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Young motor industry ‘survivor’ conquers catastrophes and gender bias

Mika Sambra Aug 2022

The motor industry’s next biggest challenge is skills shortages, says Mika Heeraman, owner of Unique Auto Panel and Paint, in Tongaat, Kwazulu-Natal. She believes women can play a pivotal role in taking the industry to the next level.

Mika opened her own auto body shop at the age of 26. Three years later, her auto body repair shop is her pride and joy – not only because it ignites her passion, but because the business has survived three catastrophic events – the pandemic and the riots and floods in KZN.

Mika grew up in Chatsworth and Richards Bay, which she describes as “car fanatic” towns. Her dad was a spray painter. Mika saw her dad was an artist as she shadowed him during school holidays, watching how he transformed a mangled mess into something new and beautiful again.

“This has always stayed with me. When I see a car that needs repairs, I don’t see it as damaged but rather a puzzle that needs to be completed,” she says.

“Before starting my own business in the motor industry, I completed my part time degree in Supply Chain Management while working in the logistics industry from age 18 to 26. This was also a very male-dominated sector but my experience helped my confidence when I took the step at age 26 to open my own panel shop.

“I don’t have a fancy education or impressive CV at this point, but what I do have is a fire within me. My CV is a work in progress. I want to create a career profile that provides employment to my community and impacts the local economy. I want to show other women they have the power to lift their families out of poverty.”

Mika says women in the motor industry face the same daily issues, the most common being gender inequality struggles.

“I constantly find myself in a position of trying to reassure people that I know what I’m doing and that I am the authoritative figure in my business. Apart from being a woman, I am also a very young business owner, which clouds people’s judgement of me and my business.

“The best way for me to gain respect is to stay true to myself, be heard and seen and, most importantly, be consistent in my service delivery.”

Recalling where her business was when the news broke of level five lockdown in March 2020, Mika says they had no cash-flow reserves, no solid customer base and no contracts.

“We are a panel shop that specialises in auto body work, spray painting, interior renovations and classic car restorations and a proud member of SAMBRA – the South African Motor Body Repairers Association which is a proud association of the Retail Motor Industry Organisation (RMI).

“At the time Covid-19 lockdown hit, we operated with a basic set up and did cash jobs only. Nothing could have prepared us for lockdown, the riots and the floods in such quick succession. It seemed that every time we got back on our feet, something else came along to jeopardise our future,” Mika says.

Hard work and dedication saw the business rise above adversity and they have recently moved to bigger premises, added more equipment and created a larger operation in Tongaat.

Mika says her secret to survival was being able to adapt quickly to the changes in the immediate business environment and the industry. Financially, she keeps running costs low, puts money away for a rainy day and stays away from purchasing assets on credit.

“Through the loss and damage in KZN in the past three years, I’ve learnt nothing is permanent, change is inevitable and being able to adapt is the only way to stay in business,” says Mika.

“Regardless of the relatively easy entry into the motor industry, I love the fact that it’s only the brave and hardest-working businesses that end up on top. What you put in is what you will get out.”

Being a member of SAMBRA is a dream come true, says Mika. The business has benefited from this prestigious affiliation through improved credibility, up-to-date industry news and trends and business advice and guidance.

“Despite my passion for what I do and the potential and growth opportunities, the motor industry is heading for a new disaster, and that is skills shortages. With the ever-increasing unemployment rate, it is time for women to step up and fill in the gaps; grow this industry to a new level.”

Mika believes what needs to change to draw women into the industry is the mind-set that cars are only for men and, making young people more aware of the career options.

“Women may simply not know there are options available to them. When I tell people what I do for a living, most are very impressed. In order to succeed, be yourself, stand firm in your beliefs and don’t let anyone make you feel you don’t belong.

“As a woman, regardless of which industry you find yourself in, you will always have to fight a little harder to prove yourself. My advice is to transform the energy of rejection and discrimination into a catalyst that helps drive your dreams in the motor industry.”