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Women-focused auto shop a reaction to disdainful mechanics

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Mae de la Calzada vividly remembers the question she fielded as guest speaker at a national convention for auto repair industry professionals.

Someone in the audience had asked the owner of LadyParts Automotive Services in Redwood City, Calif., what was so different about the repair shop that she "designed with a woman in mind."

Until then, the focus of the conference had been on how to rake in as much sales revenue as possible.

"I'll tell you one thing I do not do — one thing I don't think works," she told the predominately male audience. "When you date a woman, do you walk up to them and say, 'You better go with me, because I'm the best thing you've ever had?'

"That's what I see — a style to which women do not respond. With a woman, you have to ease your way into it, talk to them, and get them to come to it."

De la Calzada chuckled at the reaction. "That silenced the whole room," she said.

Though she has some doubters — one competitor reportedly told a LadyParts customer that her shop is more style than substance — the rave reviews found online about the business show that de la Calzada has tapped a ripe market.

Today the majority of cars are purchased by women, according to Road and Travel Magazine, and 68 percent of them take their vehicles to repair shops.

Yet despite having so much purchasing power, 89 percent of women who responded to a nationwide survey said repair shops still treat them like second-class citizens, according to the Car Care Council, an industry organization.

In fact, it was just that kind of treatment that set de la Calzada, 33, on her career path. While a student closing in on a business degree at the University of San Francisco five years ago, she had taken her Dodge Stratus to the dealer for a vehicle recall repair.

But $1,000 later, smoke billowed from the engine as she drove away from the shop. She returned with a man who is now her fiance and asked the service manager to show her the repairs made.

"He said 'I don't have time to show you,' " de la Calzada said. "Then he looks at my boyfriend like, 'It's not like she will understand.' "

An entrepreneurship class at USF allowed her to explore her idea about opening an auto shop that caters to women.

Three years ago, LadyParts opened its doors. These days about half her customers are women, de la Calzada said. She has three mechanics — two men and one woman.

LadyParts' approach appeals to both genders, de la Calzada said.

Her employees are trained to take time when talking to customers about their cars and repairs. De la Calzada discourages the team from being "too technical" or dominating the discussion.

"I really emphasize the listening," she said.

Redwood City resident Lorri Lee Lown, 46, said she felt respected when she brought her 2011 Honda Element to Lady-Parts for some routine maintenance.

"I've never had a positive experience at any kind of automotive service provider (before)," she said. "I feel like I should just walk in with my checkbook and let them take whatever they want."

LadyParts also offers free car care clinics, mostly attended by women, that provide an overview of the workings and maintenance needs of a vehicle.

Then there's the waiting room, painted in warm colors with art on the walls, a cushy couch and a children's play area. The reading selection includes Oprah Winfrey's O magazine as well as Men's Health.

"If you're stressed out when you walk in, you feel like it's a space to take care of you," de la Calzada said.