This Repair Shop Owner’s Unconventional Response to the Recession

Audra Fordin - Great Bear Auto

If you’re working in the auto care industry and haven’t yet come across Audra Fordin, you might be living under a rock. Audra’s a rare breed – she’s a female mechanic who owns her own shop, Great Bear Auto Repair, in Flushing, NY. Her “Women Auto Know” program, to empower women drivers, has earned Audra national media exposure – from Anderson Cooper to The Today Show – and it started as an out-of-the-box, community-focused approach for her shop to weather the recent recession.

If all auto-repair basics were taught by Audra, we suspect the industry wouldn’t be facing a talent shortage. She uses approachable and fun analogies like, “If the catalytic converter is peanut butter, the oxygen sensor is jelly,” and suddenly, the technical becomes memorable, even shareable. And there lies her secret to success. Talking to Audra is like drinking from a fire hose – she’s articulate, creative, quick as a whip, honest, fun, and her message is as inspirational to customers as it is repair shop owner/operators. We suspect you’ll hear that same energetic voice in her new book, “End Auto Anxiety: No Fear Car Repair and Maintenance for Busy Women.”

Until you have time to thumb through the pages, here’s Audra on –

How It All Started
I grew up around cars, in the auto repair shop. I learned like most of the trade – it was hands on. Mechanics don’t have to take a test like a lawyer and a doctor, but I did go to school to learn automotive, once the check-engine light became a player in the auto space. I didn’t know how to shut it off! I wanted to know. So I went to school to find out, and that took me to the next level.

How Necessity is the Mother of Invention
When the recession hit, the auto industry was destitute – dealers were closing and independent shops were going out of business. Where we are, public transportation’s everywhere, and people couldn’t afford to repair their cars. I was depleting my inventory and went down to a skeleton crew.

Then I had an epiphany – I had to put my pride and legacy of our business aside. Necessity is the mother of invention, right? So I took off my ‘auto armor’ and actually had to see through customers’ eyes – people were scared, and they didn’t know what they needed. When customers come in for automotive service, they’re crazy defensive, thinking, ‘I don’t know you,’ and they just want to be treated honestly and fairly. When the recession happened, I was in a scary place, I took a different approach, which was: If I can’t do business with you, you need to know anyway. Because you’re still driving, and if your car isn’t maintained, it is not going to keep you safe. I’d had my second child, and was thinking, ‘You’re on the same road as my children and me. Just because you’re not being responsible, that potentially puts us into trouble.’

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So Women Auto Know was born to educate people. It uses a philosophy that’s how our family business has survived for 83 years – Provide service, not sales. Educate, don’t intimidate, and make that statement a loud one. We began to bring people for free educational workshops without selling. It allowed the skeptics and the fearful to hear. Also, it brought them to my repair shop. Now they knew how to get to my shop! We taught them so they knew what their vehicles needed, and when, and why. And within a year, we were back on our feet, and we’re profitable. And now they buy. Ka-ching! We’ve quadrupled.

Women Auto Know collects donations and donates proceeds to disadvantaged women whose cars are in need of repair. We’re not Oprah, but at the same time, we do outreach and community service. That started during the recession when people really needed it. There are so many stories out there… there’s a need.

Change within the Auto Care Industry
I’ve been able to watch the repair industry I love going from chaos and confusion of the drivers, to the point where, as shop owners, now we don’t understand what’s happening next. Will it be hybrid, electric, CNG (compressed natural gas), premium gas or corn oil? It’s hard especially for me, as an independent; we have no mothership to give guidelines, so it’s just me and about 300,000 others just floating.

Our shop was born in 1933. We’re now in our 83rd year. I’ve watched it go from carburetors to fuel injection, now to keyless ignition, and I’ve seen everything in between. When the check-engine light came around, I was putting black tape over it! It was back in the 80s – who knew? And I truly didn’t know. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know. And because manufacturers weren’t sharing info, and weren’t educating people about its importance, that has trickled down to a society that feels disconnected, scared, and not accountable to themselves, or each other, or their autos.

Auto Anxiety
I put ‘auto anxiety’ on the Urban Dictionary and there’s a cure. It’s a 40-year epidemic. When I was in college, our car broke down, and we had to go to a repair shop. What the shop was trying to sell my friend had to be cut in half. The mechanic told her she’d needed an air pump. And so I asked the guy to show it to me. But he was pointing at the alternator and a bunch of other parts. I said to her, ‘It isn’t an air pump. I can assure you of that.’ Because she didn’t have one!

I’ve done a lot of work with the media and I’ve done some exposés. I’ve seen and experienced horrific things that happen to auto-repair customers. We’ll have a feature debut soon that illustrates this, and that shows just where the trouble lies. And it will help shops to change how they do business. We need to put women in the driver’s seat where they belong.

On one hand, there are so many great shops out there with people who are working every single day, and really helping people. This can be a great business to make an honest living. But the few that are doing the wrong thing, are giving the job a bad name, and it helps when customers know a little bit in order to protect themselves. I’m the kind of person where, for example: if someone’s going to fix my roof, I want to climb up there first to see what’s wrong – I have to know.

Encouraging the Next Generation
Our industry is going through attrition. I’m a shop, and finding skilled, qualified, good people I’m willing to train, to make an honest living, is tough. The talent pool is slim and the stereotypes persist that mechanics are dirty and uneducated, and that’s far from the truth. Today, mechanics need to be IT engineers – there are so many computers on the car. And we’re trying to combat the mentality that people think, ‘You’re trying to rip me off of a brake job,’ but meanwhile it costs me $3,000 for a computer just to be able to open it up.

On the other hand, we’re also in the midst of an automotive evolution, or revolution. Women Auto Know is an aid to bridge that gap and to help people. When I started, there were less than 1% women in the repair industry; it had flat-lined. Now, it’s 4%.

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Running Women Auto Know While Running a Shop
I was there closing the shop tonight. I’m a shop, and that’s my passion. It’s the heart and soul. When Women Auto Know was born, something came to life inside me. It wasn’t my business plan. It just happened. I’ve received so many emails, from women, men, schools, corporations, repair shops, dealerships. I didn’t know where to put them.

But I’m still in the shop. I can’t drop the ball. It wasn’t my doing. I’m just like everybody else – looking to make traction. This was a real game-changer. I’m not out there seeking the media; I don’t have time. But when I get calls, I figure it’s my job and obligation. This is what I signed up for, and I take job seriously.

One Piece of Advice for Finding a Great Mechanic
It doesn’t matter where you go, it matters how you feel. Listen to your instinct. Your sixth sense is important. There are people who are very happy at a dealership, and there are those who are happy with a backyard mechanic. It’s about knowing that you have confidence. You can’t be scared.

Ever thought about being a motivational speaker?
I get that all the time.

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Do you know a great mechanic who’s got an unconventional way of drumming up business and creating loyal fans? Send ‘em our way at Social @ openbay.com, and maybe you’ll see his or her story here.

And if you’re still on the hunt for a good local mechanic, check out Openbay, where you can compare, schedule and pay for repair and maintenance service with just a few clicks. But don’t just take our word for it – Men’s Journal named Openbay a top 10 app for your car.

Thanks for reading, and drive safely!