probably a lot of other women who felt the same way that I did. So I thought that I’d open up an all-girl garage and I would make a million dollars,” says Pollitt, laughing at how easy the plan seemed back when she was earning her degree in automotive technology at Vermont Technical College. “And from that point on, that was my plan, that was what I was working toward.”
Pollitt’s Girlington Garage, which plays on the name of its location in Burlington, Vt., is her vision come to life—at least a modified version of it. The 35-year-old tech-turned-owner is not a millionaire just yet, and her shop, which she co-owns with her mother, Donna Cacace, employs and caters to both men and women. But it does so with a distinctly feminine flair—Rosie the Riveter-inspired branding and all—and with a sharp focus on being all of the things those shops in her past were not: respectful, educational, and transparent.
So far, the formula has worked. Girlington Garage’s annual sales of $722,600 are nearly triple its first year in business, and it seems there’s still plenty growth to come as more customers—both male and female—discover Girlington’s stereotype-busting repair experience.
Building a Brand
Working as a technician and a service writer in the few years between school and launching her business, Demeny paid close attention to customer interactions—what worked, what didn’t, and what was simply missing.
Her biggest takeaways were simple, but she would use them to develop the foundation of her shop.
“It just seemed like these shops didn’t need to operate the way they operated,” Pollitt says. “There was no reason for the lack of communication and the lack of friendliness. And seeing what condition lots of cars are in in New England, there was no need to make up problems with cars.”
Pollitt received business guidance from a connection she made through KeyBank’s Key4Women program, enrolled in Mercy Connections’ Women’s Small Business Program, and reached out to shop owners in the Women’s Car Care Council for advice. She also recruited her mother—a former bed-and-breakfast operator—as an investor and business partner, and found a five-bay facility to lease.
As the pieces came together, Pollitt leaned on a couple of friends who ran businesses in the area, utilizing their mailing lists to send a survey she developed to area residents. Through it, she was able to get a handle on the area’s demographics, what mediums would likely be most effective for advertising, and she developed a deeper understanding of what her potential customers looked for in an auto care center. For instance, 63 percent said they utilize independent repair facilities rather than chains or dealerships, 68 percent said they would definitely bring their vehicle to a female mechanic, and 38 percent said they seek preventative maintenance over emergency repairs.
Pollitt enlisted a graphic designer friend to develop her catchy logo after first dumping $1,500 into a firm that made a “haggard” version of Rosie the Riveter that represented everything the shop was not. The final version, a winking, wrench-wielding Rosie bedazzled with colorful gears, remains a conversation starter with customers.
Weeks before opening, Pollitt used survey data to place public radio and newspaper ads trumping up her shop as a spa for vehicles and their owners. Customers noticed, and so did local media. Pollitt was featured on two local television news broadcasts, a public television special, in a local newspaper article and more.
Customers showed up in a hurry to see what this new woman-owned shop that preached “quality care and excellent service” was all about. The shop averaged 300 repairs a month that first year and today does over 400.
Dare to be Different
Step into Girlington Garage and you’ll notice niceties uncommon to many auto shops: Free trade coffee and organic tea, fresh flower bouquets, living-room-style furniture, an immaculate bathroom complete with stand-alone changing table, free WiFi, a wide range of treats for customers, their kids, and their dogs should they opt to bring them.
It’s all pulled from a long list of amenities that stood out to Pollitt at other businesses, such as restaurants and hotels. She wants customers to be comfortable and at ease, feeling as though they are in a familiar place and being taken care of.
The setting is bolstered by an energetic greeting from Pollitt, Cacace, or technician Kristen Nelson, who sought out Girlington Garage after hearing about Demeny’s vision. Nelson, who has begun transitioning into office work, says the shop has allowed her to expand her career and lead a better life outside of work.
“Demeny and Donna look out for their employees and if you have kids, they understand,” says Nelson, 27. “I’m a single parent and they are able to adjust and be flexible when things come up.”
In the shop, Nelson says, transparency is key. After a vehicle is inspected, customers are shown the problems and everything is thoroughly explained. The Girlington staff tries to get a sense of what a customer’s immediate needs are, what they can afford, and what they are comfortable having done.
“We’ll tell them what needs to be fixed now, what maybe they could get by without doing, provide an overall bill of health for the vehicle,” says technician Paul Kearney, 34, a former corporate law attorney who ended up finding more enjoyment in helping people with their vehicles. “It’s all about building trust and credibility. And when they have another need, hopefully they’ll be back.”
The shop’s third and most experienced tech, Jon LeClair, 42, has been in the auto care industry for 25 years. LeClair says he moved to Girlington because he wanted to work for a shop that was “a little more friendly and really cared about helping people.”
Cacace, a 40-percent owner, manages the shop’s books. Though she didn’t expect to be a full-time part of the team, she has come to enjoy the new family business and is proud of what her daughter has built.
Pollitt plans to expand the staff this summer, though she says her current shop is getting tight and she’s already evaluating expansion options—and thinking even bigger.
“My dream is to franchise, but this shop is the focus right now,” she says. “We’ll take it one step at a time.”