A Strong Woman in Charge of an Auto Body Shop Business

Written by Marja Pietiläinen. Originally published in the Kanadan Sanomat newspaper for a series called “Finnish Canadians at Work”.

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When you think about women dealing with cars, you might start to sing like James Brown in his song “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World”:” This is a man’s world / This is a man’s world / But it would be nothing, nothing / Without a woman or a girl / You see, man made the car / To take us over the road / Man made the train / To carry the heavy load / Man made the electrolight / To take us out of the dark / Man made the boat full of water / Like Noah made the arc / This is a man’s world / This is a man’s world / But it would be nothing, nothing / Without a woman or a girl ”

This week we have the honour of introducing a new Finnish Canadian for our series. The face of the week is Helen Gardener, born in 1955 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Helen is the owner of Auto Art Collision, located on Annacis Island, Delta, British Columbia. Auto Art is a body shop, which repairs vehicles that have been in accidents. Their clients consist of private individuals who need their vehicles repaired and painted. Also, they specialize in looking after the collision and refinishing needs of numerous companies with fleets of vehicles such as buses, freight trucks, pickup trucks and cars. Both of Helen’s parents were Finns. Helen grew up and attended school in Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island. After graduation in 1972, she started her university studies at the University of British Columbia. She majored in Home Economics and Fine Arts. In the mid-seventies Helen travelled all over Europe and got to see for the first time the country where her parents grew up. Since then, she has returned to Finland for numerous visits.

In 1976, Helen married with another traveller, her soul mate, Dan, who was also from Vancouver Island. They attended UBC together; and later they began a charitable organization in Vancouver called Dilaram (a Farsi word meaning ‘peaceful heart’). For several years they operated three rehabilitation homes, two counselling centres, and a training school. Their passion was to help disenfranchised youth gain stability in their lives. It was during that period that Helen and Dan learned to work closely together. After graduating from UBC in 1986, Helen taught Foods and Nutrition at UBC, as well as in private high schools. Dan managed large auto body shop in Vancouver, heralding back to a time in his life when he had become British Columbia’s youngest journeyman auto refinisher at the age of 15.

Their first son, Micah, was 14 and their second son, Daniel was 7 when Dan and Helen bought their own body shop, Auto Art, in 1994. Dan managed the operation, while Helen did the office work and marketing. Alongside their business, they produced a weekly live radio broadcast called “Automotive Intelligence.” “Automotive Intelligence was a oneof- a-kind live radio, interactive talk show, exploring the world that the car has created”, describes Helen. It was an hour-long show, which ran on CFUN, and CISL 650 AM for ten years from 2000 to 2010. Then tragedy struck in the summer of 2013. Dan passed away suddenly on July 31st, the same day that marked their 31st wedding anniversary. Helen was faced with the daunting question, “Am I capable of running this business on my own?” “We were not only lovers and best friends; we were lifetime work colleagues,” remarked Helen. Dan often mused to Helen, “You and me, we make a good partnership!” Helen’s main duties today still remain office management and network marketing. She has hired a skilled body shop manager, and together they manage a team of experienced body men, a painter and assistants. Auto Art possesses a unique, supportive family culture, where Helen describes herself less as ‘the leader’ and more as ‘cheerleader.’ She encourages the team to success, focusing on strengths in the individual workers. “They are all guys. We are getting along well. If there are any issues, we work on them,” says Helen. Both for Helen and for the business, the year has been full of big changes.

Among the others, an outlook of the shop has changed a lot. Namely, when you enter to Auto Art, you might see something which you really do not expect to see while entering into an auto body shop: Walls are covered by graffiti art. When and where did you get the idea from Helen Gardener? First of all, artistic ability and creativity have always been family traits. That creativity led to the radio show. Around Christmas time last year my younger son, Daniel, posed the idea of letting a circle of his acquaintances come to Auto Art to ‘tag’ the inside walls. “So in January, the best-of-the-best graffiti artists in the Vancouver region painted all the walls inside the shop with lively and bright imagery, exemplifying the edgy underground art form. This artistry has created a vibrant environment in the workplace, let alone a keen interest from outside viewers. This autumn, the ‘graffiti writers’ are poised to paint new graffiti art all over the existing imagery, in keeping with the very nature of their art form. “, Helen tells and gets excited.

Many people have been wondering over the last year, how Helen keeps up the same business, which she used to run with her husband for two decades. Would have it been too hard on her? Helen’s answer comes here: “I miss my mate terribly, but I am not one to shy away from a challenge, I press forward – fired up with ‘sisu.’ “ Thus, Helen is safe and sound. She feels that her place is among the guys, whether or not the auto body shop industry is “a man’s world”.

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