Often having to be the ‘fixers’ of the family, women have a knack for smoothing things over with a loving touch. Mending broken toys, knees and hearts are often all in a day’s work. But what if your magic touch has to be applied to a mangled, wrecked car and not a toddler
who grazed their knees?
Mika Heeraman says ‘bring it on’. As the proud owner of Unique Auto Panel and Paint in Tonga, KwaZulu-Natal, this car enthusiast is certainly no stranger to transforming something damaged into something beautiful.
Reflecting on where her destiny to open an auto body repair shop at the age of 26 started, Mika goes back to her childhood in Chatsworth and Richards Bay.
Putting the pieces back together
“These towns were buzzing with car enthusiasts. My dad was a spraypainter and I spent my school holidays shadowing him. I’ll never forget the impact it had on me to see damaged cars being transformed into something beautiful. It gave me a thrill and sparked a passion for auto body work,” she says. “That damaged wreck is relying on you to put its puzzle pieces back together. It’s a challenge I will never get tired of.”
It isn’t, however, always sunshine and roses, as any small business owner knows. In Mika’s case, Unique had barely started to catch its breath after the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy when the KZN riots and floods hit.
Challenges overcome through hard work and dedication
“During Covid, we operated with a basic set-up. We had no cash flow reserves, no solid customer base and no contracts to rely on. It was a daunting situation. And just when we were getting back on our feet, the riots and floods added to the challenges.
“It seemed like every time we made progress, something new jeopardised our future. However, through sheer hard work and dedication, we managed to rise above adversity. I’m proud to say we recently expanded into bigger premises and have even added more equipment.” She says it’s imperative for small businesses to be agile.
“Adaptability has been crucial to our survival. We embraced changes in our immediate business environment and kept a close eye on industry trends. Financially, we maintained low running costs, saved money for unforeseen circumstances and avoided purchasing assets on credit. Read on >>
“The key is to understand that nothing is permanent, change is inevitable and adapting is the only way to stay in business,” is how Mika sums up their ability to navigate turbulent times.
Tackling gender inequality
Ironically, although Mika is clearly running a successful auto body shop – which is proudly a member of the South African Motor Body Repairers’ Association (SAMBRA) – her success is often tainted by cynicism from male counterparts, customers and other stakeholders in the auto body sector.
“Gender inequality is something I deal with on a regular basis. I constantly find myself having to reassure people that I know what I’m doing and that I’m the authoritative figure in my business.
“Being a young business owner adds another layer of judgement and scepticism. Charles Canning, chairperson of SAMBRA, an affiliate of the Retail Motor Industry Association (RMI), says auto body repair owners like Mika are helping SAMBRA and the RMI broaden horizons for women in the sector.
The tides are turning. Be a part of it
“While the tide is turning slowly, it is turning! We have evidence of this. I agree with Mika that women have a pivotal role to play in addressing the skills shortage in the motor industry.
“With the increasing unemployment rate, it’s time for women to step up and fill in the gaps. We need to change the perception that cars are only for men and make young people, especially women, more aware of the many diverse career options available in this industry,” says Charles.
For Mika, being a member of SAMBRA has been a dream come true. “SAMBRA membership has enhanced our credibility in the industry and given us access to up-to-date industry news, trends and valuable advice. The guidance and support from SAMBRA have been instrumental in our growth,” she says.
“It’s unfortunate that women often have to fight harder to prove themselves in any industry. My advice would be to transform the energy of rejection and discrimination into a catalyst that drives your dreams.
“Stay true to yourself, stand firm in your beliefs and never let anyone make you feel like you don’t belong. Consistently deliver good service, stay determined and persevere. These are the keys to success – in the motor industry or any other field you want to pursue.”