Lydia Ertle knew little about transmissions before buying Toledo's Cottman Transmission Centers franchise in 1998 and entering a traditionally male-dominated industry.
One thing involving them the former insurance underwriter did know: She never wanted customers treated as she was when the transmission in her 1995 Chevrolet Lumina failed and a dealership shanghaied it for six weeks. That knowledge has helped more than double sales. The Airport Highway store's employees are trained to start with the basics when answering questions and not treat customers as if they were stupid.
Ms. Ertle, president of Mechanical Woman, Inc., and owner of the transmission shop franchise, said Cottman trained her to manage the store. As for the rest, Ms. Ertle surrounded herself with knowledgeable employees and picked up information through the years, she said.
“That's one of the things I learned in my classes: You hire people who know more than you,” said Ms. Ertle, who admitted some customers are surprised that a woman owns the store. “Of course, they all think I'm a secretary right away,” she said.
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Under Ms. Ertle's ownership, the local Cottman franchise has moved up from No. 15 in the chain to No. 3, with annual sales increasing from around $700,000 to an estimated $1.5 million this year. Mechanical Woman, meanwhile, may start a second Cottman store in the northern Toledo metropolitan area within a year, she said.
Ms. Ertle is close to having the second largest of 385 Cottman stores, said Mark DiMuzio, vice president of franchise development for Pennsylvania's Cottman Transmission Systems LLC. “She's done a very strong job for us,” he said. “I wish I had 50 more.”
Early on, Ms. Ertle flew to Mesa, Ariz., to witness operations at the largest Cottman franchise, which has more than $3 million in annual sales, and quickly adopted practices from there, Mr. DiMuzio said. She has embraced the Cottman franchise system and treats both employees and customers with respect, all of which has helped her succeed, he said.
Judy Hartman of Maumee said she was impressed with Ms. Ertle when she had to have transmission work done on her Pontiac Sunfire.
“She was very efficient, and any questions I had, she was right there to answer them,” she said. “She handled everything very well.”
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About 5 percent of Cottman stores are owned by women, including one other in the top five; 15 percent are owned by husband-and-wife teams, Mr. DiMuzio said. Female ownership began growing a half dozen years ago. Now 10 percent of Cottman franchise leads are women, he said.
Though Ms. Ertle has learned much about transmissions by putting the shop's inventory in order and otherwise managing the business, they weren't her passion.
Before buying the store, Ms. Ertle had worked for years in insurance, most recently as an underwriter for business policies, including those for the Cottman store. She had considered operating a small business like a car wash, and when she found out the transmission shop was for sale, she got a loan and suddenly found herself its owner, she said.
“It was an accident,” she said. “One thing just led to another.”
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