High-powered women bosses like Sheryl Sandberg are talking about “leaning in” a lot these days…but, if Sandberg leaned in at Chris Cozad’s business, she’d get her elbows greasy.
The interior of Alternative Auto Care (136 W Fifth Ave.) clamors with the usual racket of any mechanic’s den. Engines roaring, air wrenches firing, the animalistic growls of raw horsepower bouncing off the walls – but, unlike most auto shops, this one is run by a woman. Chris Cozad, a former biology teacher-turned-mechanic, is the owner. All of her mechanics and technicians are also women – and, if the large wall full of awards, write-ups, and accolades is any indication, they’re pretty good at it, too.
“I had an old car when I was in college – always broken – and I had no money,” recalled Cozad. “A 1969 AMC Rebel. I had a friend who was a mechanic and he showed me some basics, and I kept that thing running all those years. Then I did it for a hobby for many years, piddling around on weekends, and such.”
Soon word spread amongst her friends that she was handy under the hood, and with that came requests for her to fix other cars. A busted radiator here, an oil change for someone’s mother there, and soon a steadily growing clientele began to emerge. Working out of her trunk, that weekend hobby soon morphed into a full-on operation, taking on three or four jobs a week.
“That was good until the first winter,” Cozad said. “I rented a one-car residential garage. No heat, no water, but at least I had electricity and a roof.”
She outgrew that space after three years and moved to Harrison West, and later to her current location. Things were booming, because she’d managed to initially nab a niche in the market that she felt was being under-served.
“When I first started, most of my customers were women,” she said. “Women are so traditionally taken advantage of by the automotive industry that there were a lot of women who thought, ‘Thank God I can go to a woman that isn’t going to rip me off.’ But what I discovered over a fairly short period of time was that that wasn’t only unique to women. It happens to guys, too, but guys just don’t talk about it.”
Actually, most of the raised eyebrows Cozad encountered weren’t from the customers. They were from others in the field. One parts supplier even affectionately referred to her as “his lady wrench,” but she said that once they realized she was serious and knew what she was doing, they changed their tune, especially when they ran the numbers on how much money they’d make doing business with her.
“I had the advantage, being the boss,” Cozad said. “I didn’t have problems with employees, because I wasn’t going to hire somebody who wasn’t comfortable with a woman boss. I’ve always been pretty privileged in that regard. I think it would be harder for women to go and work at a mainstream dealership or more traditional shop, because there’s still plenty of sexism in non-traditional jobs. Plus I’m providing a position in this industry for women that’s relatively non-sexist.”
But the code that Cozad swears by is the quality of her team’s work. She credits her fascination with the challenge of the job and a premium on research and education as reasons she’s thrived. She’s an ASE Certified Master Technician and serves as adjunct faculty of Automotive Technology at Columbus State.
She doesn’t simply improve engine quality, she improves the quality of Columbus, too. As the mayor’s LGBT community liaison, board member of the Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization, and a national authority on the impacts of violence directed at the LGBT community, she puts as much work into the lives of those around her as she does the cars she fixes, and paying it forward has paid off, many times over.
“What I’ve always found about Columbus is that there’s an observation that Columbus supports an entrepreneurial spirit – and not always for the right reasons. ‘Oh look, a woman mechanic. That’s cool,’ rather than, ‘There’s Chris, that knows what she’s doing,’ but still there was a willingness to take me seriously and not make assumptions.
“Everybody’s looking for a good repair facility, and an honest repair facility, so word-of-mouth is my best advertising – friends tell friends and neighbors. Columbus is a great community, and that’s the community that are my customers.”
Alternative Auto Care is located at 136 W Fifth Ave. For more, visitwww.alternativeautocare.com.