Auto shop owner says she built her business on determination and hard work

Vi Nguyen, owner of Decatur Auto Tech, said she never directly used the nursing degree she earned from Emory University, but she has used it indirectly. “The human body and the car body are a lot alike,” she observed. “Both have fluids that are vital to operation, and both need the right fuel.”

Her minor at Emory was psychology, which she said also plays a part in her business. “I’m not just the owner; I work every day with customers. An understanding of human nature is useful,” she said. Nguyen doesn’t work on cars, but she’s the heart of the business’s customer service. The five mechanics who do the hands-on work, like Nguyen, are Vietnamese. “I ride with the customer while he describes the problem, then I translate it to the mechanic,” she explained.

Nguyen said she left her native country as one of the “boat people”— refugees who fled Vietnam by boat and ship following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. After two years in a refugee camp, she joined family members in the Atlanta area where she learned English through a tutorial program. After graduating from Northside High School, she enrolled at Emory.

“I have never been a person to give up or feel sorry for myself. Whatever I’m up against, I’m going to figure out a way to get through it. I learned to stand up and speak out and that’s part of what has made me a successful businesswoman.” Nguyen said. “I have heard that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I understand what that means now.”

She acquired the business when she bought out her ex-husband after their divorce. “We owned two automotive service shops. He said he would rather keep the one on Flat Shoals Parkway. I preferred to keep this one because I live in Decatur, just four and half miles from the shop, and the children were in school here.” Although Decatur is in the business’s name, its East College Avenue location is now in Avondale Estates. “They moved the city limits, but we kept the name because that’s what everyone knows us by,” she explained.

When she and her husband opened the shop near the Avondale Estates/Decatur line in the 1990s, there were few other businesses in the area. “Just a couple or gas stations,” she remembered. “It was a ghost town. Look at it now. There are shops, restaurants, condominium complexes; the area is really thriving.” Nguyen said the area growth has been good for her business.

Being a woman in what is traditionally a men’s business is challenging, Nguyen said. “I was determined to learn what I needed to learn to run the business. I had to put food on the table. I’ve been here for 24 years now. People know me and trust me. Most of my business comes from word-of-mouth or repeat business. My customers know I care about them, I want them to be pleased with the work we do for them.”

Nguyen said when she was going through her divorce, she learned that her customers also care about her. “It was very hard for me—so devastating that it put me in the hospital. People would call me and say, ‘Vi, you’ve got to get better. You’ve got to come back to work; we need you.’ That’s when I realized how much people in this community care about me,” she recalled.

“Now my business is my husband. I never stop working to take care of everything here. I come in to work early every day. After I go home for dinner, I come back and work some more. I can’t sit around and do nothing—that’s not who I am,” said Nguyen, who added that when she is not working at her business, she spends her time with photography, hiking and writing.

Nguyen said her shop can handle almost any problem a car is likely to have. “If it’s something we don’t already know how to fix, I research it until I find a solution. My brother is in this business, too. I call him when I need some help. We help each other.”

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