Have you heard that joke about women drivers? Your first reaction is probably, “Which one?” Women often get a bum rap when it comes to automotive issues. So after spending much of her career in the auto industry, watching women being taken advantage of by mechanics and car salespeople, Gail Dunn decided to take matters into her own hands.
At the age of 62, with 15 years of experience working around cars, Dunn set out to educate drivers, one oil change at a time, through the Women’s Automotive Connection. A former business consultant, experienced estimator and longtime manager of a body shop, Dunn had built a reputation for herself in the industry as a no-nonsense advocate for her customers’ needs — traits she now relies on as her own boss.
Founded in 2007, Atlanta-based Women’s Automotive Connection provides automotive advice, assistance and service to those without the time or expertise to address problems related to the maintenance and repair of their vehicles. But Dunn’s greater mission revolves around her greatest passion — to teach car owners about the games some of the dishonest people in the automotive industry play in an effort to “relieve” car owners of their money, and to build a fleet of astute, competent customers. And the boys are starting to notice too.
What was your career background prior to starting the Women’s Automotive Connection?
I was a consultant in organizational development. I basically fixed broken companies. But I got to a point where I was working 80 hours per week and didn’t want to do that anymore.
What led you to decide to start your own business, post retirement?
I knew I would get bored, because I had retired once before and that’s exactly what happened. And I realized I didn’t want to work for somebody else anymore. The easiest thing was to be on my own, and it sounded great to be able to make my own schedule and my own decisions.
One of the major goals of the Women’s Automotive Connection is to help women feel more comfortable and knowledgeable about the auto-repair process. What are some of the negative repair experiences you encountered personally – and that you saw other women encounter — prior to starting the company?
My own short story is that I had a ‘96 Jeep Grand Cherokee that wouldn’t start. At the time, I was managing a body shop at a dealership. I looked at it and knew exactly what it needed. I went in on a Monday morning and told them I needed a fuel pump put in a Jeep and just left the car there. Later, someone brought my car over, and I asked what I owed them. They told me I didn’t need what I said I needed and charged me for a completely different repair. Obviously, two days later, it once again wouldn’t start. So, I bought my own fuel pump and had one of the guys at my body shop put it in.
It made me angry, because they thought they knew more than I did. A lot of shops do this: They put a band-aid on a problem instead of fixing it. I think a lot of people — both women and men — have similar experiences with car repairs. A lot of my clients have had experiences like mine where the shop tells them they need more than they think they do, and it becomes too much of a guessing game. And then they’ll just agree to it, even if it’s not the repair they need.
And what is the overarching mission of the Women’s Automotive Connection?
Primarily we’re here to assist people in buying, selling and repairing vehicles. But we want to educate. We do automotive boot camps. And I have a weekly podcast called “Garage Gab.” I educate women and the public on the games people play when they try to, as I call it, “relieve you of your money.” And I don’t mind spending money if it’s necessary, but if someone is ripping me off, I’m going to get upset.
I have a lot of fun at the boot camps, and think it’s amazing the questions people ask. There are a lot of basic things people don’t know about vehicles. Once they learn them, they are capable and competent and able to deal with the automotive industry without being taken advantage of.
I think the whole country realizes there is a lot of game-playing going on in the auto industry, whether related to buying or repairing. The honest brokers get upset because the whole industry gets a bad name thanks to those who are dishonest. I want to educate people about the process, but also find honest repair shops I can refer my clients to so they know it will be done right the first time and that someone will take responsibility for the work they do.
And which types of services do you offer your customers?
It varies. I offer consultations to clients over the phone to help them get to the right shop. I also do some brokering to connect people to the right car for them. As mentioned, I also offer educational automotive boot camps and do the weekly car repair podcast.
Everything I do is about giving people the education they need to find honest mechanical shops and brokers. In terms of figuring out who is honest, I have my ways. One of the things I will tell people who call from other cities for help with choosing a shop is to go to that shop, get an oil change and sit in the waiting room to see how customers are treated. I think people are afraid to challenge a mechanic or technician. They automatically think the mechanic knows more than they know. But customers who educate themselves often know as much as any mechanic.
Have you found that a lot of your customers come in with similar issues? What are some of the most common ones?
The biggest issue on new cars that really bothers people is the “check engine” light. That light has nothing to do with your engine and everything to do with your emissions. People see that light on the dash and panic. Then they go to a mechanic and pay a lot of money for something they probably didn’t need. The light might just mean something simple — like they didn’t tighten their gas cap.
Have you attracted male customers too?
A lot of men come to me. I’ve been involved in the Chamber of Commerce for a while now and know a lot of the men there who have become customers. They realize they don’t know a lot about modern cars either. Cars today are basically rolling computers. It’s funny in a way, because the men who come to me as customers would rather ask me for help than admit to another man that they don’t know the answer. I’ve been able to get so many male customers because the ones I help become big fans of mine and then tell their other friends.
I would say the ratio of male to female clients is probably 50/50. That’s not what I intended, but it’s what ended up happening. Actually, I’ve learned that guys get treated the same way women get treated when they go in for repairs or to buy cars.
Have you discovered specific entrepreneurial challenges related to starting a business after age 60 that younger entrepreneurs might not face?
It’s hard to say, because I didn’t start a business when I was younger. But I find that my age has actually been a help to me. At my age, people look at me and understand I have experience. I don’t know that someone much younger starting a business like this would have the same credibility. Sometimes this gray hair I have is a sign of experience and maybe a little wisdom. And that works in my favor.
In general, I don’t think there have been any real challenges that I couldn’t overcome. My biggest challenge was getting people to understand what I did. But the uniqueness of it has given me some extra visibility that the rest of the world doesn’t have.
When people get older, their focus changes from “I want everything” to “I want to see how I can help other people.” A lot of people I know who are running businesses over 50 or 60 really are there to try to help other people.