x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Female-only garage taking on male mechanics

Jessica Gilbank started Ms Lube in Toronto to help female mechanics escape from the male dominated industry, but finds the customers come from both sides of the gender line.

Jessica Gilbert, the owner of Ms Lube, trained in the small Toronto-area garages, working her way to Volvo and Mercedes-Benz specialists, before striking out on her own with her all-female shop.
Jessica Gilbert, the owner of Ms Lube, trained in the small Toronto-area garages, working her way to Volvo and Mercedes-Benz specialists, before striking out on her own with her all-female shop.

The UAE is a country that, in many ways, is very friendly to the female pursuasion. Women-only taxis in Abu Dhabi offer privacy and safety, while women-only queues at banks and post offices are convenient and time-saving. Women even have their own coaches on the Dubai Metro. But in a culture that worships the car, it's somewhat surprising that there aren't more services such as dealerships and garages that cater to women. It seems an area ripe for the kind of service garage started up by Jessica Gilbank in Toronto, Canada.

Gilbank is owner and head mechanic at Ms Lube by Mechanchik garage. While its clientele includes both men and women, the garage is staffed only by female mechanics. Gilbank has built her all-women garage on the principles of the 1950s - honesty and customer service - after being asked to participate on a Canadian reality TV show, Dragon's Den, to try and get funding for her specialist business idea.

But before Gilbank trained as a mechanic and appeared on television, she was an unhappy woman with an office job in Toronto's financial district. "I didn't like what I was doing because it wasn't making a difference," she says, so when she was 25, she decided to drop the briefcase and skirt suit and pick up a wrench and coveralls. "I figured I had nothing to lose," she says about her decision to take courses to become a certified mechanic. "If I didn't like it, at least I would know more about cars."

Gilbank started as a mechanic in small Toronto-area garages, eventually working her way up to a Volvo shop and later working at Mercedes-Benz. After years of doing apprenticeships and working in male-dominated garage environments, Gilbank grew tired of the gender politics and says it distracted her from her job. "I was always defending myself in male-run shops," she says, adding that she didn't like being an employee anyway, so there was only one option.

"Opening an all-girl shop was an afterthought. I just wanted my own space. It isn't about crazy feminism at all. It's just about trying to do a good job in an environment that's comfortable." With dark grease smudges marking her freckled skin and the top of her red coveralls tied around her hips, Gilbank says opening the shop made sense to her when she saw how women would get discouraged by the men in shops, get overwhelmed and quit. "All they wanted was to fix cars without the politics," she says. "Just seeing how hard it was for girls to get into the trade, I thought all we needed was a space where we could be comfortable."

Gilbank, 37, also thought women drivers would be more comfortable dealing with women mechanics, but when she first opened her shop, her customers were about 85 per cent male. "I was fascinated that it was mainly men. It was interesting sometimes, being an all-girl establishment, how difficult it was to get female support," she says. "I think some girls still think it's a man's job." But Gilbank's simple intentions got turned into something much more complicated when she was asked by a producer to be on Dragon's Den, a Canadian TV show where hopeful entrepreneurs try to strike business deals with wealthy investors. She's being sued by Mr Lube - a nationwide chain of garages partially owned by an investor panelist on Dragon's Den - which alleges she is piggybacking on Mr Lube's success and damaging its image.

Ms. Gilbank says she understands that a large corporation has to protect its image, but she feels going after such a small business that has honest intentions is "petty" and on principle, she says she won't back down until the money runs out. Luckily, business is brisk, and both employees and customers are happy to have an alternative to the male-only garage. Barry Brown, a client of Ms Lube, says the women there should not be underestimated. "People think women should not be working on machines, but that's ridiculous," he says. "These women are entirely competent; more so than a lot of the male mechanics I've dealt with."

Erica Reed, who used to work at another garage before becoming an apprentice at Ms. Lube, agrees it's more comfortable in the all-women garage, but as a new, young mechanic, guys and girls alike aren't immune to the slack they get for being new to the job. "You were treated like a newbie," she says. "Girls will get treated as a newbie the same way a guy would, but sometimes it gets out of hand when you're a girl."

Reed says she's stronger from her time at the other shop, but she's learning much more being at Ms Lube. "I absolutely love it here. I've been learning so much," she says, adding that she recently worked on an old Porsche 944, which was a new experience for her. "The atmosphere is different. It's much more positive." Gilbank says she got a lot of support for the idea of an all-female shop, but was told the timing was wrong because the recession was still in full force. "Everyone thought I was crazy for opening a business when I did. The economy sucked, but that doesn't stop cars from breaking down," she says.

"We're a boutique garage. We have a good niche," she says. "It's specific and it has a certain feel. It's branded, the music's on, the girls are having fun, the cars are getting fixed and you're not customer number 12345, you have a name." Knowing her customers by name is why Gilbank says she doesn't want to expand beyond a couple more shops in the future. "You could lose sight of the importance of developing customer relationships."

Besides getting her hands dirty on all the cars she gets to work on, Gilbank just likes talking to her clients. "Everyone has such interesting stories. People want to tell you about themselves," she says. "And that's one thing I love about the business." To make sure her patrons get this emphasis on customer service, Ms Gilbank has some vintage branding: The company car is a retro white 1954 pickup truck and the logo is a curvy pinup girl in blue coveralls and high heels. "When I think about when people were treated with respect and got really good customer service, I think about the 1950s."

She says the pinup girl is a jab at the centerfold girls often found in male garages in North America. "We don't hide that we're girls. We have strength and power, but we're also beautiful and we embrace it. The mood here is fun and light." Although Ms Lube fixes all types of cars, the vintage ones are Gilbank's favourites. "They're the reason I do what I do," she says, noting that her personal car is a 1973 Buick Riviera. Among the Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics getting serviced in the shop, there is also a vintage red Maseratti Spyder and a cream-coloured 1965 Mercedes 230 SL roadster with parts strewn about its Spartan interior.

Perhaps Gilbank's tattoo explains the philosophy behind her business best. Two years into her apprenticeship program, she got Rosie the Riveter defiantly holding a wrench inked on her shoulder blade. Rosie became a popular symbol for women who did men's jobs in factories while their husbands were fighting in the Second World War. Gilbank says, like Rosie, her business isn't about proving that women are better at the job than men are. She just wants people to realize they're just as capable.

"It's not a boys against the girls thing. It's not a gender war. We just want a place to be ourselves and do things the way we want to in a comfortable environment," she says. "It's not a revolution. It's just a movement towards change. I just want to fix cars."