Jennifer Riach is the owner of MECA Car Services, an independent car repair garage based in Exeter, Devon. Members of the Good Garage Scheme and Foxy Choice, the name MECA stands for “Mechanical Engineering, Care Assured”. As well as receiving Employer of the Year awards from the Federation of Small Businesses and local engineering college, Jennifer met Prime Minister David Cameron when he visited her garage in 2010.
“…I have no doubt that it is women who are the discerning shoppers, where we know what we want, expect good value for money, and will go elsewhere if not satisfied. We are the main decision makers in most family households, so by getting our customer services at MECA right for us girls MECA automatically provides a higher standard to men too…”
Jennifer – we found your website and we immediately loved your ethos. Please can you tell us about your career to date and what made you want to take over MECA in 2007?
My career started at the age of 11 in the hotel industry, following in my late father’s footsteps. I then joined HM Prison Service in the later eighties, where I remained until 2001 when I transferred to the Home Office.
During my career path I gained experience and qualifications in hotel management & institutional operations, accountancy, HR management and internal auditing – it was this business background that enabled me to assist some friends a few years ago who were starting their own garage business in Hampshire. I became so interested in the industry, particularly from a woman’s perspective, that I eventually became a partner.
In 2007 I needed to move back to Devon permanently to care for my terminally ill mother. Due to my seniority in the Home Office, a job transfer to Devon wasn’t an option so I took a deep breath, packed in my career, and was fortunate enough to find MECA Car Services. The previous owners were retiring and I just knew immediately that it was a business with a great customer ethos that I could continue to build on. That was nearly eight years ago.
What is your role in the business day to day?
As Exeter’s only lady owned awarding winning garage it is important that I am at the heart of my business, with a finger in most pies on a day-to-day basis. This way, my customers get to know me, my suppliers understand me, and my staff respect me.
I am fortunate to have a workshop manager and office support that affords me some time to concentrate on marketing my business to gain new business. I am quite proud of recent radio commercials I’ve produced for local radio, based on old TV ads such as Marks and Spencer Food and Fry’s Turkish Delight, but with a garage twist. Their planning stage even led me into the path of Jeff Wayne (War of the Worlds) who I’d approached to use his music!
How are the most forward thinking garages catering to the requirements of their female clients and why are female drivers such a significant market?
I don’t think many garages are as female-friendly as they’d like to think they are. It takes a lot more than merely employing a female member on reception. Whilst I regard myself quite extrovert, I can still be intimidated by the look of a place or by the way I’m spoken to. I never want MECA to be like that. I am a customer too and will always try to provide the same standard of customer service in my business that I would expect to receive myself.
I have no doubt that it is women who are the discerning shoppers, where we know what we want, expect good value for money, and will go elsewhere if not satisfied. We are the main decision makers in most family households, so by getting our customer services at MECA right for us girls we automatically provide a higher standard to men too.
We also feature Steph Savill, founder of FOXY Lady Drivers Club, in this edition. Why are schemes like this so important?
Yes, I know Steph … isn’t FOXY such a fabulous name?! We have been a member with them for a number of years now, as well as with the Good Garage Scheme. Both are independent motoring organisations that not only audit us on compliance with their code of conduct and standard of service, but they also allow our customers to independently review us, therefore giving other potential customers the confidence to use us.
Please can you tell us about when David Cameron paid you visit?! What were the topics of conversation?
Gosh that was back in 2010, David Cameron’s first term as our Prime Minister, I think. He had a private meeting in a nearby town and had heard about this lady garage owner in Devon who’d won awards, employed apprentices, and was due to climb Mount Kilimanjaro for charity. So his Office set up a visit, giving me less than 24 hours’ notice!
My blog tells the whole story, which is quite a funny read actually, but the main topics of conversation focused on apprenticeships and my Mount Kili climb. You’ll know that he and his wife lost their first child, so the Sparks children’s medical charity was very dear to his heart. Mind you, he had to borrow some money from one of his entourage when I rattled the charity tin in front of him for a donation!
What are the greatest challenges you’ve faced as a woman in the industry?
The biggest challenge by far has to have been my survival though the recession, having only just bought the business a few months prior to the financial crash. I’d just taken on the unit next door as part of my expansion plans and had taken on an additional mechanic. I remember sitting at my desk listening to the news on the radio covering the financial crisis, and thinking; “This is going to be a long one!”, then throwing my business plan over my shoulder (literally!), and writing a new one on business survival.
I don’t think being a woman made the last seven-year struggle more challenging though. If anything, it probably gave me an advantage over my competitors, due to the local media interest in a lady garage owner. Having worked most of my career in male environments has also helped me to hold my own of course.
What is your advice for women who want to get into careers in car repair / maintenance?
It would be the same advice I’d give to men and women. Knock on doors until you can get some work experience and make sure it is something you really want to do. Then sign up for an apprenticeship programme to get qualified – and stick at it! I hear about lots of trainee mechanics who drop out by their second year, mostly due to the low apprenticeship pay (and immature attitudes of some).
Forward thinking, female-friendly garages would be foolish not to snap a woman up as their apprentice! In any case, whether it ends up being an established career for a woman or not, knowing how to fix your car will always stand you in good stead, save on the purse strings, and impress your friends!
What is next for you and MECA?
Well, I might see where I threw that old business plan all those years ago, dust it off and see where it takes us…