Columbus, Ohio USA
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Alternative Auto Care
Female-owned and operated garage off the beaten path
by Michele Spring-Moore

springbyker@yahoo.com
DECEMBER 2003

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Chris Cozad, owner of Alternative Auto Care.

Chris Cozad is an auto technician with a mission: to educate drivers about their role as automotive care consumers, and to let women know that auto repair is an excellent career choice.

Cozad is celebrating the twentieth anniversary of her business, Alternative Auto Care, located in the Harrison West neighborhood. AAC began operating during an era of grassroots feminist small business development, and is now one of only a handful of women-owned garages operating in the United States.

In 1983, Cozad was a high school biology teacher, but she was laid off during the economic downturn and decided to put her car-repair hobby to work. She began by fixing friends' vehicles on the street, then rented an unheated residential garage without running water for three years. Cozad is now a master certified technician, and employs one full-time and one part-time technician, both women. She and her employees are certified by ASE, the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, a nonprofit organization that tests and certifies mechanics.

Educating techs and customers

AAC has a loyal customer base - Cozad estimates that 70 percent to 80 percent of their business comes from repeat customers. Working well with clients is important, she maintains, when surveys continually show that auto mechanics and lawyers are the most distrusted professionals.

"In an industry with such a high level of distrust and where people mechanic-hop, building customer loyalty is very, very important."

The problem with some shops isn't dishonesty, she says, but incompetence, and the auto industry as a whole has failed to keep up with the times. The "grease monkey" stereotype lives on, and some schools and training programs still see auto repair as a kind of dumping ground, a career for young men lacking academic skills.

"It's a highly technical industry at this point," Cozad says. "We need to recruit for a different caliber of people."

Many mechanics are trained in fixing vehicles, but not in communication skills, she adds.

"We don't teach technicians how to talk about service. You have to be able to tell people what you're doing ... in language they understand."

The industry has also been slow to respond to the increase in the number of female consumers - Cozad notes that 65 percent to 70 percent of auto-related decisions are now made by women, but less than one percent of automotive technicians are female.

When speaking with auto consumers, she says, "You can hardly sit down with a woman &endash; or a gay man, for that matter - and not hear a story of how they got ripped off."

Chris Cozad began trying to address some of these issues when she returned to the classroom a couple of years ago. In her sections of the Auto Shop Orientation and Service course at Columbus State Community College, Cozad teaches her students the importance of communicating clearly with customers and involving them in the repair process. This not only improves customer relations, she says, but also helps with vehicle diagnosis, especially in the case of odd noises and intermittent problems.

"I teach them that you have to listen to the customer because that'll help you diagnose the problem. You get help with diagnosis, and the customer feels heard."

Untrained techs, she says, "don't know how to diagnose, so they start throwing parts at the problem." This is particularly the case at car dealerships, which have parts departments on the premises.

The vast majority of her CSCC students are young white men, and having a female instructor and classmates is an important part of their education. It's unfortunate that many women students don't continue their training, don't obtain a first job in auto repair, or don't remain in the field, Cozad says. The industry needs to address the too-high expectations of both women and men, she adds. Many of her male students are attracted to the field because they want to open their own high-performance shops, but it's typical to begin as a line technician in someone else's shop or at a chain store to gain enough repair experience to begin working one's way up the ladder.

For the small percentage of women who enter the industry, discrimination isn't as blatant as it used to be, she says. There's less overt sexual harassment, and "there are no longer many shops with the girlie calendars hanging on the walls or many magazine ads with scantily-clad women draped over the hood."

But Cozad has noted, in a couple of interviews with women's zines, that old myths keep more women from entering the automotive field - that the job is too dirty or demanding for women, or involves heavy lifting, which is actually done by specialized equipment. On the contrary - as Cozad has said over the years in conversations and in workshops on women in non-traditional jobs – automotive technology and other trades offer a means of economic equality, especially for poor and working-class women without access to a college education.

"It's such a great career. I've been doing it for 21 years and I still love it."

Protecting your investment

Chris Cozad checks under the hood as technician Jenny loooks on.

She's also offered presentations and workshops on auto repair, selecting a mechanic, and other consumer-oriented topics to audiences of up to 200 at women's fairs and similar events.

"It's always overwhelmingly positive," she says. "Women are so hungry for that information."

