Twenty-one years ago, Laura Bertolli took over her father’s San Rafael auto body business, which he started 19 years earlier after migrating from Italy.

Last week, she watched as Bertolli’s Auto Body Shop signs were dismantled and replaced by those of GMP Cars. She sold the shop in the hopes of using her business background and passion for marijuana to join the growing cannabis industry.

“Though I love cars, it’s more a family business I went into,” said Bertolli, 55, of San Rafael. “Now, it’s what I want to do. I want to promote healing properties … that can change the world.”

[related_articles location=”left” show_article_date=”false” article_type=”automatic-primary-section” curated_ids=””]Bertolli was a teen when she first experienced marijuana. With last year’s voter-approved legalization of recreational marijuana throughout California, Bertolli knew her days were numbered at her auto garage.

Following a short break, Bertolli plans to step into a role as a pioneer in the largely uncharted territory of marijuana sales.

“A lead I have for executive director of a national cannabis organization, that attracts me,” she said, saying should could not recall the group’s name. “I want to use my skills as a business owner and CEO in that industry. Whether it’s a multi-level organization that needs a controller. I can see myself on the business side of things.”

Bertolli studied business at the University of California, Berkeley. She expected a career in accounting, but she eventually came to work with her father.

“I quit my job and started working with him,” Bertolli said. “I’ve been around cars, I knew the business side of things. I have a business degree. I didn’t work on cars, but I knew enough.”

San Rafael resident Laura Bertolli sold the longtime family business, Bertolli’s Auto Body Shop, and plans to join the marijuana industry. “It can just calm everyone down and bring peace,” she says. (Robert Tong/Marin Independent Journal)

Frank Bertolli, Laura’s 77-year-old father, knew he wanted his daughter to take over the shop. In 1996, she purchased it.

The transition was not easy for a woman in the male-dominated auto shop industry. Laura Bertolli recalls all six of her male employees refusing to work for a woman and quitting. She says she soldiered on and hired other employees.

“She was tough, she was tough,” Frank Bertolli said.

Jonathan Frieman, 64, a San Rafael resident who met Laura Bertolli through her volunteer work and later obtained services from her garage, said she ran an honest shop and maintained strong relationships with her employees.

“They’re very open about their operations,” he said. “They didn’t hide anything.”

He said he also liked that it was a woman-led business.

Joanne Webster, president and CEO of the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce, said Bertolli was recognized as a business of the year in 2015 “for being a role model for other female business owners, but also for what she gives back to the community.”

“Not only did she contribute and give to the chamber, but to other organizations and nonprofits,” Webster said.

Frank Bertolli compared the sale of the family business to the death of a loved one. But he said he is proud of his daughter’s time overseeing the shop.

“She’s been doing it all this time, she’s been doing good,” he said. “Now she’s tired of it and a couple of years ago she tired to sell it. I said if you want to get out, get out. If you do something you don’t want to do, it’s not fun. It’s fun to work when you like it.”

Frank Bertolli opened the business in 1971, and his daughter bought it in 1996. (Photo courtesy of Laura Bertolli)

Frank Bertolli opened the business in 1971, and his daughter bought it in 1996. (Photo courtesy of Laura Bertolli)

Frieman said he is surprised the former shop owner is venturing into an industry that is not fully supported in Marin. Earlier this year, the county rejected all proposals for medical cannabis dispensaries.

“But knowing Laura, the integrity of her being a good business woman, and all that stuff, I think she’ll do just fine,” he said.

Laura Bertolli said it is concerning that Marin is not fully embracing cannabis activity, especially with nearly 60 percent of voters statewide and almost 70 percent of Marin voters supporting legalization under Proposition 64.

She said no matter what the future of the cannabis industry entails, she has good vibes as she enters the next step of life.

“It can just calm everyone down and bring peace. It’s huge, lofty goals, but I think it’ll be possible. I don’t know if cannabis can do that alone – but it can help,” she said.