Shop Strategies: All-Female Body Shop Encourages Next Generation of Auto Body Techs

all female body shop
(L to R) Audrey Batson, Lindsay Tadros, Emily Noack, Hilary Noack, Alexandra Chiarore, Olivia DiGianfelice and Kimberly Diem Hanh Cao

When Hilary Noack was a teenager, she noticed a flier about a festival in Long Beach, CA, called Ink-N-Iron. At the time, it featured old custom cars, tattoos and music.

“I thought to myself, ‘This embodies everything that I want my body shop to be someday,’” she recalled. “I’m going to name it Ink&Iron.”

Fast-forward 12 years later, and Noack now operates Ink&Iron body shop in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, which focuses on restorations and minor collision repair work. One of the unique features of her business is that it is owned and operated by women. Plans are in place to expand to other locations in Canada and the United States with the first opening in Detroit, MI, in 2019.

Autobody News talked to Noack about her body shop and how she encourages co-op students and apprentices to learn the trade.

Q: Can you share how you started in the auto body industry?

A: I remember hanging around my dad when I was growing up while he was working on cars and tuning them up. I wanted to buy a car when I was 17 years old, and the only one I could afford was a 1970 Oldsmobile. It was pretty rusty, and I wanted to learn how to repair it. There was a body shop nearby where my parents lived, and I asked if I could work there as a co-op student during my last year of high school. They said yes, and I thought it sounded so cool.

From there, I transitioned straight into an apprenticeship program at Centennial College in their automotive division. I began working at 427 Auto Collision, one of the largest body shops in North America, after completing the third and final level of my schooling for the apprentice program.

Q: How did you decide to open your shop and employ only women?

A: I have known that I wanted to open my own shop since I started in the trade, but I knew it would need to be unique in order to stand out from the crowd. It was definitely a goal of mine. When I first started at 427 Auto Collision, I was the only female in the workplace. I was also the only female through all three levels of my schooling.

By the time I left the body shop, about a decade later, there were about eight of us. I met some awesome girls and watched them go through the apprenticeship program there. I also taught a night school course in auto body repair at Centennial College. Later, I taught the auto body apprenticeship full-time during one semester prior to opening my shop.

I thought I should start a shop that was all-female and use it as a way to encourage more women to join the trade and set a positive example that women can do it. There was no reason why I couldn’t. Seeing what amazing work they did, how they had to work twice as hard for half the respect and hearing their individual stories of discrimination and how they overcame it was my motivation. I wanted to provide a safe, judgment-free work environment where we could all learn from each other as well as train the next generation of female techs.

I opened Ink&Iron in April 2015. I now have an apprentice, a licensed technician and a co-op student who is getting high school credit for helping at the shop.

Q: What are your expansion plans?

A: Currently, I am operating one location, but I would like to see my business grow to include more locations in different cities. My goal is to have Ink&Iron locations all across North America! I often get told by girls that they wish there were something similar to what I own where they lived and that they would love to work in a place like this.

I like being able to give co-op students and apprentices the experience to work in a shop and teach the skills they need. I think this gives them the confidence to be able to go out into this industry and feel like they belong and have a right to be here.

I’m excited to open a location in the Motor City of Detroit next year. My husband, Dan Fournier, is from Detroit, and it’s a really cool city.

Q: What are some of the challenges of operating an all-female shop?

A: I definitely think you get the typical stereotypes and people crying that it’s sexist and women belong in the kitchen, or they bet there are just men who work here and the business is a front for something.

Q: What do you enjoy most about running your body shop?

A: I think it is the ability to do my own thing and plan my schedule. One of the reasons I wanted to be an entrepreneur is the freedom. It’s Monday morning and I’m excited to go to work. I’m here seven days a week, and I’m working on cars that I want to focus on. I love doing this type of work, and I have a good customer base.

My job is fun. I absolutely love what I do, which is to provide a place that is a good environment to teach women and encourage the next generation. We’re friends here as well, and we’re all really close. It’s a positive workplace.

Q: What is your advice to other shops who are dealing with a shortage of techs in the industry?

A: I absolutely agree that there is a shortage of techs. It’s the same up here in Canada too. Everyone is dying for skilled labor, but at the same time, I know a lot of techs either who have zero industry experience or who have maybe taken a course, and no one will hire them. I think that employers need to take on a co-op student or an apprentice. The apprentice programs offer many benefits. As an apprentice, you are getting paid as if you were a regular employee. There is an awesome incentive in grant money and they often offer grants to the employers too.

I know it’s hard because this industry is so fast-paced; you need to get the car done quickly, but people need to take the time to train the next generation. So many people are retiring out of the trade; you have to put that investment into training people.

Q: What is the benefit of using social media to promote your body shop?

A: In this day and age, everything is very much going digital, and I think social media is a great tool. We currently have over 6,000 followers on our Facebook page. I found you have to be consistent when using social media and try to post something every couple of days. It’s a great way to share your work and message.

It’s also very visual. People love to see pictures of what you are doing. YouTube is also a great tool to use. I’m planning to make more videos of the repair process. I would love to take a build and film it from start to finish to give people an idea about how the process works. I think this will help educate our customers.

Q: What is one of your biggest challenges at Ink&Iron?

A: One of our challenges is getting people to realize how much it costs to either repair or paint a car. People don’t understand the investment in materials or how much it costs. Sometimes, I have people who come by with the whole side of their car totaled and they ask if they can wait while it is being fixed. I find that we often need to educate customers on the repair process and why it costs so much.

Stacey Phillips Ronak

Stacey Phillips Ronak is an award-winning writer for the automotive industry and a regular columnist for Autobody News based in Southern California.

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