NASHVILLE — When Judith Zimmerman-Walter first started working in her father's automotive shop in 1975, it wasn't just the tires that sometimes got deflated.
She often saw the worst side of an industry that wasn't exactly trailblazing a path for gender equality at the time.
"I've seen some ugly stuff and been treated terribly," Ms. Zimmerman-Walter, one of the co-owners of Zimmerman's Automotive Tire Pros in Mechanicsburg, Pa., said.
"They didn't know what to do with me."
One moment sticks out. Sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, Ms. Zimmerman-Walter had to pick up a drivetrain part at a local shop. She was greeted with a whole wall covered with pornography.
"I felt so stupid," she said. "I couldn't wait to get out of there. I brought the part back, laid it down on the parts desk and said, 'I will never go to that place again.'"
Did she ask her dad to say something?
"He wouldn't have done anything," she said, "and I don't think they (the shop employees) would have cared. I know they wouldn't."
Ms. Zimmerman-Walter recounted this story at the inaugural Women of Tire Pros event on Oct. 13 at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville.
The group was created last April by Whitney Moore, co-owner of G.L. Moore Tire Pros & Automotive in Springfield, Mo., and a member of the Tire Pros National Dealer Council (where she represents the Midwest region).
"Mentorship is one of the things we'd like to do," Ms. Zimmerman-Walter said. "I could have used this when I started. Somebody to talk to. I didn't have that.
"I'm very much a champion for women in the industry. We're not trying to push women in, but if they want to be here, they deserve something like this."
Ms. Moore has worked in the tire business for 19 years with her father as her mentor. She started the group with three main goals in mind:
• Recruiting more women to the business;
• Supporting Tire Pros dealers who don't yet have a woman in the business; and
"When I first started in the industry, there wasn't a lot of women, and I didn't have a lot of support," Ms. Moore said. "Had I had this, there's no telling where I'd be today. I had to carve my way a little bit. I want to make it a much easier path."
The October event drew about 100 attendees of different ages, backgrounds and responsibilities — which was exactly the point.
"You're gonna see women who don't have anything to do with the business, women who are part owners, women that are in managerial roles, women who work mostly with the books — you'll see a bit of everything," Susan Moss, bookkeeper and office manager at Wilson Tire Pros & Automotive in Elon and Graham, N.C., said.
"Everyone can feed off each other and encourage each other."
While Mesdames Zimmerman- Walter, Moore and Moss have spent decades in this industry, many of the attendees were less established. One of those is Jaime Arnott of Affordable Tire Pros & Brake Co. in Portland, Ore. Ms. Arnott's husband Scott owns the store, and she is a stay-at-home mom who helps with a variety of store tasks. For instance, the Arnotts have a tire-storage facility at their house, and Ms. Arnott helps unload trucks when they arrive with deliveries.
When asked what she hopes to get from her involvement with the group, she said, "Just more knowledge. We're at events and people are talking, and I'm like, 'I have no clue.' It's nice to be able to sit and listen and get advice and information that you don't know.
"Automotive, you think of it as men. To see more women, it's definitely encouraging."
That shift is due to women like Ms. Zimmerman-Walter, who is thankful that women are now entering a very different industry than the one she entered.
"I speak at a business class at a local college, and when a new class of business people come through, it's really refreshing to hear young guys say, 'Was it really that bad? Why would men ever do that?'" she said.
"And I say, 'You don't know how refreshing it is to hear you as a man say that.'"