For 54 year old Thembi Sithole, moving into the motor body repair industry was pure chance.
She came to Johannesburg from Ladysmith after matriculating to visit her sister and saw a local panel shop, Ventura Motors in Strijdom Park, who wanted someone to clean cars. It wasn’t long before she was doing any odd jobs that needed doing from cleaning the offices, answering the phone to helping out with plastic bumper repairs.
“I was never too proud to accept any job and loved the challenge. I was promoted to receptionist and then started taking on more admin work dealing with insurance and towing companies.” Ventura motors was then sold to the Master family and their son started Elite Autobody. “I was fortunate enough to be employed in that business in 1991 in an administrative and office management role,” says Sithole.
Sithole says being given that initial break and hearing compliments from suppliers and customers gave her the confidence to finally start her own business, G & T Autobody in Strijdom Park. Like many new business owners finding the start-up capital was a challenge and after being turned down by various banks and colleagues she decided to use her own Provident Fund money and credit card to get the new business on its feet.
In her second year she was successful in getting some funding from DTI for equipment and was able to become a member of the South African Motor Body Repairers’ association, an association of the Retail Motor Industry Organisation (RMI), an received her accreditation as a structural repairer. Sithole says that was the turning point for the business. “With SAMBRA’s support we were able to get the necessary grading and be placed on the insurance company list for work. It also gives customers peace of mind to know you are part of a bigger organization.”
For someone who just entered this industry by chance, Sithole has developed a deep love and passion for all things cars. “I am very particular when it comes to cars, colour etc, I know the standards. I love cars! My favourite car is a VW Tiguan. I’m on my 3rd one now…” It hasn’t all been smooth sailing Sithole admits. She still gets customers who don’t believe that females can do the job, especially a black woman. “They still think panel beating is for men. I am glad though that it’s changing slowly. I’m even training a female panel beater. We want to change the mindset of people. Women are very thorough. One guy said to me “I can see that this workshop is female-owned, females have attention to detail.”
She believes there is definitely a place for women in this exciting evolving industry. “I am making a mark. I encourage any women to have the courage to start their own shop. If they hear my story perhaps it will encourage others. There definitely is still a perception that it is only for males but there are lots of excellent ladies that work in motor body repair shops.”
Sithole would like to see the industry presented more to kids at school as there are so many opportunities from spray painting to paint technician to becoming an assessor for insurance companies. “I’ve been told that female spray painters are the best because they are very particular with about colour – they love colour matching and have an incredible eye for detail.”
Moving forward Sithole has exciting plans and has just purchased a 30% share of Elite Autobody. She is also looking for a site to open another motor body repair shop and would love to train youth to make sure that they understand that anything you do, will bring you an income. Sithole employs 28 people in her workshop and believes there is an opportunity for other women to do likewise.
“I love what I’m doing! When I look back I always say to myself, “Thembi you’ve done very well for yourself. I’m proud of what I have managed to achieve,” she concludes.