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Female Mechanics Defy Auto-Repair Stereotypes

Content: By Julia Oller – The Columbus Dispatch

A green awning above the purple door frame marking the entrance to a small Short North mechanic says “AUTO CARE” in bold white letters, but the “alternative” hinted is only apparent after stepping inside. Alternative Auto Care operates on the automotive expertise of women.

Just inside the door, service manager Heather Murphy answered phones and customer questions in the tiny office, which also serves as the waiting room.

In the back, Jenni Hoover played Amy Winehouse songs while working on a customer’s 1986 Plymouth Reliant.
Owner Chris Cozad checked on her technicians and chatted with customers, who can take home a complimentary bag of Cozad’s white-chocolate Chex mix or a treat for their dogs. Both the makeup of her auto shop — all four of her employees are female — and the personal attention are part of Cozad’s mission to flip the script on what customers expect from automotive technicians. Which, she said, is that their mechanic will take advantage of them.

“We (the auto-repair industry) have a terrible reputation still,” she said. “We’re battling a perception problem, and I believe a good bit of that is about unmet expectations and poor communication.” Many technicians speak “car,” she said, and aren’t sure how to communicate in ways non-mechanics understand. Building relationships with customers — through workshops, using plain language instead of technical jargon and choosing to explain costs up front — has turned skeptics into long-time customers. “My ultimate goal,” she said, “is to have customers who walk in and hand me their keys and say, ‘Fix it, Chris.’”

brake-repair-columbus-oh

Photo by: Brooke LeValley (Columbus Dispatch)

When Patrick Roach first brought his car to Alternative Auto Care eight or nine years ago, his mechanic clearly outlined what needed to be fixed and what didn’t. They could have charged him money for an unnecessary service, he said, but instead put his interests first. That’s when he decided to stay. “I don’t know a damn thing about cars so it’s nice to get an explanation that’s given in a way I can really take in and fully interact with,” the 35-year-old Clintonville resident said. Roach, who works in information technology, also designs board games on the side. After one tuneup several years ago, a mechanic asked to borrow a game she saw in his back seat. “That, of course, made me love them more,” he said. “It was very personable and fun to find a shared interest. Nerds unite and all that. I had already been their customer but that sealed the deal for the rest of my automotive life.”

In Alternative Auto Care’s first years, women made up most of the customer base. Now, it’s an even split between genders.
Many Ohio State students also take their cars to Cozad and her team. Cozad, who is lesbian, also works to make LGBT people feel welcome.
No one, Cozad said, wants to be talked down to or muscled out of the way when it comes to a car.

Especially female technicians.

“I like to give women who are interested in the field an opportunity to learn and work in the field without having to deal with some of the crap they have to deal with in a mainstream shop, when they’re the only woman, (like) the subtle discrimination (and) the sexual harassment,” she said.

Jenni Hoover has worked as a technician at Alternative Auto Care on and off for 25 years. In between, she worked as a heavy-machine operator on an all-male crew, where she endured constant harassment. “I broke down and cried so many times,” Hoover, 50, said.
Women comprise 1.4 percent of working auto technicians, making recruiting new workers difficult.

Cozad teaches automotive technology classes at Columbus State Community College and scopes out potential employees (including current technician Jossalynn Burrell).

In an industry struggling with high turnover rates, most members of the Alternative Auto Care crew have worked there at least five years.
She treats her employees right; they treat the cars and the customers right. Simple, Cozad said.

Also simple: the drive fueling her through her 35 years in the auto-care business.

While attending Hiram College in northeastern Ohio in the late 1970s, her beat-up 1969 AMC Rebel continually broke down when she was too strapped for cash to take it to a shop.

A mechanic friend taught her the basics — changing the oil, recharging the battery, regulating the engine’s temperature — to keep her on the road.

When she moved to Columbus in the early 1980s to pursue a master’s degree in biology at Ohio State University (she didn’t attend), Cozad needed a job, fast.

Friends started calling her to repair brakes or change oil several times a week.
Her new career was written in the headlights.

“I thought, ‘Heck, I can do this,’” Cozad, now 62, said. “I had business cards printed and had my tool box in my truck so I worked on the streets until winter came.”

Cozad rented a one-car residential garage, which housed her business for the next three years. “It didn’t have heat or water, but it had a roof and electricity, so, progress,” Cozad said with a laugh. She hired her first employees — all have been women, save for an occasional male through the years — after moving to her first legitimate garage, in the Harrison West neighborhood between Grandview Heights and the Short North, where she remained for 20 years.

Cozad moved slightly east to her current location, at West 5th and Hunter avenues, 11 years ago. Spending much of her life under jacked-up cars would have surprised her younger self, but Cozad is thankful that the alternative existed for her.

