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Starting the First All-Women's 20 Group

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Co-owning an auto repair shop was never on Michelle Long’s bucket list. Really, she was a stranger to the industry until becoming a co-owner of Long’s Car Care Center in Woodinville, Wash, with her husband in 1997.

And although the shop was successful and steadily growing, Long was bored, spending her days doing bookwork and payroll.

“I’m a people person. I’d rather be out talking to customers,” she says. “I didn’t like doing the books. It wasn’t fun for me. I was always moaning and groaning. I didn’t know how to say, ‘Here are where my strengths are and this is the area where I want to grow.’”

Long was losing interest in the business, and cut her hours down to part time. Then, in the spring of 2012, she saw an email from her Automotive Training Institute (ATI) coach that changed everything. It was about an all-women 20 Group dubbed The Leading Ladies.

Long signed up immediately, joining a group of 14 other female shop leaders from across the country who meet twice a year to discuss marketing, community involvement, key performance indicators, and industry challenges. Only two years since the meetings started, Long says that joining the group has proven life-changing.

“Once I joined the women’s group and I got to talk to other women who spoke my language, it’s like this switch went off,” she says. “I love coming to my job now. It’s changed my whole relationship with my employees, it’s changed my relationship with my husband. He says he finally feels like he has a business partner. If it wasn’t for The Leading Ladies, I don’t know where I would be in this business right now. And right now, I’m definitely a partner and an employer.”

Pitching the Idea

While The Leading Ladies has grown into a business group, it started with a simpler goal. After presenting a Humanitarian of the Year Award at ATI’s annual SuperConference, ATI vice president Bryan Stasch says he was approached by Judi Haglin, owner of Haglin Automotive Inc. in Boulder, Colo., and Shelle Bennett, co-owner of Mike’s KARS Inc. in Gettysburg, Pa., about how to get their shops more involved in their communities.

1ST ROW: From left, Tammy Shoemaker, Patty Carroll, Shelle Bennett, Megan Hines 2ND ROW: From left, Diane Steinbach, Sheila Kissane, ATI CEO Chris “Chubby” Frederick, Judi Haglin, Debbie Taylor, Allison Brunovszky 3RD ROW: From left, Carol Dybvig, Michelle Long, ATI Vice President Bryan Stasch, Beth Ammazzalorso, Karen Donald. Photo courtesy Automotive Training Institute

From there, the three began tossing around the idea of an all-women 20 Group, although primarily focused on community involvement and marketing.

“I am part of another 20 Group but it’s men and women, and I felt very much like it would be so beneficial for women in this business to have a group of peers that was just women to be able to speak openly and more freely,” Bennett says.

“Sometimes in the mixed group, depending on your personality, you can feel like you don’t have a voice or you can get lost.”

Upon leaving the SuperConference, Stasch says he already had 10 women interested in the group. He knew he wanted to be selective in creating the group, and asked his coaches to reach out to their group members.

“From there, I had my coaches think about other ladies who are informed about the business and who would have something to offer other ladies in the group,” he says.

To round out the group, Stasch also pitched the idea to some of the women owners from ATI’s Top Shop lists.

“I have had lady shop owners say, I don’t want to be segregated like that,” Stasch says. “And I get that. The only thing I could add to that is that I think women in a male-dominated industry have different challenges, so why not be with a group [that] has the same challenges?”

More than a dozen women—a mix of shop owners, owner spouses and managers—immediately signed up, and Stasch, who also acts as the group’s facilitator, got to work putting together the first meeting, to be held in June 2012.

Drawing From Experience

Stasch, Haglin and Bennett helped put together an agenda for the first meeting, focused primarily around marketing, community involvement, and the unique challenges women in the industry had.

And while Stasch says it can take time for a 20 Group to bond and share openly, the group of women bonded immediately.

“Everyone pulls from everyone else,” she says. “That’s been the miracle of the group—how well the different levels of experience, knowledge, and what they do in the business all work together.”

One of the group members is Janet Manning, the office manager at Jim’s Auto Clinic in Cincinnati. The only non-owner of the group, Manning was cautiously excited about joining.

“I walked in really not knowing anybody. I went to the first meeting and I’ve been hooked ever since. With them being owners, it’s a lot easier for me to bring the ideas back and implement them. Even though I’m not the owner, the owner has seen what we do and he is very receptive to everything I’ve learned here and brought back.”

From the beginning, the group was determined to become a working group.

“After the first meeting, we took a survey and the ladies said, ‘We don’t want the quote-unquote firehose of information. We want to go and work on an issue together while we’re there, make progress, and then go home and continue on,’” Haglin says. “One of the biggest factors we found as women is that we don’t know how to say ‘no’ and we have so many things going on that we just don’t seem to be able to get it done in our day-to-day.”

Prior to the second meeting, Haglin and Bennett created a worksheet that members filled out for each of their marketing pieces. At the meeting, the group spent a day going through their marketing pieces, asking questions, and learning how to use the ATI marketing portal, how to enter data and track results.

“I fly from Seattle to go to those meetings. It’s not an inexpensive trip for me,” Long says. “There has to be value there. After the first meeting, my husband saw all the good business things I got from it and we’ve agreed it’s worth every penny we spend.”

For Long, the working aspect has been critical to her shop’s success with marketing.

MAKING A SPLASH: The Leading Ladies group was recognized for its achievements at the Automotive Training Institute’s 2013 SuperConference Awards Banquet in Scottsdale, Ariz. Photo courtesy Automotive Training Institute

“I can track week to week what I’m getting back from our marketing. That’s impacted us a lot,” Long says. “My [facility], in particular, is unique. It’s brand new. It was supposed to be a tire store, it’s two stories, all windows and we’re on a very busy street. Once I started tracking, I found out that probably 80 percent of the people walk in because of our location. I’ve been able to save our company a lot of money on marketing that wasn’t bringing me anything. Now I know exactly where to put our marketing dollars.”

And while the group began with the intention of covering mainly community involvement and marketing, it has since expanded to include financials and key performance indicators.
“The perspective is now that they are much more business savvy, they have each other to rely on, and they know who to contact when they have a business question,” Stasch says.
“It’s come full circle from what I originally thought it would be.”

The meetings also leave time for members to voice issues or specific questions they have about their business.

“It’s an opportunity to take advantage of the horsepower in the group,” Stasch says. “The horsepower in the group is what makes the group effective. It’s not one person. It’s everybody in there who has a different perspective, different experience, or different things that they’ve mastered.”

The group as a whole is also actively involved in setting the meeting agenda.

“As topics come up, we write them up on the board as a possibility for the next meeting,” Bennett says. “After that, it’s usually a consensus-type decision and ATI helps guide us.”

An Unexpected Bond

Besides the business knowledge, all the women agree that the most impactful part of The Leading Ladies has been gaining the support of other women in the industry.

“With this women’s group, I’ve learned that I’m not alone,” Long says. “There are other women out there that are going through the same thing that I’m going through, who have the same frustrations, or want to be a bigger part of the business.”

Apart from the twice yearly meetings, the group is always active on e-mail, asking questions of each other and dispensing suggestions or insight.

The group has grown to 15 members since Long joined and Haglin says it is looking to add more members, with plans to create additional all-women 20 Groups in the future.

“I think the women in our industry need to know that there are other women out there and that there is support out there,” she says. “Other women are successfully working in the automotive field. There’s no reason why you can’t do it, too.”

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