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Gotham Gigs: This fourth-generation mechanic empowers women to take control of car maintenance


Audra Fordin insists that her customers name their vehicles. "When you give your car a name, you take better care of it," she said. "It makes things more personal." After all, "it's your butt in the front seat—you better believe it's personal."

Fordin, who owns Great Bear Auto Repair and Auto Body in Flushing, Queens, comes from a long line of car mechanics.

Her great-grandfather Oscar Fordin founded the first Great Bear shop in 1933, in Elmhurst. According to family lore, he told each of his four sons to open a location in a different borough. In turn, many of their sons went into the business, creating a Great Bear auto-body empire that grew to 78 locations at its height in the 1970s.

Audra's father, Bill, took over the Flushing location in the 1960s. He had two daughters, no sons. Fordin said that she and her older sister would follow him into the shop to learn all about tools and engines.

"I really give him credit—he didn't treat us any differently because we were girls," she said. "To us, it was normal that you'd spend your Saturday working on cars."

Her cousins gradually lost interest, but Fordin stayed focused. She recalled that in a college economics class she finally understood the lectures once she exchanged the term widgets with oil filters in her mind.

She bought the Flushing location from her father in 1997, becoming the first female Fordin to run a body shop. "He still works for me sometimes. He's on call," she joked.

Most regulars adjusted to the transition, she said, but new customers often try to test her knowledge. "They just don't know any better. Give me a few minutes and we'll fix that," she said.

The mother of three has four full-time employees and four part-timers, plus interns. Last year, sales topped $911,000.

When things slowed drastically during the recent recession, Fordin shifted into high gear to save the business. She launched a free monthly workshop on "automotive life skills" in an effort to build relationships with female drivers.

It has turned into a nationwide program, Women Auto Know, with nearly 700 repair shops participating in Fordin's movement to "educate not intimidate" women.

"If mom gets stuck on the road, she can open the hood and jump-start her battery in five minutes; the kid in the backseat watches that," Fordin said. "Mom is thinking, 'I'm a rock star.' The kid is thinking, 'Mom's a rock star,' and it all comes down to that amazing person at the auto shop who showed her how to do it. "


Audra Fordin

AGE: 45 BORN: Staten Island RESIDES: Roslyn, Long Island EDUCATION: B.A. in business and marketing, Arizona State University LAST STAND The Flushing garage is the last Great Bear auto shop still run by a Fordin. TOP OF HER CLASS: Fordin writes a column in industry magazine Ratchet+Wrench, and Great Bear received an NYC Small Business of the Year award in 2012. ANATOMY 101: Fordin likens cars to human bodies: "Dashboard is the brain; battery is the heart; exhaust and filters are the respiratory system; motor oil and fluids are blood. And, tires, belts and hoses are—rubbers. Don't neglect your rubbers!" she said slyly. "It will cost you time, money, and get you stuck on the road."

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