Girl Power Tools

Pollitt’s can-do approach matches her logo, which evokes Rosie the Riveter

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

girlington garage demeny pollittIn 2009, Demeny Pollitt founded Girlington Garage, a woman-owned and -operated auto repair shop in South Burlington, as a profession that could help her keep from getting bored.

Demeny Pollitt had a hefty decision to make in 2004: Should she enter a four-year college to earn a degree in psychology or opt for the two-year automotive technology program at Vermont Technical College? The two-year program won.

After earning the degree and doing her due diligence, on June 1, 2009, she opened Girlington Garage on Harbor View Road in South Burlington.

That “due diligence” took her three years, but she says she knew before she finished school that she had made the right choice. “I wanted to open my own shop,” she says, “wanted it to be an all-girl garage. I realized I would travel any distance to take my car to a woman and thought most other women would feel the same.”

“Part of her interest is because she had funky old cars and had terrible experiences with shops here in town that prey on college students,” says Donna Cacace, Pollitt’s mother and business partner.

Pollitt had been in Burlington since 2000. A California native, she had moved to Brookline, Mass., with her parents when she was in first grade. She was introduced to Vermont when she was a boarder at The Putney School.

Following graduation in 1997, she decided to delay college and return to California, which had always seemed like home to her. “The town I was born in and lived in was this teeny-tiny hippie town where everybody knew each other,” she says. “I went back and California had grown really fast, and this town was all strip malls and Taco Bells. I realized that Vermont had become my home.”

She returned to Massachusetts and spent a year working at odd jobs — as a nanny for two families, clerking at a local country grocery/convenience store, working farmers’ markets for a local farm — and in 2000, headed to Vermont to join high school friends living in Burlington.

“We were going to live here a while, save money, and travel,” she says. “Only I ended up staying forever.”

She worked a couple of years at Healthy Living, quit to travel “a tiny bit,” then landed a job at Home Base, “a small business that helps to provide independent living situations for people with developmental disabilities.”

“I was living paycheck to paycheck,” Pollitt says. “I had no money — ever. Couldn’t afford my $200 a month rent. I really needed to go back to school for a real career.

“I thought I would need to support a family at some point,” she says. “I get bored so easily and the only things I felt would keep my interest would be psychology and working on cars.” She hesitates before adding, “... which I knew nothing about.”

She had always liked cars, though. “For example, I liked to look at them because they were so cool. I had learned to change my oil once, but that was it.”

Pollitt decided to seek help and contacted Jeannie Lynch, who at the time was running KeyBank’s Key4Women program. She began Mercy Connections’ Women’s Small Business Program, but had to drop out due to personal reasons, she says. Lynch urged her to take the program a second time, and finish it.

“I wrote most of my business plan,” she says, “spent about two years trying to get it right. Jeannie said, ‘Well, being a mechanic is not the only part of running a shop. Why don’t you get a job as a service writer at Berlin City. I happen to know the service manager there.’”

Lynch did her another favor and sent her to Montpelier to meet Amy Mattinat, the owner of Auto Craftsmen. “Amy has been my mentor from the beginning,” says Pollitt. “She was absolutely necessary in my being able to write a business plan and know what to expect when opening my business. She opened her books to me.”

Mattinat claims to have motor oil in her blood. “I grew up outside of the Youngstown-Akron-Cleveland, Ohio, area. My boyfriends were all motor-heads; my first husband was a mechanic. We opened our first shop together.” She started working at Auto Craftsmen 18 years ago, eventually became a partner, and four years ago, bought her partner out.

“There’s not a lot of us women in the automotive industry,” she says, “so when any young woman comes to me who wants to get into the industry or have her own shop, then what a hot little ticket! And I am all about anything I can do to help them.”

Mattinat is on the women’s board of the Car Care Council, a national organization of professionals in the automotive aftermarket dedicated to providing career leadership to women in the industry, providing car care information to female audiences, and encouraging young people to investigate opportunities in the automotive aftermarket.

“Demeny came in with the theory of owning a shop,” says Mattinat. “I looked at it and said, ‘This is a great beginning. Now go get a job as a service writer somewhere.’ She did. Then she came back and I said, ‘Now you need to know how to do parts.’ Demeny was a dream student, because she took notes on everything I said, and then she did it.”

Pollitt was hired by Berlin City and spent the next two years at “probably the worst job I’d ever had, but absolutely the most important thing I ever did to start my own business. I learned so much there.”

Enter Doug Remsen, the sales manager at Burlington Foreign Car Parts. “Doug got hold of me before I left Berlin City,” says Pollitt, “because he had heard I was thinking about opening a shop.”

“He took her seriously,” says Cacace, who notes that this is not the norm when women talk about getting into the business.

“We have an ongoing joke about the fact that I like to pretend her shop is mine,” says Remsen, who is her primary vendor for the items she needs to repair the cars.

As part of his job, Remsen is in shops all over Vermont, New Hampshire, and upstate New York, and brings information to Pollitt about creative practices in other shops. “I’m not going to tell her what the guy down the street is doing,” he says, “because that’s my customer also. But if I have a shop in White River Junction, I can say to Demeny, ‘OK, this is what you need to do,’ and she has been really good about listening to that.”

In the fall of 2008, Pollitt invited her mother to move to Burlington to help her get things together. “She was in a transition period in her life, and it seemed perfect,” says Pollitt. “I thought she was going to be a support person, maybe working in the shop a day or two a week, and the day she moved up was the day the market collapsed and the whole world fell apart.”

Pollitt had expected to make her mother a 10 percent partner. “A year after we opened, she was 40 and I was 60,” she says.

Her dream of hiring only women had to be adjusted when she encountered the reality that there were only four or five women working on cars in Vermont. “I was a really good technician, but slow,” says Pollitt, “and realized I would be of much more use if I continued to do the service writing, customer service, and running the front end, and hiring guys who were faster to work as technicians.”

The plan was one technician, five bays, and no lifts, then get lifts five years down the line. But within six months, business was so good, they realized they needed two lifts immediately.

Finding good technicians was tough, “because there are so few good technicians, and they know they’re in high demand,” Pollitt says. “I had a friend from Vermont Tech — an incredible technician — who moved here and he helped build the shop and build up our reputation.”

After a few months, though, there was conflict, and the relationship ended unhappily. “It took one or two years just struggling to figure out how to move forward and how to be bosses,” she says, adding, “Now we have an amazing team: two really spectacular diagnosticians, a really good B tech (B techs do the mechanical work but not diagnostic; they really hold the shop together), and two people in the office on top of that.” Part-timers — a cleaner and a bookkeeper — round out the staff.

Pollitt lives in Richmond and Cacace recently bought a house there. They have learned that they can’t work together for long periods of time. “It’s really caustic,” says Pollitt. “We communicate really well, but we end up fighting and screaming at each other. About a year ago, we figured out we can work one day together, so we split the week: Donna works Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and I work Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.”

For a long time, Pollitt poured herself into the business. “I used to have a lot of really close friends,” she says. “I don’t have that anymore. I could have walked away and said, ‘I’d rather have my life back,’ but I really love my business.”

Now, on her two days off, Pollitt does a lot of gardening and hiking, and sledding in winter. “I love mushroom hunting. I sew, or like to think about sewing,” she says. “I bought my house about two winters ago, so have so many house projects.

“And now that I have time, I’m rebuilding my friendships.” •