You won’t find Pam Gatto tinkering under the hood of a car, but she certainly has mastered the mechanics of operating the family-owned chain of tire and automobile repair shops that bear her name.

The highly-recognizable blue and gold edifices with the memorable “gottago2gattos” slogan etched on their signage have made Gatto’s Tires & Auto Service one of Brevard’s most identifiable retail brands, while its president and CEO has changed an industry once considered to be male-only territory.  “My dad told me, ‘You can never run this business . . . because you can never have a beer with the boys after work’,” laughs Gatto, the first woman to ever hold the title of president of the Tire Association of North America (TANA).

For her accomplishments as a businessperson and community leader, the Founders Forum, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to the needs of entrepreneurs within the community, will honor Pam Gatto as its 2010 Entrepreneur of the Year at a gala later this month.  Established in 1985 to “serve the community by fostering the success of new and existing businesses and creating an environment where entrepreneurs are motivated, educated, and encouraged to exchange ideas and information vital to business growth,” the Founders Forum has bestowed this honor the past few years upon other local business leaders including Walter Gatti, Tensor Engineering (2009); Bernie Simpkins, S&S Enterprises (2008); and Roger Dobson, Ocean Partners Associates (2007).  In the history of this prestigious award, no woman has ever been the winner . . . that is, until now.

It’s All About Family

To understand an entrepreneur’s success, one must first understand the motivating factors that will cause someone to make personal sacrifices, take risks and dedicate (oftentimes) a lifetime to a particular pursuit.  In the case of Pam Gatto, one might say it was her relationship with her father, Mike Gatto, 85, the company’s recently-retired founder.  Pam’s motivation was not to be like her dad, but perhaps to be with her dad, and ultimately for her children to be with her.

“I wanted roots; I wanted my kids to be from somewhere,” explains Pam, who somberly remembers not having any childhood friends at her wedding because she moved so much as a kid that she never had time to establish lifelong friendships.

Born in New Orleans, Pam was only three when the family moved across Lake Pontchartrain to Hammond, La., then on to Jackson, Miss., Augusta, Ga., Atlanta and Cumberland, MD as Mike Gatto traveled the country for over two decades as a regional sales and marketing manager for the Goodyear and Kelly-Springfield tire companies.  “I attended seven different schools before graduating from high school,” recalls Pam.

Today, Pam is surrounded by family.  Her three children Mike (42), Scott (40) and Alli (37) are all contributing members of the Brevard County community.  Mike, a UCF graduate, was a stockbroker in Orlando before returning to Melbourne to manage the Gatto’s Melbourne location.  Scott earned an agricultural degree at the University of Florida and worked in South Florida at a tomato packing plant prior to his return to Melbourne to serve as Gatto’s operations manager.  And Ally, an FSU grad, moved to Dallas and Austin before coming back to the Space Coast to be a psychologist at the Women’s Center.

A Father-Daughter Team

With Mike on the road Monday through Friday, Pam – the oldest of her parents’ three children – had to help her mother, Gladys, to keep the family and home functioning in his absence.  On the weekends, Pam enjoyed time with her dad.  “He’d give me problems to solve . . . math and business challenges,” reminisced Pam.  “As I got older, we’d discuss business.  We found that we thought exactly alike.  My dad would say to me, ‘You’re a genius because you always agree with me!’”

Tired of all the travel, Mike worked out a deal with Goodyear that got him his own retail shop to run in 1971.  That tire shop turned out to be Gatto’s flagship location in Melbourne on Hibiscus Boulevard just west of Babcock Street.  A couple of years later, Pam, who had recently moved down to Brevard with her husband and three children, joined her dad to “help out for a couple of weeks” in the office.  Weeks grew to months and Mike quickly realized Pam was perfect for running the business.

Pam’s approach to record keeping and monitoring performance were just what the company needed.  “I’m a numbers person,” she explains.  “I look at national benchmarks to see how we’re doing.  I measure profit per hour, profit per bay, etc.”  A math major in college at the University of Maryland, Pam spends hours pouring over spreadsheets and industry software.  “With mom, facts are facts, and facts don’t lie,” adds Pam’s son Mike McHenry.

But the quantitative side of Pam is more than balanced by her compassionate approach to managing her employees.  “She’s very nurturing to the staff,” says McHenry, “like the mother hen . . . very nurturing and encouraging . . . she wants to see people succeed.”

As Pam and her father worked together to build the business, Pam began to accompany him to national tire conventions . . . where she was clearly in the minority.  “I never tried to force myself into the ‘man’s environment’,” she explains, “I bided my time and let them invite me in.”  Eventually, Pam climbed to the top of the tire industry association – where she advocated for more opportunities for women – and today is one of only three women listed in the Tire Industry Association Hall of Fame.

