At ABRA Auto Body locations around the country, women are leading the charge in delivering the highest-quality repairs and excellent customer service. On International Women’s Day, ABRA saluted the women who keep the wheels turning — literally.
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Geralynn Kottschade, manager of Jerry’s ABRA Auto Body & Glass Mankato, has spent her entire career in the automotive industry. She has served as chair of ASA, NACE, CIECA, CREF and the ASE Foundation, and was a “founding mother” of WIN.
“Growing up in the 1970s, I had a love for cars and that led me to work in the automotive business,” said Kottschade. “Many times, I was the first woman and the only woman. It is so refreshing to see so many women joining our industry and making a positive impact on it. I love the fact there are more young women, especially in the mechanical body area and not just in our paint department and front office. They bring a keen eye for quality and auditing skills.”
Kottschade makes teamwork and customer service her priorities.
“Being in my 60s and growing up in a different time, I approach things differently than many of my female team members and my male counterparts,” she said. “I am more flexible and identify issues or holes in our processes, then I work with the team to find answers. I allow my team to have input and give credit to all. My female teammates are truly leaders in customer service and set examples for everyone else. We all work to create a positive image for the shop and deliver sensitivity and compassion for our customers.”
A family business for the Kottschades, the team has expanded to include their daughter Laura, who hopes to take over the business one day.
For Michele Smith, who has managed accounting at ABRA Auto Body & Glass in Elk River, St. Cloud and Princeton, Minn., for 22 years, the collision repair business is the perfect blend of numbers and horsepower.
“I started as a detailer when I was young, then moved into the office to assist with accounting while I was in school,” said Smith. “Computers were very new to the industry in the 1980s and I was very intrigued by them. From there, I traveled the country helping automotive companies interface accounting products with management systems. I even owned a body shop and had a consulting business before ultimately coming to work for one of my customers.”
Smith points out that her analytical and accounting skills have helped her succeed in a male-dominated field.
“I’m more analytical whereas the teams at the facilities are more technical,” she said. “That also comes with my expertise in accounting. I love numbers. I always have. I also love the camaraderie. Our individual talents complement each other. I advocate for the right person for any position. Find the talent and put them where they can be most successful. The owners, Lou and Kedrick, are firm in their faith and beliefs and it shows in their business ethics and the way they treat their employees.”
Ashly Hughes, a customer service representative at ABRA Auto Body & Glass in Elk River, Minn., uses her passion for networking to connect with customers and insurance agents.
“My passion is truly meeting amazing people and connecting the dots to make great networking relationships that somehow become mutually beneficial,” Hughes said. “I work with a fabulous team that supports my talents while working together to achieve the overall goals of our ABRA. I use my passion to resonate with clients and insurance agents. I think everyone is looking for someone to make a deeper connection. Taking care of people, understanding them and giving back is what I do best.”
Hughes put that passion for networking to work during the pandemic to create a robust social media program.
“I have strategically leveraged social media as an organic advertising tool during the pandemic, increasing our insurance agent reach when most things were shut down,” she said.
Hughes credits her mentor, Danyell Wendland, the facility’s manager, with creating a workplace that treats women equally and respectfully.
“I personally believe our ABRA does a fantastic job of treating women equally,” she said. “One of the most inspiring things I noticed just a week ago was the respect the men gave to my boss who leads three collision centers. She is knowledgeable and not afraid to lead. Men value her opinion. Danyell Wendland has done the work to get to where she is, and the men show equal respect from what I have seen. I believe we have set a bar moving forward where women can be an asset to this industry working alongside or ahead of our male counterparts.”
Danyell Wendland, operations manager for ABRA Auto Body & Glass in Elk River, Princeton and St. Cloud, Minn., has spent 26 years at the organization, starting in high school as a detailer.
“My interest in auto repair started when someone said I couldn’t do it because ‘that’s a male-led industry,’” Wendland said. “Through high school, I attended a post-secondary program in automotive repair, and after high school I went to vocational/technical school and completed the auto body program. I started with ABRA in high school as a detailer and continued to assist in the shop prepping cars, doing disassembly and making body repairs. I proceeded to assist in the office as a CSR, then moved to estimating. In 2010, I became operations manager for the KLST Franchise, which owns three ABRA locations. It’s been an amazing ride ever since high school.”
Wendland says her technical skills, plus her abilities as a multi-tasker and organizer, have helped her succeed.
“When I first started, it was difficult to get the respect of customers — more than my own peers,” she said. “Because I went to school for collision repair and showed a true interest in my field, my peers treated me with respect. I would not let the fact that I am a woman slow me down. I have never asked anyone to do something that I wouldn’t do — unless it comes to heights. We have an amazing team of talented individuals here. I have seen over the years having a combined group of both men and woman works the best, and with the talents and strengths everyone brings to the table, it makes an even better atmosphere for both our customers and our team members.”
Kara Schwartz, with ABRA Auto Body & Glass in Elk River, Minn., started out installing commercial truck tires at 19 and has spent nearly 30 years in the automotive industry.
“ABRA has been a perfect fit for me,” said Schwartz. “I moved from my first job to wholesale sales and administration. Now, I use my skills to participate in the team effort to repair cars. I love the family this has grown into. I feel like I have the privilege of `taking care of my boys’ in the shop.”
Schwartz says her attitude helps pave the road to success.
“I work to be calm, humble, always offer a smile and be a great multi-tasker,” she said. “It’s pretty rare I come across a male that has an issue with my gender and my knowledge. We are seen as equals more and more.”