And women aren't the only ones: "I have male customers who prefer a woman technician ... because they don't have to pretend they know or care about cars - that macho, male-bonding thing doesn't happen."

But Chris Cozad strongly advocates being an informed consumer, whatever one's gender.

"I get new customers - they'll come in and say, 'I don't know anything about a car.' You don't have to know, but you have rights," she says. "You have the right to have the work explained.

"When we buy a car - whether it's a $500 special or a $50,000 SUV - it's a major financial investment ... and you want to protect your investment."

People seem less and less apt to exercise their rights and ask questions, Cozad says, and she tries to teach critical thinking to her students and customers. Marketing is a huge part of the auto industry today, she says, and people need to question what they're told, as consumers and as citizens.

And she tries to combat the automotive industry's "bottom line" attitude by keeping her own backyard clean – literally. "The auto industry is a little rough on the environment across the board," she says, laughing ironically. "I recycle absolutely as much as I can."

This includes oil, antifreeze, batteries, and steel. It costs quite a bit to have these materials hauled away and disposed of properly, she adds, and many fly-by-night garages won't pay for it. "I don't want to know what they're doing with their oil."

But the federal Environmental Protection Agency ignores such violations, she says: "It's not a mindset that the industry enforces."

Cozad also criticizes the marketing of impractical, gas-guzzling vehicles: "We don't need to drive anything with more than four cylinders. What's the speed limit in Ohio?," she asks rhetorically. "We don't need cars that do 120 miles per hour. It's marketing. We're just making a mess of our planet, and there's so much our industry could do."

The industry even exploits sex-role stereotypes to sell sport utility vehicles, and she blames the SUV boom on misogyny: now that minivans have been associated with soccer moms, most men won't be seen driving these vehicles.

"It's subtle stuff. SUVs are really just butch minivans."

"The lights came on"

Each August for the last 20 years, Cozad has taken her shop on the road and into the woods for the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, the largest national feminist music and cultural fest. She does auto repair there as an independent contractor, and she and her partner, Gloria McCauley, are the coordinators of the event's mechanics' crew.

"Some lesbian business owners gave up Michigan in favor of their businesses," Cozad says. "It's a sacrifice to close for a week, but it's worth it.

"For me, that is not the legacy I want to leave my children - 'Oh, she was a great businesswoman'," she says sardonically. "There are more important things than making a buck."

Cozad's history of community involvement illustrates this. In 1996 she and McCauley responded to the lack of services in central Ohio for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender victims of hate crimes and domestic violence by founding BRAVO, Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization. Cozad is the president of BRAVO's board of directors, and she does organizational development and fund-raising consulting for other nonprofit organizations.

She also helped start the Lesbian Business Association in the mid-'80s. The organization is now active only in producing the Ohio Lesbian Festival, a music and cultural event held every year or two, and the organizers are considering turning the LBA into a production company. But when the group was founded, its members needed support for their small businesses, many of which were started to avoid discrimination and harassment. Although LGBT people in some professions still can't come out, Cozad says, many places now offer more protections for their employees and there's less potential for problems in the workplace.

"I have male customers who prefer a woman technician because they don't have to pretend they know or care about cars - that macho, male-bonding thing doesn't happen."

"Sixteen, 17 years ago when we started, being a lesbian in business - particularly an out lesbian - was risky. It's not taboo any more. Lesbians are going into business now because they want to go into business. It used to be about not working for other people."

The overall situation has changed for the better in many ways, Cozad says, but much remains to be accomplished, and some younger women and lesbians and gay men who grew up enjoying the gains of the feminist and gay rights movements may not appreciate that these achievements were hard-won.

"Now there's less perception of oppression," she says. But women still make less money; the glass ceiling is higher – although it's still there."

Cozad considers herself lucky that she came of age in the '70s when the women's movement was in its formative stages and she was able to develop a strong feminist perspective. When she first began learning about feminism, she says, "It was like the lights came on!"

She's spreading the light with customer education and in her classes at Columbus State. "It's challenging what we hear, that I think is so important. I want my students to think! I hope something I say in the classroom will help when they're working with women, or people of color, or any kind of 'non-mainstream' people in the future."

Alternative Auto Care, 585 W. 2nd Ave, is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and by appointment only on Friday. Call 294-0580.

UPDATE: Alternative Auto Care's current address is 136 W. Fifth Avenue. Visit www.alternativeautocare.com

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