“I always say I got into the business in self-defense,” she said. “I learned about cars basically to protect myself and to keep myself mobile … I pretty quickly figured out, wow, there really is a need for this. And I never looked back.”
– joller@dispatch.com

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Car Repair with a Difference: After 25 years, Alternative Auto Care Continues on a Road Less Traveled

Originally published in Short North Gazette, December, 2008 by Dennis Fiely

Chris Covad

Chris Cozad (left), an auto service instructor at Columbus State Community College and owner
of Alternative Auto Care, keeps tabs on the work of apprentice Constance Taylor. ©Photo/DarrenCarlson

 

The fact that Alternative Auto Care (AAC) remains “alternative” after 25 years in business reflects how little the car repair industry has changed since Michael Jackson reigned as the King of Pop and the United States invaded Grenada.

The shop, near the corner of Fifth and Hunter Avenues, has remained female owned and operated for a quarter-century of feminist stagnation in which women have continued to make up less than one percent of the nation’s car mechanics.

“This just isn’t a field that women have gone into,” said Chris Cozad, a master certified technician and the owner of AAC. “We’ve done a poor job of recruiting them.”

The industry’s “grease monkey” image, poor customer service, and small-business exclusion from minority hiring incentives have combined to discourage women from pursuing careers under the hood. The neighborhood garage is one place where the glass ceiling has been replaced by a shatterproof windshield.

It’s a shame, said Cozad, because automotive technology offers a rewarding trade to working-class women who may not have the means or inclination for a college education. “The work is very gratifying: If it’s broke, I fix it,” she said. “It’s also very challenging, like trying to solve a puzzle. There is always something new to learn. It’s never boring.”

Even though she is a longtime community activist for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues, Cozad crashed the good old boys’ club out of necessity more than a pioneering spirit. The 53-year-old Clintonville resident decided to turn her avocation into a vocation when she opened a one-car residential shop “on a whim” near the Ohio State University campus after having been fired as a McDonald’s manager for what she suspects was her sexual orientation.

“At the time, I was just trying to survive,” she said. “I needed a job and I was fed up with working for somebody else. I never thought of this as a lifelong career choice.”

Her experience was strictly grassroots. She learned the trade trying to keep her 1969 AMC Rebel running while a student at Hiram College. Before long, she was working on friends’ cars. “My first location was really on the street,” she said.

Cozad established her first commercial shop in Harrison West, where she operated AAC for more than 20 years until moving in June of 2006 to her new site – a four-car garage and office.

“I love this location,” Cozad said. “I get a lot more neighborhood and drive-by business. The building is more visible, easier to find and it is not full of 20 years’ worth of grease and junk. My landlord remodeled it to suit me. The downsides are that is smaller and does not have a big parking lot.”

Her staff includes shop manager Jen Hoover, technician Rodney Harris and apprentice Constance Taylor. Cozad, Hoover and Harris hold certifications from the National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence, a nonprofit organization that tests mechanics.

They abide by Cozad’s founding principles that strive to reverse the negative public perception of car shops as repositories of dishonesty, pollution and customer complaints. The “alternative” in Alternative Auto Care encompasses more than gender equity.

“Auto mechanics have terrible reputations,” Cozad said. “Surveys have identified them as among the least trusted professionals, along with attorneys. Certainly people do get ripped off, but there is also an awful lot of incompetence. Cars today have up to eight or 10 computer systems on board and some mechanics simply are not up to speed on the technology. It’s not even easy to change your own oil anymore. The profession requires a lot of continuing education.”

Cozad not only receives that education, she gives it as an auto service instructor at Columbus State Community College, where she impresses upon students the need to deliver quality work at a fair price.

It’s a mission readily welcomed by her employers. “We’re just honest with people,” said Harris, who has worked with AAC for nearly five years. “I hate to lie, and I’ve worked at shops where I was required to lie, fixing things that didn’t need fixed.”

The shop engenders trust through communication, a major point of emphasis in Cozad’s college classes. “We don’t teach technicians how to talk to people,” Cozad said. “I really believe there is nothing on a car that can’t be explained.”

Cozad’s communication skills are reflected on the shop’s Web site that provides maintenance tips to prevent expensive repairs, and on the phone, where she recently could be overheard negotiating payment from a customer for a new starter. “I am willing to negotiate with you on that,” Cozad said graciously. “You tell me what kind of a arrangement you need, and I’ll tell you if I can do that.”

Her passion for customer relations has helped Cozad build a loyal consumer base that takes care of its cars. “About the only time we run into a neglected car is with a new customer,” Harris said.

