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Women in charge in traditional male-dominated business

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MUSKOGEE, Okla. (AP) _ Seeing two women in charge of a traditionally male-dominated enterprise should not be a surprise, according to the co-owner of a local auto repair and body shop.

``Hey, this is the new phase of modern business; it's 2005,'' said Ivette Figueroa at F&F Auto Service & Body Shop. ``We may look unconventional, but there are lots of women who own businesses.''

Figueroa, 37, and her business partner Brenda Foust, 32, have owned their auto repair shop just south of town on Highway 69 for three months. Figueroa and Foust represent a growing trend of women who own businesses in Oklahoma.

The Center for Women's Business Research reports the number of privately held Oklahoma companies owned by women grew by 9 percent between 1997 and 2004. They define such businesses as those in which a woman or women own more than 50 percent. Oklahoma ranks 23rd in the United States for women-owned businesses, the center said.

Figueroa and Foust both come from families with a strong history of business ownership. Figueroa's family owns several car dealerships in Puerto Rico. She remembers her early days learning the auto repair business by cleaning parts in her family's shops.

``Next thing you know I'm rebuilding engines with my cousins and my brothers,'' she said.

Doing the physical work is mostly left up to her all-male staff now that Figueroa is a manager. But, she still gets questions.

``Some of our customers say 'Hey, are you a mechanic?''' she said. ``I tell them 'I just happen to be an owner. Let me introduce you to the boys.'''

Owning a business is a natural part of the American dream for anyone, Figueroa said.

``I've got big dreams and I won't rest until I make them real.''

While Figueroa is responsible for running the shop, Foust keeps the books for F&F. Her family has long been active in the oil industry near Tulsa and Bartlesville.

``That kind of tradition passes on to the kids,'' Foust said. ``You strive to do good and be better and be like your dad.''

The shop employs two men working full time as mechanics. Other male mechanics do occasional contract work for F&F. Foust said she never has seen any conflict as a result of the shop's gender balance.

``I have done some mechanical work but I don't have the skill level of the guys who work here,'' she said. ``Our mechanics can do the same thing for less than what the bigger shops charge. I don't know how many senior discounts we've given to customers. For me, this is all about being able to help people and not rip them off.''

Figueroa said she and Foust have made an extra effort to serve customers such as women and Hispanics who might not feel comfortable dealing with other auto repair shops.

Mechanic Johnny Brooks, 26, said the staff is not as concerned about the entire female ownership idea as other people.

``People ask me if I feel weird working for two ladies,'' he said. ``I just tell them 'No; these are my friends.' We're like family. We eat together, talk to each other about our problems, and we work together.''

One customer said she was pleased with the work done on her car but not concerned about who owns the shop. Precious Porter, 72, said she liked the way Figueroa sounded on the phone and the price she quoted.

``My car caught fire because of a factory default,'' Porter said. ``I called her and she was very nice. They fixed my car and brought it back the same day. I needed help, and thank God I found her. I couldn't have made it without her.''
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