Julie Zara: A holistic leadership approach

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Julie Zara: A holistic leadership approach

By Courtney Westlake

Editor’s Note: This new column by Courtney Westlake examines what drives successful business people. During a luncheon interview with Courtney Westlake at Café Brio, she will address issues like how they approach their business; how they make a tough decision; when do they decide to add staff; dealing with customers; interacting with competition; share successes and what missteps they have made and corrective actions. The column is to give insight into their thought process, and to demonstrate what concerns readers can learn or share with them.

In my opinion, Julie Zara really summed up success with a particular comment she made to me a few weeks ago: “We’re all leaders. People think if you’re not the boss, you’re not a leader, but you are. You’re the leader of your own life.”

Over an insightful conversation that felt like it could have lasted all afternoon while dining at Café Brio, Julie and I touched on everything from business practices to raising children, and the admiration that I initially had for her grew tremendously the more I got to learn about her.

Julie and her husband Brad have displayed exemplary leadership as they have built Zara’s Collision Center from the ground up and have served as community volunteers, and it’s not simply because they are “at the top” as business owners and board presidents (of Contact Ministries for Julie and Big Brothers Big Sisters for Brad.)

It’s because they continually strive to better themselves personally and professionally and to instill the value for education and integrity in their daughters, their employees and the needy of the community.

I have gotten to know Brad and Julie through the Young Philanthropists group of the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln, and specifically because Julie and I serve on the steering committee together. Julie’s enthusiasm for the community is infectious, and her involved and passionate approach to life is one that I find invigorating.

The couple started Zara’s Collision Center when they were young and newly married as a one-man shop and now it is one of the leading local automotive companies with 25 employees. Julie described Zara’s operation as a “Process-Centered Environment,” an innovative approach to the automotive industry that eliminates wait time for customers. But taking a closer look, Zara’s is actually a people-centered environment, where customer convenience is a top priority and where employee education and self-improvement is strongly encouraged with quarterly auto workshops, leadership conferences and more.

“I think it all works together – you have to be happy at home to be happy at work,” Julie explained. “We want our employees to learn how to do that, and to learn things like how to work with different personality styles.”

At the center of that people-centered approach are the Zaras, who have worked hard to find a balance in their work and their marriage (celebrating 28 years on Oct. 5) to achieve the success they have had and to help others in the process. We discussed the pressure of moms to “do it all,” and Julie, mother to three daughters, offered an honest insight: “As women, we try to do everything and be everything. We have to know our limitations and what we’re capable of, and be OK with that.”

As evidence of this in her own life, Julie gave up her day-to-day role at Zara’s last year in order to pursue other interests and passions. While she says she’s “not at Zara’s anymore” (though still a co-owner with Brad), she continues to represent Zara’s through organizations like Illinois Women in Leadership, and she continues to carry out a main focus that Zara’s has had from the beginning of giving back to the community.

Fourteen years ago, Zara’s began donating a car to a local young mom in need of a vehicle through their Benevolence Program and has since given away 27 cars, with the help of local donations and other service companies. This program later connected Julie with Contact Ministries and inspired her to begin attending Hope Church, which awakened a passion for homelessness, and women and children.

To hear Julie speak about her work at Contact Ministries is to witness a true love of serving God. Through a class she helps run each week, Julie has been able to take her background in education (she was a teacher in Springfield and Williamsville for many years as a newlywed and young mom) and apply it to her love of helping young single moms at Contact Ministries by teaching them what they have never learned: how to be a mother.

“It’s heart-breaking, but to see them be empowered and have self-worth for the first time…” she trails off, and we both know the impact she is making and seeing. “And I love that I can talk about my faith – it’s a Christian organization – because this gives them hope and a sense of direction.”

Achieving business and community success is dependent on finding your role within your family, your job and your volunteer positions. Balance is a hot topic in our society, and Julie and I agreed that balance and success are a decision we make every day through our actions and attitudes.

With her defining roles as a mother, business owner and homeless advocate, it’s safe to say that Julie Zara has made some good decisions.

By the way, I had Café Brio’s chipotle shrimp quesadilla, and it was divine.

Courtney Westlake


Courtney Westlake is a freelance writer from Springfield.


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