Cozad preaches the gospel of regular maintenance, noting that most cars can last at least 200,000 miles. “Taking good care of a car and following its maintenance schedule are two different things,” Cozad said. “The maintenance schedule is a bare minimum service requirement to keep the warranty intact. The manufacturers don’t want your car to last forever, just seven to eight years on the outside end. I still recommend an oil change every 3,000 miles, although some maintenance schedules push that to 5,000 or even 7,500 miles.”

Despite their unconventional approach, staffers at AAC look every bit the part of mechanics. They wear gray uniforms with their first names embroidered on their shirt pockets. The garage looks like any other in Columbus with its cement floor and metal walls, adorned by pegboard displays of professional certificates.

Appearance begins to deviate from the norm in the garage’s adjacent office, noticeably absent of “beefcake” calendars and other sexist symbols of the profession.

“The environment is much better than 25 years ago when suppliers would drape a picture of a scantily clad woman over anything to sell a car part,” Cozad said. “The girlie magazines are still around but not as prevalent as they used to be. I’d like to think I had something to do with that, because I raised so much hell about it.”

Marketing to men doesn’t make any sense anymore, because women today make 65 percent of automotive decisions, Cozad said. Female drivers initially dominated her customer count, which has been expanded in recent years to include an equal number of men and women. The shop frees men who are not especially car-savvy from machismo posturing, pretending to be well versed in car talk.

“This is a place where men and women feel comfortable,” Cozad said. “Everybody wants good quality, honest care at a fair price, regardless of gender.”

Many regulars express the trust she values when they bring in their cars. “They just toss me the keys and say, ‘fix it,’” Cozad said.

The “alternative” in Alternative Auto Care extends to the environment. While car shops are legally required to recycle oil and batteries, AAC absorbs additional expenses to recycle its metal and cardboard scrap. “We even recycle our plastic lunch containers,” Harris said.

Cozad continues her history of community involvement in the feminist and gay rights movement. She sits on the boards of the Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization and Columbus Community Relations Commission and serves as Mayor Michael Coleman’s liaison to the gay and lesbian community.

She drives a 1998 four-cylinder Ford Escort and is outspoken about her distaste for America’s traditional obsession with gas-guzzlers. She calls SUV’s “weapons of mass construction,” but when one rolls into her shop, she sets her political views aside and practices the non-discriminatory policies that have governed her professional and personal life.

What’s she thinking when Ford Explorer settles into one of her bays?

“Ka-ching!” Cozad said.

Spoken like a free market capitalist, and there is nothing alternative about that.

 

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All Cylinders – A woman’s work

David Lewis for Columbus Alive, January 2007

chris cozad

I’m afraid of garages. I admit it. My childhood memories of the garage are of my father screaming profanities and launching Craftsman missiles, which ricocheted dangerously through the air.

 As I grew, little changed that perception. Trips to the local mechanic for my own car were always fraught with men far manlier than me, covered in oil and babbling in curses and gibberish-jargon.

So it was with some apprehension that I approached Alternative Auto Care for my meeting with the proprietor and president, Chris Cozad.

Much to my relief, the garage was not only scrupulously clean, it was altogether free of flying wrenches and gear-heads. The atmosphere felt professional and the technicians were friendly and personable. I felt no pressure to chew tobacco or mumble any of the few “car words” that I know.

Every technician is ASE certified; Cozad is an ASE Master Technician and recently achieved ASE Advanced Engine Performance Specialist and Service Consultant certifications.

And Cozad is that rarity in the automotive industry: a woman.

“Less than one percent of automotive technicians are female,” she explained. “I attribute that to a recruitment flaw in the industry. Women are not encouraged to master trades or vocations, and it is unfortunate, because the mastering of a trade is a great way to achieve financial equality.”

 Cozad, who also teaches automotive repair at Columbus State Community College, has been in the industry for 25 years, the last 24 of which were spent operating her own garage.

“Any independent garage that has been around for 25 years is doing something right,” she said with a smile. “Sure, at first it was kind of a novelty ‘powder-puff garage.’ But the shock value has worn off and it is much more accepted now.”

 As an established face in a highly competitive industry, Cozad has seen a lot of changes. The percentage of female technicians has doubled over that period of time: from 0.4 to nearly 0.8 percent. Her classes at Columbus State occasionally have a few female students, but then, as she said, “I am not in charge of recruiting.”

 Cozad attributes her success to her customer service. “It’s just how you treat people,” she said. “I value the opinions of my customers, and I respond to their questions.”

 “The customer drives that car every day,” she added. “They are full of valuable information that they may not be able to articulate. Our job is to ask the right questions. Not only does that foster trust in the relationship, but it helps us accurately diagnose the problem, so there are no costly surprises later.”

 

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