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Progress: Brainerd business owner breaks glass ceiling - Former employee buys auto glass business from founder

Seated in the lobby of her Greenheck Auto Glass business on Washington Street in Brainerd, owner Karen Pederson knows she stands out in a field traditionally dominated by men. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 4
Employee Kyle Hamilton cuts a large piece of glass at Greenheck Auto Glass in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 4
Employee Kyle Hamilton cuts a large piece of glass at Greenheck Auto Glass in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch3 / 4
Employee Kyle Hamilton uses fire as part of the glass-cutting process at Greenheck Auto Glass in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch4 / 4

Business owner Karen Pederson is more comfortable with grease under her fingernails than talking about herself or Greenheck Auto Glass Inc. in Brainerd.

"Working on cars is what makes me happy," Pederson said. "When I was growing up, my dad worked on vehicles, and I was always asking him what he was doing and if I could help."

The 36-year-old mother of three from the Brainerd lakes area stands out in the traditionally male-dominated automotive industry—and she knows it.

"I have a urethane supplier that has told me I'm the only woman business owner in a three-state area to own and operate her own glass shop without a partner," Pederson said.

More than 11.6 million firms are owned by women and generate $1.7 trillion in sales as of 2017, according to the National Association of Women Business Owners.

"At age 14, I changed my oil for the very first time on my Ford pickup truck and since then I've just always liked working on vehicles," Pederson said.

Women-owned firms account for 39 percent of all privately held firms and contribute 8 percent of employment and 4.2 percent of revenues, according to the national association.

Humble beginnings

Across from Hardee's on Washington Street, Greenheck Auto Glass is dwarfed by a nearby car wash and ROC Detail, another automotive-related service provider.

Gary Greenheck founded the glass repair and replacement business in 2006 after working for Harmon AutoGlass for three decades. Upon retirement, Greenheck offered in 2014 to sell the business he started to Pederson, who was hired as the office assistant/bookkeeper in 2012.

"There was a friend who shared a day care with me at the time, and they (Greenheck was) looking for an assistant here, so I applied, and I interviewed and left, and within 20 minutes, I had the job," she said of her inauspicious beginnings with the locally owned and operated business.

Auto glass replacement, rearview and side mirror replacement, rock chip repair, and personal, commercial, fleet glass repair and replacement are some of the services that are offered.

"When I first started, I figured I'd get fired right away because I was not very good at the job. There's a lot of stuff to memorize when it comes to windshields and numbers," she said.

The Better Business Bureau gave Greenheck Auto Glass an A+ rating, and no complaints have been filed with the BBB of Minnesota and South Dakota.

"Overall, the business has grown immensely from our regular customers .... but also to have the owner of the business actually be on site installing, I get a lot of good reviews for that," she said in reference to herself.

"People do appreciate that. ... If they walk out and they're happy, they will tell their friends they're happy. Their friends will come here. ... And that makes me happy."

An office assistant at the counter greets customers who can wait in a small reception area while a technician works on vehicles in the garage and workshop, which round out the small business.

"I always imagined that I would work in an industry helping homeless people or the less fortunate," Pederson said. "But soon enough I found myself wandering out to the shop and watching the owner and technician install, and I wanted to know why they were doing it, what they were doing—every step—and soon he'd be asking me, 'Would you like to help?'"

Technician Kyle Hamilton joined Greenheck Auto Glass in 2015 and was described by Pederson as a "hard-working, dedicated and caring" employee.

"My mom used to do stain glass, so it's not unfamiliar," Hamilton said of the work. "I enjoy it. Karen's a good boss."

Hamilton poured an accelerant in a straight line on a piece of glass in the shop, for example, and lit the liquid on fire before cutting the glass into sections for a windshield.

"Every day is different," he said. "We also see different vehicles. We'll go out to a farm and work on a tractor one day and then the next day we'll be in here working on a Mercedes, so there's just a lot of diversity with what we do."

Customer service

Greenheck Auto Glass offers potential customers a free estimate and mobile service within a 40-mile radius of the business. Pederson's company also offers in-shop service, free pick up and delivery, or a courtesy vehicle for the customer's convenience.

"I always discourage people from doing their own windshields just because if they break it on install, it's kind of on their shoulders to redo it—and for safety. You have to know what you're doing, so I discourage them from doing that," Pederson said of do-it-yourselfers.

The kinds of glass Greenheck Auto Glass has in stock for those who like to work on projects, however, include mirror, laminate, float plate, Lexan and acrylic.

"When you call here, you get a person every time," Pederson said. "When you come in, you get me. If you ask for me, you'll get me."

Greenheck Auto Glass is a member of the Auto Glass Safety Council and follows its standards for use of the highest quality materials for each and every install.

"The customers are first," Pederson said. "I am not in the business to be rich. I don't ever have plans of being rich, but I have plans of having repeat customers, and that's how I'm going to earn my business. ... Word-of-mouth goes far."

August Stovall is one such satisfied, repeat customer, but others may know him from his work as the safety director for Anderson Brothers Construction who often travels statewide.

"They were doing our large trucks, replacing windows and windshields on large trucks and equipment—just from rocks that were kicked up by other vehicles—or out in the pits sometimes rocks would hit the equipment," Stovall said.

"I've seen Greenheck's professionalism and their honesty, and that's really what makes them really a cut above. When they tell you they're going to be there at 1 o'clock, they're going to be there at 1 o'clock. When they tell you the job is going to take an hour, it's going to take an hour."

Stovall said he has his company car serviced by Greenheck Auto Glass because he appreciates their honesty.

"I've brought it to her other competitors in the past, but at Greenheck, they're more down to earth. They're more about being with the customer and being more than just 'Hey, we're here to fix your window,'" Stovall said.

"But as far as cost, they're also pretty (well) priced, and I've even asked them that before, like, 'Wow. I thought it was going to be more,' and the statement I got back was 'We're here for everybody. We try to make it right for everybody,' and that was one comment I remembered."

Referrals

Greenheck Auto Glass customers includes a lot of tractor-trailers and a lot of fleet vehicles, according to Pederson, and the service provider works on about 10 windshields a day.

"Once you get one construction company, they talk to someone else and then they talk to someone else, and that's how we get our referrals," she said.

Greenheck also custom cuts mirrors and picture frames, and will work on house windows if the frames are brought in by customers, but the business is not insured for construction work.

"When someone sees me for the first time, I often get the question 'Is there a guy around here that can look?' And I think that's what keeps me going. It makes me thrive to be able to be 'I'll look. Let's do this,'" Pederson said.

"I think it's funny that they come in with a certain scenario, and when they talk to me, they're usually blown away by the knowledge that I have. I try very hard to be up on everything that's going on, and I'll have other glass companies call me or stop by to kind of pick my brain."

Factbox

• Business: Greenheck Auto Glass Inc.

• City: Brainerd.

• Number of employees: Three, including owner.

• Trivia: Named after founder Gary Greenheck, but sometimes referred to as "Greentech," "Greenbeck," "Greenneck" or "Greencheck."

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