Women as dealership principals are integrating female-oriented management ideas in their stores.
In fact, one might even call these women business pioneers. That's the description used by Deborah Dorman, president of ENYCAR, Inc., the Eastern New York Coalition of Automotive Retailers.
“Women bring a different approach and style to something that has been a man's world,” she says. “And what they bring helps the industry to prosper because of some of the old traditional methods and styles commonly used in auto retailing today are not effective for today's workforce.”
She adds: “Women dealers will overcome their challenges by being innovative and creative, and not doing things just because that's the way their fathers or husbands did it.”
For sure, this business isn't for the timid or weak of heart, which, unfortunately, sometimes is how women in this business have historically been viewed, mostly by their male counterparts.
These pioneers have to be different from the stereotype, if that ever did apply.
“They have to be a certain kind of woman — thick skinned and ambitious — to thrive and survive in this business,” says Jody DeVere, president of AskPatty.com, an initiative to train, market and certify dealerships as female friendly.
“It's not a man's fault the automotive industry has evolved to a male-dominated industry,” she says.
Despite a sometimes thick veneer, women dealers are still women and often fulfill that traditional role in their family, including their dealership “family.”
For example, Jenny Trostel, dealer principal for Saab of Baltimore, recently took a day off to participate in a classroom field trip with her son. (Okay, some men dealers probably do so as well.)
“One of the comments made to me by my sales manager a few years ago was that if you grew up in a house with both parents, generally your mom ran the household, Trostel says. “Is a business any different than a household? Not really.
“You must manage many personalities, schedules and details,” she says. “You need patience and you nurture people, allowing them to grow into the best person for the job,” she says.
Few women dealers woke up one morning and decided to buy a dealership. Most women dealers became dealers because their fathers were dealers before them or their husbands were.
They learned the business the traditional way in many cases, learning through family need: filing, working the customer service desk, filling in the parts and service departments and otherwise helping out where needed.
DeVere says women are not often recruited into the automotive industry, although there are exceptions such as a Greater New York Automobile Dealers Assn. initiative.
High school guidance counselors are not speaking to girls about opportunities in the retail auto industry. (They don't talk it up much with boys either.) Recruiters often neglect mentioning the opportunity to women, too. As a result the industry gender balance reflects this.
It's not that opportunities for women in the business are lacking. Dealerships continue to hire women, but women in droves are not knocking on dealership doors looking for employment.
“But in dealerships where hiring women is a priority, it happens more frequently,” DeVere says. “CarMax is doing a great job raising the percentage of women in its workforce; it averages toward 30% women employees, a leading number in the industry.”
So why are women not drawn to work at auto dealerships, much less as dealer principals? Perception, much based on reality, explains much of the situation.
Women may view this industry as one where they must overcome many obstacles. Women and men tend to operate differently in all sorts of businesses.
Consider the woman car-buyer's perceptive. Car salesmen may treat women customers in a particular way that may not sit well.
“Our experience through training in dealerships is that men are still not restrained from making off-color remarks about women, which could be about the woman in the dealership buying the vehicle or about women in general,” DeVere says.
“This is due to a lack of human resource policies and procedures that educate and hold accountable performance in the dealership regarding this.”
Lynn Kimmel, president and co-owner of the Lockhart Automotive Group in Indianapolis, IN, and co-chair of the General Motors Women's Dealer Advisor Council, cites research that indicates women do not traditionally enjoy the pricing and incentive conversations sometimes associated with the car buying experience.
She says that GM's Women's Retail Initiative is to increase the number of women dealers and women employees in the retail environment.
“Women influence the majority of buying decisions and dealerships need women working in all areas, not just in the office,” she says. “All dealerships need to focus on being inviting to the female customer.”
Women make or influence an estimated 85% of all consumer purchases, from health- care products to automobiles. General Motors Corp says women purchase two-thirds of vehicles and influence about 80% of all sales.
Women own about 8% of new-car dealerships in the U.S., according to CNW Marketing Research Inc. The women-owned dealerships produce almost as many sales as their male-owned counterparts: 66.14 average sales per month compared with 71.3, according to CNW.
In running dealerships, women generally fall into two categories, DeVere says.
“The first operates exactly like a man, feeling they need to order to be successful. The second uses women's strategies in conducting business.
“They may create a more nurturing culture in the dealership,” she says. “Many of the women dealer principals are also balancing owning a business with motherhood and running a household.”
Saab dealer Trostel agrees. “There is more of an emphasis on creating balance between work and home than in some male-owned dealerships.
“[In many cases] we are managing a dual working situation where our spouses work too. We all have a life outside of the office. I have a life,” she says, “and I always have coverage in the dealership. We help each other out.”
Running a major dealership and raising children is a struggle, says Caroline Grossinger, a mother of three who is the dealer principal of the Grossinger Autoplex, a multi-franchise dealership spread in the northern Chicago suburb of Lincolnwood, IL.
“I love every minute I can spend with my girls and I love every minute at work,” she says.
She'd drop the kids off at school each day, then head to work, stay there until 6 p.m., go home, eat dinner, put the girls to bed and return to the dealership, often staying until 1 a.m.
She doesn't mind the grind. “To me, the glass is half-full, she says.
Trostel says she has a team leadership philosophy.
“Sales and service work together,” she says. “They like each other and have lunch together. The priority is to get the vehicle through the sales process and sell the next car.”
Tamara Darvish, vice president of DARCARS Automotive Group, is often asked how she is different as a female dealer.
“I respond that I wear pants and men wear pants,” she says. “But the DNA is different. Women are better mult-taskers than men and we care more deeply about the human element opposed to strictly a process-driven system.”
Trostel says, “As an owner, I personally meet and greet every customer who comes into my business. When they buy a car from me, I personally thank them.”
Women are also good at choosing and being mentors. They are more likely to ask for help. A plethora of automotive related women's associations and networking groups have sprung up lately to address this desire.
Gerry Meyers, a pioneer in marketing and selling to women in the auto industry created Woman's Automotive Dealer Exec-U-Link, a forum for women dealers to work together and share ideas.
“As women have broken barriers to enter traditionally male-dominated fields, they have rewritten a page from the ‘old boys’ network, practicing structured peer coaching to build their own careers and help other women aspiring to dealer ownership and top management,” Meyers says.
Trostel attributes her entry into ownership as a love for cars. Her father taught her that if she was going to drive them, she had to know how to fix them. So, she rebuilt her 1963 GT 750 Saab by herself.
Since 1995, the number of women-owned dealerships has more than doubled, according to CNW.
Many women who continue in the family tradition of dealer principals use their talents and skills to create businesses that identify themselves as different from male-oriented dealerships and that are more appealing to the female consumer.
“My style of caring is different than a male's perhaps,” Trostel says. “But I also understand that business is business and when it is time to make a decision that someone doesn't like, I will make that decision because it is the right decision.
‘I am blessed to have a wonderful team to work with, but that took time to develop,” she says. “I have two great sons, too. Maybe there is a correlation after all.”
— Steve Finlay contributed to this story.