Jessica Gilbank is standing within the undecorated and somewhat dowdy second floor of her downtown Toronto auto shop. She’s quick to apologize, pointing out this area is still a work in progress.
What is to occupy this space in the months ahead? A storage room? A back office? Nope. An art gallery, yoga studio, and a classroom for teaching consumers basic automotive maintenance is scheduled to be unveiled by year’s end.
Jessica Gilbank isn’t your typical auto repair shop owner and technician. Then again, Ms Lube by Mechanchik isn’t your garden variety garage. In fact, Gilbank’s four techs are all “Mechanchiks” as she likes to call them, making Ms Lube the world’s only all-female auto shop.
How did a nice girl like Gilbank end up in a place like this? She never set out to become a technician. But the fickle finger of fate intervened… along with a wonky Chrysler K-car.
While commuting in the mid-’90s behind the wheel of an old K-car, Gilbank says she constantly found herself being taken advantage of by auto repair shops. Indeed, whenever her not-so-reliable Reliant required repairs, she was frequently spoken to in a condescending fashion, which she believes was due to her gender.
The “last straw” for Gilbank was the day her car needed a new muffler. She was instead told she required an entire exhaust system.
“The technician shows me the drain hole and says, ‘Look at this pinhole – this is why you need a new exhaust,’” she says. “I couldn’t believe it. I ended up replacing the muffler myself.”
While that self-rendered repair job wasn’t a thing of beauty, the penny dropped for Gilbank regarding a future career possibility. Gilbank had always been good with her hands – when younger, she frequently took apart and re-assembled lawnmowers. Why not learn how to fix cars properly?
“I also came to the realization that other women probably felt the same way I did about getting their cars fixed,” she says. “A female-friendly shop could end up being a great business opportunity.
The University of Western Ontario grad (business and politics) resigned from the Bay Street communications company she was working at and took a technician course at Durham College in 1998.
“Being the only female student was… interesting,” she says. “One-third of the guys wanted to date me; one-third wanted me to be like a sister that they could confide in; and one-third basically wanted me to be their mother.”
In spite of the distractions, Gilbank graduated with honors and ended up apprenticing at a Toronto Thruway Muffler shop.
“The owner totally expected me to fail,” she says.
Instead, Gilbank excelled.
“The business was doing $1.6 million a year with 12 bays and eight techs – but it was all handwritten at the time and I wanted to get it computerized,” she says. “After that job [computerization] was done, I told him I’m either on the floor or out the door. He gave me big jobs to do like engine transplants. I think he was expecting me to screw up so I’d end up going behind the counter again. But I didn’t screw up.”
In fact, Gilbank became the shop’s emissions specialist, eventually managing the shop in the owner’s absence after he took ill.
Working in an all-male environment was also – to use Gilbank’s descriptor – “interesting.”
“As a female tech working with male techs, I can tell you that 80% of the time you’re dealing with nonsense in the shop,” she says. “I don’t want to come across as some raving feminist – and I’ve worked with a lot of great male techs who were professional and fantastic – but in many cases, you’re listening to crazy sexist stuff, especially if a good-looking female customer walks into the shop. As a woman, to constantly suck this stuff up, it’s exhausting. It’s just so much white noise.”
After five years, she left Thruway Muffler upon snagging a gig at Mercedes-Benz Canada.
“If you’re a tech and you get to work at Mercedes-Benz, that’s the shit,” she says.
But her goal was always to open her own facility. And earlier this year, the thirtysomething Gilbank realized her dream by opening a 4,000-sq.-ft. shop in downtown Toronto. The garage features three service bays and a motorcycle hoist. And, of course, an all-female staff.
“I think women, by nature, are more communicative,” she says.
Gilbank has also used her business and political smarts when it came to branding. Ironically, Gilbank now harnesses her sexuality to her advantage. In order to stand out from her competitors, she has positioned her shop with a combination of humor and sex appeal. For starters, there’s the name, Ms Lube, and the slogan, “Not just oil changes – it’s full service.”
“We get people all the time asking if this is a sex shop,” she says with an infectious laugh.
As well, Gilbank – at considerable cost – commissioned famous pinup artist Robert Rodriguez to create several sexy posters bearing her likeness.
“I had to get him to tone down the original drafts a bit,” she says with a wince. “The first drafts were just waaay too over the top.”
There’s also a smattering of cheeky street signs around Ms Lube’s lot, One billboard states: “We’re just girls who love horses (preferably, 500 under the hood!)” Another placard notes: “We accept Visa, MasterCard, Amex, cash, Prada, flowers, diamonds, chocolates, Chanel, fuel.”
Much to Gilbank’s surprise and delight, some customers have taken the suggestion literally: Gilbank and staff have been showered with gifts ranging from cookies and sweets to homemade gourmet lasagna. Indeed, Gilbank says the reaction to her shop has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Males are so thankful to deal with us,” she says “I think there’s an expectation that guys should be mechanically-inclined just because they’re guys. We constantly hear comments from men saying this is the one shop they’ve dealt with where they didn’t feel emasculated when it came to asking mechanical questions.”
Women – who make up 40% of the client base – also rave about Ms Lube. “The typical comment we get from females is they feel great about walking into a clean auto shop without 100 eyeballs ogling them.”
Indeed, customer Jenn Hobbes, who pulled into the Ms Lube lot behind the wheel of her cobalt blue ’71 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, is very clear as to why she chose Ms Lube.
“Because it’s called ‘Ms Lube,’” she says matter-of-factly. “I like the idea of going to a woman for a repair job because another woman isn’t going look down on me.”
Hobbes says her experiences with male-run shops have been “intimidating… I once asked a male mechanic what was wrong with my car, and he said, ‘That-and-that-and-that.’ I didn’t understand all the jargon he was using, so I asked him again. He looked at me like I was an idiot and said, ‘I just told you what’s wrong!’”
Gilbank also believes women technicians are less likely to take shortcuts on repair jobs.
“We do it the right way – which isn’t always the fastest way or the most macho way. But we don’t cut corners – we go by the book,” she says, noting her goal is to have the shop earning $1 million by the third year.
Gilbank’s advice for other women who are contemplating breaking into a blue-collar, male-dominated industry?
“Don’t go into the shop with a chip on your shoulder as though you’re somehow better than everyone else. And don’t do the ‘I’m-a-poor-little-weak-girl’ act to get the guys to help you with the tough jobs,” she says. “Just do your work. And prove you can get the job done.”