While in college in Phoenix, Ariz., Rachel Hutfless was working in the call center in the business development office of a local body shop. When that shop was acquired, Hutfless had just finished her bachelor’s degree and decided to pursue her master’s, and the new management convinced her of the career potential in collision.
“I was really just working there while I was going to school. I didn’t intend to make a career out of it,” Hutfless said. “The company’s president introduced me to my future possibilities and opportunities in the industry. He actually pulled me into a hallway on a shop tour, drew out my career path on a scratch piece of paper and really showed me what I was capable of.”
After graduation, Hutfless weighed her career options and found that there was more opportunity for success in the collision industry.
“I grew up in the business. My dad was a technician and worked on the corporate side of the industry, so I was very familiar with how lucrative it is and that there was opportunity, but I didn’t know what that meant for a female.”
In the 2019 BodyShop Business Industry Profile, survey respondents said that 9% of their production shop personnel and 32% of their front office personnel are female. These statistics show that there is a large range between male and female employees in the workplace, leading to an increased intimidation factor for women to enter into a male-dominated career.
“While I was new to the industry, I was not new to business or marketing,” said Natalie Zajc, vice president of marketing at Crash Champions. “I was confident in what I could bring to the organization, but like most women, I felt I had to prove myself, not only to our CEO but to our operations team. Often, sitting in a room filled with very experienced men, it was a challenge to make sure my voice was heard. I learned very quickly that if I didn’t speak up and speak my mind, my expertise and input would not be heard. I will admit, I struggled at first for respect in this male-dominated industry.”
At Crash Champions, Zajc handles marketing and branding for the company nationally. One thing that helped her build her confidence was strong company leadership who created a culture to help inspire employees to become leaders themselves.
“One person who always believed in me and taught me how to be a leader was our CEO, Matt Ebert,” Zajc explained. “The culture of Crash Champions has allowed me to thrive, and this can be attributed to Matt and his leadership style. He is truly the hardest working man I know and makes everyone around him want to work equally hard towards a common goal. His humility and work ethic made Crash Champions what it is today, and in the process, he has created hundreds of loyal employees across the country. He also created a company that allows hardworking, qualified women to excel in a male-dominated field.”
In the fall of 2020, Hutfless transitioned from her previous company to Crash Champions as the chief client officer, where she oversees the national account team, the marketing team and the company’s central review team.
“I was looking for a new opportunity in collision and felt that I was ready for a new challenge and met with Matt Ebert, the CEO of Crash Champions,” Hutfless said. “After that meeting, I really got a taste of Matt’s passion for the industry, his drive, his goals and what he wanted to do with Crash Champions. It was motivating; it was refreshing. He was ready to grow. He was investing in his facilities, which is exciting. He was investing in OE certifications. And I thought, ‘I want to be a part of that family.’”
The Crash Champions family began in 1999, when Ebert opened his first shop, New Lenox Auto Body in New Lenox, Ill. After his partnership buyout in 2014, Ebert changed his company’s name to Crash Champions and developed a rapid growth strategy. Today, Crash Champions has expanded to 60 locations in seven states, thanks to the help of their team of leaders, which includes both Zajc and Hutfless.
“I want to be the leader who everyone knows they can reach out to for help, regardless of what they need,” Zajc said. “I never want to be perceived as someone who is so high up in the company that I am out of touch. One thing I enjoy most about my job is getting out to our locations, meeting our teams and mentoring other women in our organization. Our facilities are always our top priority, and the teams there are like family. We have some strong women working in our facilities in all capacities, from customer service representatives to service advisors to general managers. Anyone, male or female, who is driven, hardworking, dedicated and passionate to be the best they can be has the ability to thrive in this industry.”
Defeating the stigma of women in a male-dominated workplace is front of mind in all that Hutfless does at Crash Champions. “The stigma is, ‘What do females know about vehicle repairs?’ and ‘How knowledgeable are they about the process, procedures and operations?’ But I think through having really strong leaders, or supervisors who I’ve reported to over the years, they’ve been big cheerleaders for me, giving me a seat at the table, encouraging me to utilize my voice and empowering me to really make decisions and help the company and the industry excel. My favorite thing to do is help other teammates to grow and to be inclusive for other females by encouraging them to step up and make a career in collision because there is a lot of opportunity for females in this industry.”
Zajc added, “Crash Champions is a brand that, from day one, I helped to build. I want to ensure that every employee is setting the bar high, not just for our company but for the collision industry as a whole. Many people joke that I bleed Crash Champions red, but it’s true. I am so proud of our team and what we have achieved together, and I couldn’t be more excited for the future. Together, we can do great things!”
To learn more about Crash Champions, visit crashchampions.com.