In a bad economy, people tend to fix their cars rather than buy new ones. And while industry experts say that nearly 80 percent of the people who bring their cars in for repair are women, women are far more likely than men to believe their mechanic is taking them for a ride. That's why Demeny Pollitt wanted to open her own garage and probably one reason why she is not short on customers.
"I wanted to provide a place where people didn't feel like they were getting ripped off, where people felt like they could trust what the technicians were saying to them, what the technicians were doing," says Pollitt, owner of Girlington Garage in South Burlington, Vermont. "I think the environment at Girlington Garage is hugely different from most other repair shops you walk in to. And that was really important to me when starting this business."
The key to keeping on top of expensive car repairs, she says, is actually pretty simple: Don't ignore your car. Here are the three biggest mistakes she's seen both men and women make.
Demeny's Pollitt's Turn a blind eye to tire treads. Pollitt's simple trick for checking tired treads: "Take a penny and make sure you are looking at Abe Lincoln. Flip him so he's standing on his head, and then you take the penny and you put it in between the treads of the tires… When you push it up against the rubber, if you can see the top of his head, that tire is no longer safe to drive on."
Turn a deaf ear to noises. "If you have a sound, and you ignore it, 90 percent of the time you will pay twice as much as you would if you brought it in," she says.
Put off scheduled maintenance. "It's expensive, but you do have to do that on a regular basis," she points out. "Look in the owner's manual. If you can follow that to a T, it will last a lot longer."
The idea to open a woman-focused garage came when Pollitt, a former social worker, went back to school to become a mechanic, looking for a rewarding way to make a living. "I realized that I would travel anywhere to have a woman mechanic work on my car, and I realized that probably most women would," she says. "And at that point I started to think it would be really great to have an all-girl garage."
It wasn't an easy career transition. "I think I had changed my oil once or twice, and once it was a huge disaster," she says. "I didn't know the difference between a socket and a wrench when I started school." Two years later, with an associate's degree in automotive technology in hand, she decided it was time to make her big dream come true.
Banks laughed at her when she applied for loans, but in 2009, with a little financial help from her parents, Pollitt opened Girlington Garage in South Burlington, Vermont. And now, business is booming. The garage has experienced a 40-percent increase in sales since December 2009, and the garage's customer base grew from 860 to 2,700 during the same period, says Donna Cacace, Girlington's co-owner and Pollitt's mother. The business is growing so fast that they are increasing the staff -- currently five full-time employees, three of them women, plus a few tech apprentices -- and making equipment purchases, which likely will mean a dip in profits this year. But the customers keep coming: "We have very loyal customers and on any given day 75 to 80 percent of our customers are current and 20 to 25 percent are new so at least for a while, we will continue to grow at a brisk pace in this area," Cacace says.
"In opening Girlington Garage, I wanted to provide a place where anybody could feel comfortable walking in and having their car worked on, where people could come in and learn as much or as little about their car and the repairs they needed, and in the process be as involved as they wanted," Pollitt says. "I think that educating my customers as much as possible is really the cornerstone of my business."
Customers like Lou McKenna definitely appreciate the difference. "The first time I came because it was new and I'm a woman business owner and I was happy to support that," McKenna says. "But I kept coming back because they explained things to me like I wasn't an idiot."
"Nowadays, most men don't know how to work on cars either, so anyone walking into a repair shop comes in with no knowledge and is ripe for the taking," Pollitt points out. "If things aren't explained, men are going to be just as mystified as women. I treat every customer the same."
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