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How I Work | Audra Fordin

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Audra Fordin is on a mission. She wants to bring trust back to the auto repair industry, and she’s doing it through educating consumers. Between her shop’s customer service philosophies and founding Women Auto Know—an organization that, among other things, provides workshops on car care—Fordin is trying to help people better understand their own vehicles, which in turn allows them to make knowledgeable decisions about repairs.

And it’s been pretty good for business, too. Since adopting her “tell, don’t sell” philosophy, Great Bear Auto Repair and Auto Body Shop in Flushing, N.Y., has more than doubled its annual revenues and raked in some prestigious awards, including New York City’s Small Business of the Year award and the National Car Care Council’s first-ever top female shop owner award.

Fordin’s days are filled with educational opportunities, while operating her shop, her organization, and being a mother of three.

Growing up in my house, we spoke a second language. We didn’t speak Russian or Spanish; we spoke car. That’s just the way it was. My great grandfather started Great Bear Auto Shop with his four sons—my grandfather included—in 1933.

I grew up in this shop, and it feels like, when I’m here, I’m more comfortable than anywhere else. It’s home. And talking about cars, working on them, it’s all second nature to me. It came so naturally, because I grew up around that.

But that’s not the same for the vast majority of people. Customers don’t always know what’s going on in their cars, and it makes them nervous they’ll get taken advantage of.

And that’s my goal every day when I come into the shop: I’m trying to help customers learn to speak this language, helping people learn how to be educated about their cars.

I’m the first one in every morning at about 6:30 a.m. I like to set up the cars and see what’s going on for the day. I’ll go over some paperwork and check the numbers and see where we’re at and see who’s coming in on time and who’s not. That takes care of the HR aspects of it.

I open the doors at 7 a.m. and by 7:30, we better be roaring in the shop. If we’re not—well, they better be. I’ll just say that.

“I don’t think a lot of people envision a female shop owner as a regular working mom, but that’s what I am.”
—Audra Fordin, owner, Great Bear
Auto Repair and Auto Body Shop

Then customers start to come in and our day rolls from there. We don’t take appointments; we’re first come, first served. We’re like the triage at the hospital. Really, I’m not positive this is the best way to do it—no appointments against appointments—and we’re starting to experiment with appointments one day every week.
I’ve run the shop since 1997, and the biggest thing I’ve learned is that you don’t know everything and you can never stop learning.

The way we handle customers has completely changed over the past 10 years or so. About four or five years after I took over, shops across the country were closing, and people didn’t have money. Forget about paying for their cars, they were worried about paying for food. So, I needed to revamp and restructure the way that we did business or else, I felt, it was going to crumble with me.

We changed our business motto to “tell, not sell,” and took auto repair to a totally different perception with the community so that they were able to have confidence and know that there is someone they can trust. There was so much dishonesty and distrust in car care. We felt that if you were able to educate your customers about what was wrong with their cars, show them and explain to them what the problems are, why they need to be fixed, then they’d trust that you’re not trying to pull one over on them.

That’s what we work on every day. And, really, most of my day is spent talking with customers and explaining these issues to them.

I’ve done just about everything in a shop. I was taught at an early age. I was the little girl who wanted to hang out with my dad, and the only way I could do it was to go to the shop with him. Once I was strong enough to hold them, the guys showed me how to use the tools in the shop, how to work on the cars. It came naturally to me, and after college, I realized that this is what I wanted to do.

Now, though, I really focus on running the business and helping customers. This is where Women Auto Know came from.

I had this lady come into the shop one day, and she’d already been taken for a ride, literally, by four other shops. She spent all this money on repairs and still didn’t have the problem fixed. She was a grandma and taking care of three kids. I couldn’t take her money. I showed her exactly what was wrong with her car, why it wasn’t fixed and what she needed to tell the shops who should’ve done this already.

When we were done, she asked if I’d be willing to help teach some of her friends, too. That’s how our first workshop came about.

Now, Women Auto Know does regular workshops every month. We have a book and a DVD. I do Web videos. And when people come into our shop for work, they get their own mini workshop on their vehicle—if they want it.

It’s grown so quickly; it’s incredible. The local media started picking up on it. Then more national media did, too, and it’s just gone from there.

My day is spent giving these types of workshops to our customers as they come in. I also will carry around the Flip camera and shoot videos.
And it doesn’t end when I go home.

Three days a week, I leave the shop at about 2:30 to pick up my son at daycare and meet my two daughters at home from the bus. At the end of the day, I finish up all my paperwork and things—go over the numbers, check on repairs—then, it’s to home for homework or after-school stuff for my kids.

I don’t think a lot of people envision a female shop owner as a regular working mom, but that’s what I am.

I’ve never really looked at it like I was treated differently as an owner because I was a woman. Maybe it’s just me playing mind games, but I always felt that everyone needs to prove they’re worthy of that trust from a customer and from your staff. People simply want to know that you’re qualified. I was 25 when I took over in ’97, and people gave me a hard time for a while. I don’t think it’s necessarily because I’m a woman, but more because people want to know that a qualified person is handling their car.

Was I ready to do it? I know that I thought I was. And looking back, I must’ve been. We don’t have really any turnover with our employees, and we’re growing and expanding as a business. And we do that without any advertising. We spend zero dollars on advertising. People come because of our reputation; because of the way we treat them.

We have office space now for Women Auto Know, but I do a lot of my work from home. While I’m cooking dinner every night, our interns will often come by and we’ll work on things.

I’m pretty much never done with my work, and I don’t know that I ever will be.

My husband asked me the other day how I can keep doing all of this, and the only answer I could give was that I love doing it—it’s fun. I love what I do every day, and the day it’s not fun anymore is the day I won’t do it.

We’re growing our Auto Know organization, and we’re going to keep growing it. It’s my vision, and I see it so clearly: We’re going to transform the nation’s perception of auto repair.

I can’t say I feel excited about all the success so far; it’s more that I feel stronger to keep going. Each thing we do is just another stone we’re putting in a path for everyone after us.

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