Generational Differences

While Mike was a Goodyear company man from his early days of working the road, Pam recognized that the opportunity to sustain a viable long-term business was by focusing not on the (Goodyear tire) product but on their company’s intrinsic value to their customers and the community.  Rather than be another Goodyear dealer, Pam challenged her father to stock other tire brands, promote repair and maintenance services and focus on building the Gatto’s brand – a name that stood for customer service.  “Dad always said we sell safety and piece of mind, so this new positioning was consistent with his philosophy even though he was reluctant at first to abandon the Gatto’s Goodyear moniker,” says Pam.

Pam’s thorough research of the marketplace coupled with her business intuition propelled the company forward.  New outlets opened – there are currently seven locations in Brevard – and Gatto’s became a fixture in a competitive landscape.  “There’s a segment of the population with no concept of customer service; they grew up with big box stores like Sam’s and Walmart,” explains Pam, who has helped thousands of women (and men, too) car owners feel less intimidated when purchasing tires or speaking to a service technician.

“I remember back to one of our first television productions, early 90’s,” recalls William Ronat, a principal at Brand Ronat + Company that has been handling advertising for Gatto’s for two decades, “We were asking for off-the-cuff comments from Pam.  One that we used and still sticks with me is: ‘No one can expect you to never make a mistake.  That would be a ridiculous thing to suggest.  But they can expect you to make good on your promises.  And that’s what we do at Gatto’s.’  That really tells a lot about Pam.”

A Helping Hand

During the almost four decades the Gatto family has been building their retail dynasty in Brevard, Pam has been a consistent supporter and participant for many local causes.  Her résumé of board seats, leadership roles and recognition are impressive, and include winning the FLORIDA TODAY Volunteer of the Year and Chamber Community Service awards.  Her passion now is health care, as she sits on the Health First Board of Directors, and serves as the vice chairperson of the Holmes Regional Medical Center/Palm Bay Hospital board and chairman of the new Viera Hospital board.

“Pam has always given her time and talent to organizations she believes in and that make a difference in people’s lives.  From serving actively in the Chamber of Commerce, Brevard Art Museum and countless other civic and professional organizations, to her trailblazing role as the first woman president of the National Tire Dealer’s Association, Pam has never failed to step up and make a difference where the need is greatest,” said Health First President/CEO Mike Means.  “I’m very proud to call Pam Gatto my friend and we at Health First are extremely fortunate that she has chosen to contribute her skills in pursuit of our community mission.”

Adds friend and business associate Linda Brandt, “Pam has the ability to bring people together by the sheer power of her clear thinking.  She is a rare leader, one who helps people moves mountains, but you barely feel her pushing you up the steep side.  I have seen Pam change the face of a national organization of tire dealers and local endeavors that without her generous, determined, personal leadership at critical junctures would most likely not have succeeded.  She is an entrepreneur not only for her own business, but in so many effective ways for the community.”

Looking Forward

Mike Gatto worked well into his eighties, so like the father the daughter is in no hurry to retire.  “Today, the challenges facing our business – and many others throughout the Space Coast – are great as we struggle through this economic downturn,” says Pam.  “It really causes you to refocus on controlling expenses and debt.  The counter-cyclical trend in our business (i.e. when new car sales are down historically tire and auto repair sales are up) is not consistent with past recessions.”

While changes in the industry keep Pam on her toes, finding polite, honest, helpful and hard working employees remains a challenge.  “We can teach people the (tire) business, but finding people who possess our core values is tough,” explains Pam.  “The trade schools have suffered because of the pressure the public puts on kids to attend college these days.”  Currently, Gatto’s has 55 employees, many of whom have been with her for over a decade, such as General Manager John Tidwell, who has worked side by side with Pam for over 22 years.

“There aren’t a lot of secrets to running a successful business,” Pam modestly explains.  “Make good, informed decisions that optimize your productivity.  In other words, get the most from your assets.”  And for 37 years, she’s been doing just that.

Pam Gatto
President/CEO, Gatto’s Tires & Auto Service

Hometown: New Orleans

Age: 61

Family: Pam is married to John Gallo, a stockbroker with Raymond James & Associates.  She has three children – Scott McHenry, Mike McHenry and Alli Nevin – and six grandchildren.

Advice to Young Women Entrepreneurs: “Don’t let people tell you, ‘That’s not your business.’  Find the gap and fill it!”

Founders Forum Presents:

2010 Entrepreneur of the Year

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

6-9 p.m.

Crowne Plaza Melbourne Oceanfront Resort

Tickets: $35 with pre-registration; $40 at the door

Make your reservations online at www.foundersforum.com

or call (321) 751-6771 (One Senior Place)