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A driving commitment Featured

10:50am EDT October 23, 2001

A funny thing happened to Chris Cozad on her way to earning a degree in biology. She became an auto mechanic.

But to Cozad, it doesn't seem like such a remarkable tale.

"When I was in college, I had an old car that was always breaking down, and I had a friend who was a mechanic," she says. "He taught me a few things to keep the old car running, and for many years, it was kind of a hobby. I did it because I enjoyed it."

But several years after college graduation, during a brief period of unemployment, Cozad says friends began to call, requesting tune-ups and repair work.

"I think they were trying to help me out with work, but they also were trying to keep themselves from being ripped off. When it reached a point where I was doing two or three cars a week, I got some business cards printed, and I was in business," she says.

That was in 1986, and she's never looked back.

Operating out of her truck for the first six months, Cozad eventually settled her business, Alternative Auto Care, into its present location, a 3,300-square-foot space in the Harrison West area of Columbus. Annual revenue is approximately $200,000 and she employs three full-time mechanics -- all women.

"I'm very much committed as a woman in a nontraditional job to making this profession accessible to women because it's a very difficult field," she says. "We've come a long way over the years, but we're not there yet. Right now, less than 1 percent of working technicians are women, so there's still a lot of room for growth."

Cozad says the industry has changed significantly, and the vision of the "shade tree mechanic" or "grease monkey" is a thing of the past. Still, negative images persist.

"It used to be that the kids who were steered toward auto shop were those who were perceived as not being able to make it in college," she says. "And it's not an option that many young women even look at because it is somehow perceived as this dirty job that requires brute strength."

That, says Cozad, is a myth.

"With the electronics and computers that are on cars now, it's an extremely sophisticated technical field," she says. "I think there has been a little bit of a shift, but there needs to be a lot more."

While 85 to 90 percent of Alternative Auto Care's customers in the early days were women, Cozad says her customer base now is close to 50-50.

"I have found over the years that there are a lot of men who don't know anything about a car, don't want to know anything about a car and don't want to have to go into the male mechanic and do that macho male bonding, 'I think it's my alternator,' kind of thing," says Cozad. "They're much more comfortable coming to a woman and saying, 'I don't know what's wrong. Just fix it.'"

Cozad believes in delivering a different kind of customer experience.

"I focus on consumer education. It's your car, and you are going to purchase a service from me. You have the right to have your questions answered in a way that you can understand, to have your concerns taken seriously and to be treated with respect. I think a lot of people don't get that in this industry," she says.

Because of her unique approach, Cozad says she does very little advertising. Her repeat business is about 80 percent and her biggest source of new business is referrals and word-of-mouth.

One of her greatest challenges has been maintaining controlled growth.

"I have been very cautious and very mindful of choices in terms of buying equipment. This is the kind of industry where you can put yourself into a huge amount of debt buying state-of-the-art everything and you can get into a lot of trouble," she notes.

"I made that mistake very early on by buying an engine analyzer before I should have, and it taught me that incremental, small growth is much more sustainable than big leaps." How to reach: Alternative Auto Care, 294-0580, cozadc@aol.com

Editor's Note: This page is presented as a cooperative effort of National City Bank and SBN magazine; however all material prepared for this page was independently reported and edited by SBN and was not subject to prior review or approval by National City Bank representatives.