By Cheryl McMullen, contributing writer
Audra Fordin, the fourth-generation owner of Great Bear Auto Repair and Auto Body Shop, in Flushing, NY, is known as “Mrs. Fix It.”
“Some were born with a silver spoon, I was born with a lug wrench in my mouth,” said Fordin, who also serves as an Underhood Service advisory board member.
Founded in 1933, the shop has been in the family, and, in the same location, for 80 years.
Like many owners in the business, Fordin learned about car repair as a child spending her weekends and vacation days taking it all in at the shop, then run by her father, Bill Fordin. “When I was small, I was fortunate to work with both my dad and my grandpa. I learned from the best, first hand,” she said.
In fact, under Fordin’s care since 2007, the key is still service. And service is much the same now as it was back then.
“We are a small, community-based, mom and pop correction daughter and pop auto repair shop,” she said.
“What I like best is it’s the same as it was 80 years ago when my great-grandfather and grandfather started our family business, Great Bear. It’s the people and the service aspect that fuels me on a daily basis.
“People are people, and they are the same today as they were when I was a kid. There is a huge misconception that auto repair is a sales business. That is way wrong. It is about service.”
Repairs are the nature of the beast, she said, and the shop gets more customers by taking care of people and their auto service needs.
But the changes she’s made, also, are clear.
“Since I took over, I have revolutionized the business by bringing it up to date, and listening to my neighbors’ wants and needs,” she said.
In fact, in 2008, as the auto industry took a hit, many shops were going out of business. Great Bear felt the impact and Fordin came up with a solution to stay afloat in trying times.
That’s when Women Auto Know was born.
It’s a free membership website based on “The Pledge” that takes the fear out of auto repair. “Through education, community feedback and peer-to-peer support, Women Auto Know provides women everywhere with the confidence they need to save money and increase their automobile’s performance,” said Fordin.
“Now, auto shops across the country are taking ‘The Pledge’ to transparency,” she added, “letting our members know they take the responsibility of car repair seriously. Our members become their customers.”
Still, Fordin says, the biggest challenge facing the shop is educating consumers. Misleading advertising and a general lack of accessible information can reflect negatively on the entire repair industry.
“I have seen and can understand why people have untrusting instincts when they seek service,” Fordin said. “They feel slighted, scammed, not sure what they bought or if they even got what they bought if they needed it. What’s up with that? There’s no good reason for it. At least not one that I can understand.”
It was this mistrust of the industry that lead Fordin to change her motto and her philosophy of doing business to “tell, not sell.”
For the past three years, Fordin has taken the motto everywhere from the shop, to the Girl Scouts, to the air waves with free monthly workshops also called “What Women Auto Know,” teaching hundreds of women how to change a tire and fix a tail light (see photo to the right). This leadership has brought new customers, helping Great Bear stay the course during the tough economy.
“By tuning into the consumers’ wants and needs, by actually listening to what concerns they have, I have revived my family business and nearly tripled sales.”
She also offers car repair tips on Verizon Fios TV Channel 1 and on the Auto Lab, a call-in radio show streaming throughout the web on “the Auto Channel” and broadcast in the tri-state area.
Fordin’s philosophy has brought Great Bear some well-deserved recognition both in and out of the industry. In July 2011, Fordin was awarded the 2011 New York City Neighborhood Achievement Award for Small Business of the Year. The award, presented by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (see photo below), honors businesses that demonstrate excellence in enhancing NYC neighborhoods by fostering economic opportunity.
That same year, the Women’s Board of the Car Care Council also recognized Fordin as the first recipient of the Female Auto Shop Owner of the Year award.
In addition to the awards, Fordin’s been featured on “The Today Show,” “Anderson Cooper” and other popular shows.
“All of the recognition I have gotten over the past few years has confirmed that there is a tremendous need for change in the auto repair industry,” she said. “I don’t get an excited feeling. It’s more like a feeling of strength in my stride to keep pushing this movement forward.”
What keeps Fordin coming back to the shop each day?
“I just love it,” she said. “Demystifying the car is beautiful thing. Watching the light bulb ‘turn on’ for drivers, empowering them to have confidence in their cars is very gratifying for me.”
Fordin says there’s nothing she’d rather do. “It’s about quality of life, right? Well, this is the road I am happiest traveling on.”
One more challenge facing the industry today is finding qualified technicians, Fordin says.
If there was one thing she’d want to say to a young tech starting out, it’s that there’s a lot of money in the auto repair industry. “The evolution and revolution of the auto industry has gone from mechanical to technical and today’s techs are IT people,” she said, adding techs today need to read scanners and decipher codes to troubleshoot electrical wiring and sensors.
“We are like doctors. There is no more old stereotype that it’s a job for a high school dropout with dirty hands and that it’s a man’s job.”
In fact, continuing education is a must at Great Bear. The shop has 11 bays and five techs. “We’ve grown and transformed by keeping up with the new technologies of today’s car by bi-annual certification updates and mandatory, ongoing training.”
Shop employees keep up with the latest in the industry on the tech side. “Computers, scanners, lasers, hi-tech equipment and software updates have kept us up to date with new cars that come in for service,” Fordin said. With new cars and technology in mind, Great Bear carries parts for fixes and repairs for hybrids and electric cars, and is in the process of getting a charging station on site. Great Bear is the first certified hybrid service station in Queens.
As for the fate of the family-owned business, Fordin and her husband for 15 years, Ed, have three children Samantha, 12, Olivia, 10, and Andrew, 6, (see photo to the right) who may one day choose to carry the torch.
“Children of a family-owned business are born into it. So, if my legacy is one they want to follow, that will be great,” Fordin said. “They certainly hear me ‘talking car,’ understand the lingo and come to work with me all the time, just like I did when I was a kid.
“As a parent,” she said, “I only want my children to be happy.”