Southold woman follows family tradition to become dealership’s first female tech

Jonna Franke of Southold began working at Mullen Motors in Southold just over a month ago, making her the company’s first-ever female auto technician. 

Brothers and dealership co-owners Bill and Rich Mullen hired Ms. Franke June 17, after they were tipped off by one of their customers, Colin Ratsey of Ratsey Construction.

“One of our customers had come in and said, ‘Hey, listen. I know of a good person possibly looking to make a move,’ ” Bill Mullen said. “He got in contact with her and the next thing I know, she came down. Jim Mina, the service manager, and myself talked to her at length a couple of times, and we decided to take her on … She was pretty highly qualified and sounded like she knew what she was doing.”

Mr. Mullen explained that it was necessary to look into new hires, in light of the summer crowd and the passing of longtime technician Joe Smith, who died in April.

Initially, he and his team were looking for a diesel technician to fill the open job, but decided it might be wise to hire a regular tech who could take care of standard work that didn’t deal solely with diesel and heavy trucks.

During her time at Southold High School, Ms. Franke, now 21, had job-shadowed the Mullen brothers for a few days through Eastern Suffolk BOCES’ two-year automotive program. There, she was a standout student, winning a scholarship for earning the highest automotive grades and membership in the National Technical Honor Society at the Harry B. Ward Technical Center. She was also an officer with SkillsUSA, a student-run career and tech organization. Ms. Franke and her mother, Jill Franke, credit BOCES teacher Michael O’Hara for being a huge influence throughout and for pushing her to enter automotive competitions, a number of which she won.

“I’m not surprised that she is the first female technician [at] Mullen’s,” Mr. O’Hara said. “She’s just – she’s the type of person that you look forward to seeing every day because she never really had a bad day.”

Mr. O’Hara called Ms. Franke an “outstanding student” who was always ready to work.

“She was extremely smart,” he said. “I think, while the other students were out horsing around with their friends or whatever, she would be home reading books … She’s probably one of the best students I’ve had.”

Mr. O’Hara added that he always makes an effort to keep in touch with his students and plans to stop at Mullen’s to see Ms. Franke.

The Franke and Mullen families go back some. Franke family members have been longtime customers of the dealership and Bill Mullen grew up with Ms. Franke’s parents, Jill and Glen. Over the years, the Frankes have also owned a few local gas and service stations including the Orient Service Station on Route 25 and the Spanos Service Station on Main Street in Greenport.

Ms. Franke’s great-grandfather Joseph Andrade Sr. lived at Mount Pleasant in Orient and learned to do automotive work while traveling with a friend to California in a Model T.

“He later moved back to Mount Pleasant and purchased [a] chicken coop,” she said. “He took it on skids to his property east of Mount Pleasant and built Joe’s Garage from the chicken coop. He used to put cars in his showroom there for Mr. Mullen, who first started Mullen [Motors].”

Jonna Franke, a Southold High School graduate, recently began working at Mullen Motors. (Credit: Mahreen Khan)

Mr. Andrade’s son — also Joseph, but known to everyone as Pete — worked as a mechanic and welder at Joe’s Garage, which was eventually sold in the 1970s and has changed hands a few times since. The building that stands today is called the Orient Service Center.

“Jonna’s other great-grandfather was Malcolm Rackett,” Jill Franke said. “He was in business with Edward Sarles. They were Studebaker agents and owned R&S Motor Sales & Service Station on 3rd and Front street in Greenport. He later purchased Straussner Service Station and changed the name to Rackett’s Service Station. That was also sold in the ’70s to George Spanos.”

A great uncle, Frederick Rackett — known as Ted — owned and operated the Orient Service Station at one time. Though the stations were all sold before Ms. Franke was born — which her mother said the family regrets — it seems automotive work came naturally to her.

“She went through the Suffolk County Community College automotive program and graduated from that,” Mr. Mullen said. “And then she started working up in Riverhead at Mavis Discount Tire, and she was there for about a year and a half, two years. Supposedly she got very good at doing alignments and stuff like that, [to the point] where most of the Mavis stores in Suffolk County were sending her all the alignments to do. She was starting to make a little bit of a name for herself there.” She also job-shadowed at Eagle Auto Mall in Riverhead for a few weeks.

Ms. Franke spent a portion of her time at SCCC pursuing liberal arts, as she wasn’t always sure she wanted to enter the automotive field, despite her family’s background. Her hesitancy faded as time went on, and she quickly committed herself to working with automobiles.

She belonged to SWAG, the Suffolk Women’s Auto Group, led by Theresa Noto, whom she considers an important mentor. She graduated from SCCC in May 2018 with an associate degree in applied sciences and automotive technology, combining her liberal arts and mechanical education. She was also a Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society member and actually wore her mother’s cap, gown and honor society cord. Jill Franke had graduated just a year earlier, making her daughter the second member of the Franke family to complete college.

Ms. Franke said she doesn’t view landing the position at Mullen as momentous just because she’s the company’s first female auto technician.

“I don’t really know that I think about it as being the first of anything,” she said. “I think about it as being the first of what I want to do.”

While working at Mavis, Ms. Franke was responsible mostly for service work, including tire rotations, brake work, basic light changes and some wiring. At Mullen Motors, she’s currently doing maintenance work, including oil changes, tire rotations, brake jobs and NYS vehicle inspections. After she finishes her training classes through Chrysler, she’ll be authorized to do some of the warranty work the shop offers.

“For one thing, there’s more and more women coming into the field,” Mr. Mullen said, “and everybody I’ve talked to who’s dealt with them has had a positive experience.”

He added that he thinks having a female employee will be a draw for a lot of his female customers.

Going forward, Mr. Mullen said he hopes to continue hiring young employees to diversify his staff and keep the business running smoothly.

“You have to change a little bit and keep up with the times and I think diversifying like that is a good thing,” he said. “[Jonna’s] a younger employee. A lot of people have been here a long time and they’re getting towards retirement age, so I’m looking for younger people that I can bring in and groom and … hopefully they can retire here.”

Mr. Mullen said Ms. Franke has been a strong asset for the team so far, and he hopes she continues on and enjoys her time with the company.

“It’s really nice here,” Ms. Franke said. “Everybody’s extra kind. They were a little cautious at first, but I broke them in.”

“We’re just really, really proud of her,” her mother said, recalling a time she had to tell her daughter that entering this industry would mean working twice as hard as her male counterparts. “When she knows what she wants, she puts her heart into it.”

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