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Driven mechanic makes mark

Sunday, April 14th, 2013 | Posted by

Kate Jonasse of K-Tech Automotive in Sebastopol, Thursday, April 11, 2013. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

By ANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent

Kate Jonasse is a determined, self-made woman. At 32, she owns her own automotive repair business in Sebastopol and captured the community’s attention by giving a car to someone who could make good use of it.

This year her business, K-Tech Automotive, was declared Sebastopol’s Business of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce. She put down her wrench long enough to tell us how she has managed to accomplish so much.

Did you always like tinkering with cars?

In high school in Syracuse, New York, and Homer, Alaska, I was good at math, science and mechanics. I got frustrated. I felt like high school was babysitting, not education. I wanted to learn more.

I bought a 1981 Datsun pickup. It was a piece of junk. It wouldn’t start. I had to park on a hilltop to get it going. I decided I wanted to learn to fix cars.

It would empower me, help me be independent.

So I enrolled in the Automotive and Technical Program at Alfred State College in New York. It was thorough. I had to learn chemistry, physics, math, metallurgy, hydraulics.

I was the only woman in the classes. I felt I represented all womanhood. I had to not just do well but excel.

From there where did you go?

The last semester I was offered a job at a Mercedes dealership in Atlanta. After 13 months there, I got the West Coast bug.

A teacher told me the cars in the West didn’t have rust — a big issue back East. So I shipped my tools and drove to San Francisco.

I went to every auto shop three times. It was 2003 and there was a downturn, people were out of work. I finally offered to work for minimum wage because I was determined to learn how to build transmissions. Money didn’t matter to me; learning the next skill did.

After two months I left and went to work in a European auto shop. The boss was mean, but if I made a mistake once, I never made it again.

I got a smog license and managed a smog shop for a while. After a few years in San Francisco I moved to San Rafael, where I got a job. I was tired of having my car stolen, tired of roommates. I eventually got a job with Out West Garage in Petaluma, owned by Maria Do Ceu.

I always have to climb to the highest, the next mountain. After I was there a year I didn’t know what was next.

So you started your own business?

At first I told Maria I needed to take a semester off to go take classes. I took an electric car course and met Peter Oliver, the instructor.

He was leasing the old Ford dealership in Sebastopol and offered to lease me a bay. It was a magic opportunity.

At first I worked alone. I slowly built up and after nine months hired my first employee. Now four years later, I have four employees and am looking for another good tech to hire.

I relocated to 198 S. High St. a year ago. Up until then everything I had I had earned. I got a bank loan with Small Business Administration backing, jumping through lots of hoops.

And now you are the Business of the Year.

That was amazing. It was completely unexpected. I am very proud of it.

Tell us about your car giveaway.

For me it was a way to show I was part of the community, not just doing my thing on the sidelines. It was a 1995 Honda Civic, low mileage, very reliable. We also paid registration fees, included a year of servicing, which will be just oil changes because my staff and I did everything to refurbish that car, and we filled the tank with gas.

We had 100 people nominated.

We wanted the car to go to someone who was already doing things so it would make a big difference in their lives. My staff and I narrowed it down, and I did telephone interviews.

It went to Dani Burlison, a single mother of two who is a writer and artist, donating a lot of time to the community, doing free and sliding-scale writing workshops.

I told my staff, “If this goes well, we will do it every year.”

So now it is going to be an annual thing. We would like someone to donate a 2000 or newer car, and we will fix it up and get it in shape for this year’s giveaway.

What other plans do you have for the future?

I am still climbing mountains, mental rather than physical ones. I read physics manuals for fun. I want this shop to continue to develop into the smoothly oiled machine it can be, and then I can consider opening another one.

  • allan boggs

    She has a lot of pluck to do all those things, but I’d like to know how she made in California on minumum wage with the cost of living being so high out there. San Francisco is so expensive Habitat for Humanity could even afford a lot to build a house on for a poor person so volunteering to work for minimum wage is unheard of there. I would have liked to see a different photo than one with her amrs folded, cleans hands and manicured fingernails. Most auto repair techs hands don’t look nearly that good mine included.

  • http://braidtarot.com Braid Kopling

    Unless you have seen the woman…
    Those hands are not manicured. the nails are short and serviceable.
    And I heard her once in the shop, talking about rebuilding a engine… that woman is doing what she loves in a community that she works hard to contribute to. Good for her!

  • http://www.cialonesautocarecenter.com Ruth Cialone

    It takes alot more than “pluck” to accomplish everything that Kate has accomplished in a field that is almost exclusively male. I think it is amazing the way she gives back to her community while running an obviously successful business. Running/owning our own repair shop while doing the hands on work takes a devoted person with an iron will. I have found the SBA to be a wonderful resource as the owner/inspection and emissions mechanic of my own shop in PA. There are many weeks when I was first starting that I made far below minimum wage while I was raising my teenage boys, so that I could build my business. Keep up the great work Kate—you are an inspiration to other young women who are interested in our field!

  • car service

    It is so refreshing to see a woman making it in the male dominated car servicing business. I will go out of my way to pay your garage a visit.

  • Eladia Ferraris

    Great blog! Sorry to change the subject, but, I’m new to Nashville and I’d like to find a great auto repair in Nashville TN. Have you heard of any good ones? There’s a new auto repair shop called Veterans Auto Services, but I’ve only seen a few reviews. Here’s the address of this new Nashville Auto Repair, Veterans Auto Services 2404 Cruzen St Nashville, TN 37211 (615) 712-9777. Let me know your thoughts! Thanks!

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Andrea Granahan is our West County correspondent.
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