Kim Bonci has always been her own person. Growing up, she rejected typical activities of females her age. Instead, she focused on fixing anything mechanical – especially cars.
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Eight years ago, that passion led to Sarat Ford Lincoln’s collision center. As part-time office assistant and then full-time assistant office manager, Bonci’s experience earned her a promotion last year to manager.
Bonci, 47, is the first-ever female collision center manager for the Agawam, Mass., dealership and its only female department manager. She applied for the position when the previous manager departed after only a year.
“I wanted my shot at being manager,” says Bonci, a Springfield, Mass., native. “I felt I had the experience and could do the job. All the shop technicians supported me and rooted for me to get the job.”
I Can Do It
When Bonci started working at the collision center, she didn’t plan to become the manager. But, as time went on, she assumed more responsibility for work beyond just filing paperwork.
“I thought for a long time I could do the work,” she says. “I was patient and hoped the opportunity would come to me one day.”
Bonci not only did office work, but also performed some of the manager’s work for several years. She talked with appraisers, dealt with insurance companies, helped customers and scheduled service appointments.
Women As Leaders
Molly Brodeur-Nesbitt, past president of the Alliance of Automotive Service Providers – Massachusetts, says Bonci is one of only about two dozen women operators/owners among the nearly 1,700 registered auto body shops in Massachusetts.
“Women should feel welcome and respected – and that has been my experience in spades,” says Brodeur-Nesbitt, president and owner of Al Brodeur’s Auto Body in Marlborough. “With any career path, you have the power to make it or break it. If you want to succeed in this industry, there are no gender barriers. You just have to want to do the work.”
Brodeur-Nesbitt, who took over for her father when he retired in 2018, says that during the past decade, more women have stepped into leadership roles in the collision repair industry.
Women currently represent 10% of the operators/owners at the nation’s body shops, according to a recent national demographic survey by the Women’s Industry Network. The group encourages, develops and cultivates opportunities to attract more women to the collision repair industry.
Bonci’s promotion recognizes her qualifications for a job that has traditionally been dominated by men. Jeff Sarat, general manager of the family-owned dealership started by his grandfather in 1929, says although Bonci didn’t have experience managing an auto body shop, she had many other valuable skills.
“Kim knows every little detail about running the body shop, getting customers in and keeping technicians busy,” says Sarat. “She’s very personable and has good organizational skills. Kim’s not afraid to tackle any job that needs to be done in the shop. I’m very pleased with her work as a manager.”
“I finally got my shot. I feel very proud and slightly empowered that I can encourage other women by getting this position,” says Bonci, who also applied for the position when it became vacant a few years ago.
The Daily Routine
The shop is open five days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Bonci usually arrives early and stays late, putting in close to 50 hours a week.
“I enjoy coming to work,” she says. “I’m always happy to walk in the door every morning to start my day.”
According to Bonci, the shop repairs 600 to 700 vehicles each year. The majority are Sarat customers from its four dealerships – the Ford/Lincoln dealerships in Agawam, Mass., as well as two Ford dealerships in Northampton, Mass., and Enfield, Conn.
Unlike independent shops, Bonci says her shop also must deal with warranty work and unexpected repair requests from the four dealership service departments. Like independent auto body shops, Sarat’s collision center can only charge an hourly rate between $39 and $45 that is set by the Massachusetts insurance industry. Bonci says because this regulation makes it tougher to be profitable, some larger dealership body shops use an “assembly line” approach.
“They make as many repairs as possible in one day with various technicians working on vehicles, but that’s not the way we work. Once a technician’s hands touch a vehicle, he’s responsible for repairs from start to finish. It’s another way we ensure our customers get quality repairs.”
Bonci says a key to the shop’s success is her strong working relationship with the shop’s seven male technicians. “I make myself approachable and respect the work they do. I tell every one of them how much I appreciate their hard work.”
With Ford F-150 and F-250 pickup trucks having all-aluminum bodies and aluminum becoming more prevalent in many vehicles, Bonci says her technicians have become experts at making repairs to aluminum vehicles.
Bonci explains that it’s important to keep aluminum and steel repairs separated to avoid cross contamination. Only aluminum parts and specialty tools can touch aluminum. She says while aluminum doesn’t rust like other metals, it does corrode, forming a white powder. And, just like with other metals, paint won’t stick to corroded areas.
Bonci initially had a career in accounting, including a managerial position, then worked in the medical field for a few years. Her enthusiasm for cars eventually drew her to the automotive industry.
Her first job, as a sales representative at another dealership, wasn’t pleasant.
“It was a demeaning job,” Bonci recalls. “I wasn’t treated as an equal by men in the sales department.”
She quit the job for the part-time position at Sarat and since then, her work at the collision center has been a very positive experience.
“I’m always encouraged to really shine in my work.”
While her road to becoming an auto body shop manager took a few detours, Bonci has no regrets.
“This is the path I was meant to be on. Of everything I’ve done, this job is the most enjoyable. It just feels natural.”