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Feisty owner behind wheel of A-Girl

If you live in Hyde Park or Carrollwood or Temple Terrace, you may have never seen the bright pink tow trucks with the crudely painted words "A-Girl Towing" on the side.

If you live in College Hill or Belmont Heights or the un-redeveloped fringes of Seminole Heights, you probably know them well.

For the past 15 years, A-Girl's tow trucks have been common and unmistakable sights in Tampa's poorer neighborhoods.

"Nobody wants to go to those projects, but I don't mind," said owner Shelia Cole. "I've made a niche business for myself."

Cole never set out to own a towing company. In 1989, with some money in the bank from a lawsuit settlement, she had planned to open a used-car lot. She would buy old cars and fix them up. As sort of an eye-catching gimmick, she would put fancy rims on all the cars in her lot.

"If I'd done that, I'd probably be rich," she said. "Rims are huge now."

While she was waiting to get her business licenses for the car lot, she acquired an old gray tow truck from a relative. She planned to use it to bring old cars to her lot.

"I didn't know anything," she said. "He showed me how to use it."

Gradually, she started getting calls from people _ friends, then friends of friends, then total strangers _ who needed their cars towed,

"I'd get out of the truck and they'd say, "Hey, you're a girl!' and finally I said "That's it!' " she said.

She realized that her gender was a better gimmick than fancy wheels. And she realized that even though she didn't have any cars to sell, she already had a tow truck and some decent word-of-mouth business. She painted her truck pink, and A-Girl Towing was born.

Not many small businesses make it for 15 years, and Cole has had to fight hard to keep her company alive. She has had to battle the city and county governments, which she said have tried to thwart her business. She even had to sue to get A-Girl put on the list of towing companies that the police call to impound illegally parked vehicles.

"They told me I had to spend a ton of money to qualify," she said. "Then when I paid all that money and got qualified, they said they didn't need me."

She blames racism for the official hostility, but a prison record _ she was a drug addict in her younger years and has been clean for many years now _ may also factor in.

Still, she says, she gets the calls that the other towing companies won't take, to parts of town that many people consider seedy or even scary.

"That's all right with me, I'll take whatever work there is," she said. "Give me a broom and I'll start sweeping."

Other local towing companies haven't been friendly to her over the years either, Cole said. But more recently, they've started to accept her as a colleague.

"They want to walk in the door, now that I've kicked it open," she said.

Illness also threatened A-Girl. In the mid 1990s, Cole developed kidney problems and had to cut back on her business activities. Family members kept the business open until about a year ago when Cole was able to resume her full-time workload.

"My family, they kept it going even though they didn't know what they were doing," she said. "My brother, I can't tell you how much money he loaned me."

Cole works mainly in the office these days. She has three trucks, and at the moment they're all driven by men.

But the fact that A-Girl is one of the few towing companies owned by a woman has its rewards. Many women feel more comfortable calling A-Girl when their cars break down, and sometimes husbands prefer it when their wives call A-Girl, figuring they'll be treated fairly by a company owned by a woman.

Sometimes, though, wives aren't happy when their husbands call A-Girl. Cole has had some angry calls from women who are suspicious of a company with pink trucks and the word "girl" on the door.

"I have to say, "Ma'am, this is not an escort service,' " Cole said.

More common reactions, though, include waves, peace signs and supportive horn blasts from passing female motorists. She has had calls from young black women who say that Cole has inspired them to follow their own business dreams.

Not all that support comes from local folks. In 1991, Cole and her truck were featured on a nationally distributed calendar from an insurance company. She thinks it was Prudential, but she's not sure. She received letters from black women, some offering support, and others asking for advice. She just told them to work hard and stay focused on their goals.

The calendar also brought her a marriage proposal from a stranger. She didn't accept, but she still counts her inclusion on that calendar as a major honor.

"I was August," she said. "I was right behind old Elvis, so I guess I did all right."

When Shelia Cole, owner of A-Girl Towing, first began answering calls, she found that many customers were surprised to see a female tow truck operator. So she decided to use that as her gimmick. She painted her trucks pink, and A-Girl towing was born.

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