While many children go to sleep dreaming of hoisting the Stanley Cup, becoming a movie star or simply just counting sheep, Leah Gillanders always had her mind in a much different place.
Before she reached deep sleep, the North Vancouver native would travel to the magical land deep inside a growly V-8 engine.
“I remember closing my eyes – I still do this sometimes – I’d close my eyes at night and I would picture stepping on the gas pedal, and then how everything works after that,” she says with a grin. “That’s my way of counting sheep to go to sleep. I’d work through the whole engine.”
Fast forward to today and Gillanders, age 28, has turned those dreams into reality as the owner and operator of Leah’s Automotive, a repair shop in North Vancouver’s Norgate neighbourhood. And that passion for cars sure seems to be rubbing off on others as well – earlier this month Leah’s Automotive earned the Service Excellence Award at the North Vancouver Chamber of Commerce’s 2017 Business Excellence Awards, beating out 20 other nominees from all corners of the business world.
“There were so many other great businesses involved with it, I didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “It made my heart flutter to get that award.”
If you sit and chat with Gillanders for just a few minutes – something her customers love to do – you’ll soon recognize the charm that helped her and her shop earn recognition for their service.
“I love my customers,” Gillanders tells the North Shore News as the phone rings off the hook in her cozy little shop. “We just truly care about our customers and their needs, rather than just the sale. We care about their car, we care about their family, if they’re going on a long road trip, what they would need for that, what they would need to be safe and what they want to do.”
Beneath that charm, however, there’s a fierce determination to succeed in the male-dominated world of automotive repair. It hasn’t always been easy.
Gillanders says she’s always been enthralled by the inner workings of engines, as well as the thrill of being around cars.
“I just loved it,” she says. “I loved cars, I loved going fast, I loved figuring out how things work.”
She earned an automotive scholarship while at Carson Graham Secondary and was on her way, later moving on to study at BCIT and work at North Vancouver’s Jim Pattison Toyota for a couple of years. She then settled in at Brian Jessel BMW where she earned her BMW certificate and became a Red Seal automotive service technician.
She admits that as she worked through her training it was sometimes tough being one of the only females in the room. Things got even tougher when she decided to fulfill a lifelong dream and open her own shop.
“100 per cent honest: finding someone to lease to a girl who was into cars was really hard,” she says. “A lot of the shop owners wouldn’t even talk to me. They’d hang up the phone. I had one guy screaming at me saying he wants to talk to my boss. And I’m like, ‘I am the boss.’”
There was very limited space available in North Vancouver, making her search even harder.
“I was in tears after talking to some of these people,” she says. “I almost didn’t want to start my shop. But as I am, as I always was – being picked on when I first started as an apprentice – you just keep going, keep looking until you find the right thing.”
The right thing arrived when Gillanders met another woman in the business, a building owner who was more than happy to lease garage space to her.
“Her and I jived right away when we met,” says Gillanders, who opened the doors to her new shop in 2015, specializing in high-end European cars. Now that she has busted into the industry, Gillanders is hoping to bring some more women with her for the ride. When she worked with Jessel he opened up the shop so that Gillanders could offer introductory automotive classes for women, something she has carried over to her new space with the All Girls Garage Club.
“I had this vision to help women learn about cars,” she says. “It’s an intimidating place for anybody, man or women, but especially women, because I think they feel like they get taken advantage of. That might not be the case, but they feel that way. So when they come here we relate to them a little bit better.”
It doesn’t take the women long to jump in and get their hands greasy, says Gillanders.
“I find that girls in small groups, when we’re doing the classes – they have so much fun,” she says. “It’s a blast. And I really respect them for coming in. It takes a lot out of your day to come in, ‘I’m going to go down to a garage, take off my high heels, put on some boots and learn about cars.’ Most women don’t want to do that. But once they’re here, it’s so much fun. They love it, they want more of it.”
The next goal for Gillanders is to take that hospitality one step further. She’s currently tinkering with the idea of adding a spa- or lounge-like area to the shop.
“I have some more ideas coming for Leah’s Auto, super secret stuff,” she says with a laugh. “We want to extend our comfortable atmosphere for people. … People love hanging out here. At Christmastime last year I swear we needed to knock down this wall and have another sofa here, because people just loved coming here. That’s exactly what I wanted when I opened up the shop, just a place where people aren’t scared to bring their car.”