Fresh from school to boss lady
Thembi Sithole’s journey in the motor body repair industry is the quintessential success story. She started at the bottom fresh out of school, cleaning cars and doing plastic bumper repairs then progressed to receptionist and administrative assistant.
Fast forward three decades and this 54-year-old farm girl from Ladysmith is the proud owner of her own auto body repair shop in Randburg, G& T Autobody; owns a 30% stake in the business she worked at previously as an office manager, is looking to buy a second business and is a proud accredited member of the South African Motor Body Repairers’ Association (SAMBRA).
“Family and friends still can’t digest what I do for a living. My female friends think panel beating must be a boring and dirty job. I just smile. I love my job and have proven women are capable of anything they set their minds to,” Thembi says.
She explains that she received many compliments from customers when she began answering the phone and taking on admin roles. Some even asked if she was one of the owners of the business.
“This recognition pushed me to explore the possibility of actually opening my own business in the motor industry; I felt ready.” A friend of her father’s had promised to loan her R1-million to start her business but when she had everything in place, he didn’t come through for her.
Using her provident fund and credit card to fund her venture and with support from the DTI later on, Thembi started to reap the benefits of her hard work. “The DTI helped me get the right equipment so that the business could be graded by SAMBRA as a structural repairer.”
“SAMBRA has been a wonderful support. They advised what equipment was needed and held my hand through the entire grading process. Another huge benefit is that SAMBRA is recognised by consumers and insurance companies.
“The minute you say you are accredited, customers and insurance companies feel confident you meet the quality criteria to work on their vehicles.”
On changing mind-sets in the motor industry …
“It has been my experience that some male employees will not take instruction from a woman, especially those men who grew up believing a woman belongs in the kitchen.
There is a lot more which could be done, from school level, to expose girls to the industry. The roles available and prospects for women should be more publicised in the media and school children should have day trips to auto repair shops to see the
process and learn from women in the industry.”
“I am happy to see there are more women entering the sector, which remains male-dominated…
On Covid-19 and lockdown …
“With more people working from home and less people driving their cars, our business – like many others – took a knock. We didn’t make target due to lockdown.
This called for a change in strategy, so we approached fleet companies for new business, which was a move away from our traditional model of focusing on insurance companies and walk-in customers.
It was a positive move – I should have approached fleet companies a long time ago!”
Thembi proudly concludes that her business is known for its quality service and turnaround time.
“I have made my mark in the industry. I am a proudly South African woman who has the challenges of the motor industry and who still continues to thrive.
I’m doing something special and unique. Women need to be the change. The world needs to see we are here and that nothing can stop us doing what we love. I opened my own business in the motor industry – other women can too!”