Why did you decide to be an Auto Technician and then open your own Shop?
Chris Cozad, ASE Master Technician and repair shop owner has an interesting story. “I always say I became a mechanic out of self-defense. I had an old car when I was in college, no money, and it was always broken. I had a friend who was a mechanic who taught me the basics which turned into a hobby for a number of years.” When Chris found herself unemployed, she reached a point where she was doing two or three jobs a week for friends and their families. She found herself eager to help people under similar financial stress by offering affordable car care solutions to them. After realizing that teaching biology was less of a calling than helping her customers understand and repairing their vehicles, she worked hard to fulfill her vision to open up a brick and motor automotive repair service center.
With being a shop owner as her goal, Chris prepped herself by working the counter at an auto parts store. Working there showed Chris that gender roles in the automotive field were tightly defined where a woman was presumed to know nothing even if she proved it to her male counterparts. “The industry had a pretty bad reputation relative to the way it treated women as customers, let alone as technicians. I was very committed to providing this kind of service experience to women where they feel welcomed, and men did not have to pretend that they had all the answers to what happens under the hood.”
Best piece of advice a mentor or instructor ever gave you?
One of Chris’s mentors told her, “Don't be afraid to take it apart and don’t be afraid of new technology”. Chris feels that mistakes make valuable learning experiences. "You're going to make mistakes. Learn from them, and it will prevent you from making that mistake again," said Cozad. Now, as a boss, she forces her techs out of their comfort zones to make them more confident and better at their craft.
What ASE Certifications do you have?
Chris is an ASE Master Technician; she also has the ASE Service Consultant certification and the L1: Advanced Engine Performance certification that she is in the process of updating. Her shop Alternative Auto Care has newly been recognized with the ASE Blue Seal of Excellence Recognition Program.
What challenges did/do you face as a female technician working in an industry where 98% of the techs are male? Do you feel you face extra challenges with your customers because you are female?
While Chris hesitates to speak on behalf of other women or minorities, Chris found that she couldn’t demand respect without demonstrating her knowledge base. She feels fortunate that there was an installer who jokingly called her “Lady Wrench” who took Chris under his wing. Together they shared a bonding experience over repairing Volkswagens.
Regarding harassment or sexism: “don’t stand for it and don’t be afraid. Report any incident to management even the subtleties that are much harder to prove legally. This is the only way we make it better for other women in the future”
Chris has not had any real challenges with customers other than those that most shops experience and if she found a supplier that was particularly unresponsive or persistent in their bad behavior, she just found another supplier.
What advice do you have for a female thinking of going to school or wants to start working in the automotive repair industry?
“Get your hands dirty! Whether it be working on your own car, working at a Jiffy Lube, or installing batteries at a parts store. Whatever it might be you need to start somewhere” says Chris.
What are your words of wisdom for a new auto technician who is discouraged?
“Find an inclusive work culture, even if it means lower pay. Also, find allies. Ask that person about what it is the field that she likes, or how did she handle problem XYZ.
Chris also recommends looking around at other shops and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Then if a shop loses a tech, you will be on their lineup of replacements who can quickly step into the back bay.
What are the top challenges you feel mechanics find upon entering the work force?
The gap between theory and practice makes it harder for a shop to hire a technician coming out of school with little experience working in the field. If apprenticeships are not available, she encourages someone to acquire basic training doing oil change or basic maintenance at chains like Jiffy Lube or Meineke before approaching a shop or dealership because any experience is beneficial.
Another issue is how a new technician is paid. Starting out being paid ‘flat-rate’ can feel defeating. Finding a shop that provides bonuses, incentives, and free education is key to a satisfying career path.
Do you feel that continuing education is important for technicians?
Yes! She encourages ASE training as well as taking workshops offered by the parts suppliers and on the job continual training. Chris feels that core competencies around diagnostics and electrical training are important to thriving in this industry with its shift to a new breed of EVs, hybrids and the software advancements on all makes, and models.
How long have you owned your shop?
Alternative Auto Care was founded in 1983. During its 38 years, she has changed locations but rarely changed the staff. The reason behind the low turnover rate is that early on, she invested in human resources.
How did you learn to run a successful repair shop?
At first, Alternative Auto Care was run by the school of hard knocks. "I didn't know anything about running a business and so, I got myself in some challenging situations early on with not paying my taxes on time or not having the correct form on file. I learned a lot by trial and error in those early days.
Then Chris joined ATI and found a coach who taught Chris many of the finer points of the industry. “I've always been a reader. And I've always been interested in learning. Being a lifelong learner is really important to being successful in the industry no matter whether it's as a tech, a service advisor, or a business owner. Whenever there was a class advertised by the parts store, I would go.
Now a days, Chris even advises her entry-level techs to take all the training available. “Some of it will be over your head and that's okay. But if you come out of class with just a couple of nuggets that will help you."
What does your shop specialize in?
Alternative Auto Care is a women owned, and women operated independent repair center located near the Ohio State University in the heart of Columbus Ohio. “We help people be more educated consumers,” says Chris. She and her four ASE Certified staff work on domestic and import vehicles. Alternative Auto Care performs 50-point digital courtesy inspections on every vehicle to ensure the vehicle runs at its best and perform regular preventative maintenance services that will add years and miles to the life of each vehicle.
What makes your shop special?
Inclusion and integrity for her staff and her customers.
Chris has made Alternative Auto Care a special place to work. While she demands her staff serve with integrity, she invests in their development and in-shop education. While everyone receives constructive feedback, the team collaborates together, and their personal involvement has resulted in a loyal, hardworking team that stays for years and years.
Chris has made Alternative Auto Care a special place to get your car serviced and repaired and her vehicle wellness philosophy has rendered mutually beneficial relationships with her client base and has built a loyal following.
Their website’s pledge reads: Respect: You and your vehicle will be treated with respect. Clear Explanation: We will give you clear explanations in plain language and not “mechanic speak”. Accurate: You will get a clear, complete, and accurate estimate. Timely: Your calls will be returned in a timely fashion. Prompt: You will be notified if there is a change in the estimate. Honest: Your car will be ready when promised, or you will be notified if there is an unavoidable delay. Attention: We will take the time to answer your questions.
Does your company pay for employees to get their ASE Certifications?
Yes. Everybody receives financial support.
What do you enjoy most about being an auto repair shop owner?
Chris enjoys benefiting other people's livelihoods. "I want to help people. I want to help my customers solve their vehicle needs and problems in ways that are appropriate for them. I want to help my techs be better employees and to make a career for themselves. I am all about relationships. For me, it's about building relationships with my employees, with my customers, with my suppliers, and finding ways that we can actually benefit each other in any number of ways.
How do you see your job or this industry changing in the next 10 years?
“Look at where technology is going and learn the high-tech side of it. You need to learn how to work on hybrids, electric cars and ADAS. It’s important to master these new technologies because we're going to get to a place where doing oil changes and the brakes isn't going to be enough. We're going to have to be able to recalibrate and reprogram and master the computer systems in repairing vehicles.”
Chris also encourages people to move into different roles as their interests or skills change. “Do not allow yourself to age while the repair segment changes and take the time to self-assess where your interests lay or where you want to learn a new skill.”