July Q&A: The Wonder Women of the Automotive Industry
Four top automotive executives explain why women don’t have to be superheroes to succeed—just smart, ambitious, focused, and resourceful
You don’t have to be a superhero to succeed in the automotive industry. Or do you?
If you’re a woman, you may have felt like you had to leap tall buildings in a single bound or perform mind-melding tactics to succeed in a profession long dominated by men. Fortunately, that’s changing.
In the past two decades, technology and the internet have revolutionized the way consumers buy new vehicles. A welcome side effect: Women now play a far greater role as buyers and influencers.
According to Jody DeVere, CEO of AskPatty.com, women influence 85% of automotive purchases in North America, and buy 65% of new vehicles. Also, 65% of dealership service is performed for female customers.
Consider also that more than 50% of licensed drivers in the U.S. are women, and the answer to the equation for manufacturers and dealers is simple: Women are the key buying demographic, especially millennials.
But is this fact reflected in terms of the personnel selling cars to all these women? Not so much.
According to NADA’s 2016 Dealership Workforce Study, only 18.6% of dealership employees—and 20% of new hires—are women. Only 7.8% percent of them are employed in key roles like ownership or upper management.
The gender imbalance between automotive retailers and the industry’s customers doesn’t mean men can’t sell effectively to women, of course. But it makes sense on many levels for more women to work in automotive.
A key reason: So many of the brightest, best-educated young professionals in the job market are women. What industry wouldn’t want to attract that kind of talent to maximize its current profits and drive its future?
The four female industry leaders in our Q&A describe how they got started and the challenges they faced, and reveal why women don’t have to be superheroes to succeed in automotive—just smart, ambitious, focused, and resourceful.
With 35 years in the automotive industry, Evelyn Chatel, partner/general manager of the Freedom Auto Group in Reading/Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has earned many prestigious honors. Chatel’s humble beginnings as a refugee from Fidel Castro’s Communist regime in Cuba, the challenges of her youth, and her mother’s leadership set the stage for her success by inspiring the desire and encouragement needed to pursue the American Dream. In 2006, Chatel and her partner created a vision to build a dealership based on a foundation of servant leadership and improving people’s lives. A concept foreign to the automotive industry, their initiative, known as #Life Improvement Business, continues to grow and encourages other businesses to follow Freedom Auto Group’s lead.
Kimberly Boren is the executive vice president/chief financial officer for Autobytel. She has been with the company in various roles since 2007. Boren has a master’s degree in finance from the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California. Autobytel offers the industry a full suite of high quality products and advertising services, including new and used car leads, AutoWeb Traffic, TextShield, SaleMove, Payment Pro, and WebLeads+. For more information, call (949) 225-4500. For Autobytel product information, dealer training, tips, advice, and news, visit dealer.autobytel.com.
Cathy Lang is president of Epsilon’s automotive/CRM practice, leading integrated marketing strategy and execution for long-standing clients including General Motors, Jaguar Land Rover, Nissan, Toyota, and Volvo. Prior to Epsilon, Cathy held a variety of senior-level, strategic marketing positions at Fortune 100 companies such as AT&T, Bridgestone/Firestone, MCI, and Grainger.
Marci Francisco has almost 20 years’ experience and expertise in the auto and finance industries. She has been with CU Direct since 2013 as the vice president of sales, western region, leading the largest sales business unit for the company. Prior to joining CU Direct, Francisco was senior vice president at Autoland, Inc., leading both marketing and business development. A member of the Automotive Executives Association, the Global Women’s Leadership Network, and on the fundraising council for the World Council of Credit Unions (WCCU), she graduated summa cum laude from Mars Hill University in 1996. Francisco has a track record of success in corporate strategy, marketing, social media, and the financial services, affinity, and automotive industries.
Q:What was your first job in automotive, what inspired you to take it, and how was your experience in the position?
Chatel: As service advisor at Braman Honda in 1984, I was told that all I had to do was talk to customers and be nice to people, and that came easy for me. Every day was different, because every customer’s needs were different.
The industry and the customers were surprised by a woman in that position in the 1980s. It was meant to be a man’s job. Men know more about cars . . . right?
But, what I found was that this business was never about cars, it’s about people.
Boren: My first job in automotive was with Honeywell’s transportation systems division. The unit manufactured consumer products such as Prestone, Autolite, and Fram, as well as Bendix brakes and Garrett OEM and aftermarket turbochargers. At Honeywell, I learned a tremendous amount about the automotive ecosystem, from consumer product distribution to working with the OEMs.
In 2007, I joined Autobytel, where I expanded my knowledge beyond the OEMs and beyond brick and mortar, and began to really understand the dealer space and technology. Today, and every day, we come to work at Autobytel to focus on helping the industry sell more cars, to develop technology that solves industry challenges, and to bring value to our shareholders.
I continue to expand my role as both technology and the industry evolve, which is exciting to me.
Lang: I was a seasoned marketing executive with brand and agency experience across a variety of Fortune 100 companies when I decided to focus on automotive.
Transformational changes were on the horizon in both the automotive and marketing spaces, and I quickly realized there was an exciting opportunity to impact the industry and drive revenue for clients.
When I began at Aspen Marketing (acquired by Epsilon in 2011), it was the top direct marketing agency servicing the automotive industry. What began as a 120-employee agency has grown to more than 1,300 employees, and that growth—in addition to the changes I’ve seen in the automotive industry—has been both challenging and rewarding.
Francisco: My first experience in the automotive industry was a temp job, installing software and printers for Y2K.
I knew little about cars (or computers), but was referred by a friend of mine who led marketing for the dealership. The position was only supposed to last for a few days, but I enjoyed the company and was good with people, so they offered me a full-time position in the IT department.
Before I knew it, I was working the weekend car sales, and my responsibilities grew from there. That company gave me the foundation to understand the financial and personal side of the business, learn to be nimble and adaptive, and to recognize opportunity and seize it.
Q:What are the biggest obstacles you’ve overcome in your career that you attribute to male coworkers’ attitudes toward, or preconceptions about, your gender?
Chatel: I never looked at the business or myself in terms of gender. I never allowed it to have an influence on me.
What is difficult is the hours for a woman, during that time. I remember my husband having to bring our baby to the dealership for me to nurse in a closet.
It wasn’t typical for women to sacrifice the family for a career in this industry.
Lang: Respect and being treated as an equal still remains a struggle for women in every industry, but it’s changing quickly and I believe it’s improving within the automotive industry each year.
When I started my career in the automotive industry 17 years ago, I was the only female on the leadership team and one of only 10 women at the agency. Our client meetings were heavily male-dominated, with a handful of female representation across numerous auto manufacturers.
The biggest obstacle was earning a spot at the table and having your voice heard. There weren’t female role models or mentors to help me navigate the industry, so it was a learn-as-you-go approach.
Francisco: As a woman in a field that is traditionally dominated by men, it can be hard to have your voice heard, regardless of your role or position.
Especially in group situations, where decisions are being made about strategy or direction, men often have a natural inclination to turn to other men first for an opinion, and may ask a woman more for validation than for being viewed as a thought leader.
Certainly, at times I’ve had to work harder, and be more visible in the industry, to gain a position of parity.
Q:What role does mentorship play in the success of women’s careers in automotive?
Chatel: When you are young, you take it for granted that this is the most important thing we have to do. That goes back to leadership.
We need to continue inspiring others. It never stops, and I have been very blessed to have had great mentors—women and men.
In our current company, we continue leadership and mentorship training as part of our company vision. It is our responsibility to build the next generation of leaders.
Boren: To me, mentorship transcends gender boundaries. It doesn’t make a difference if you’re a man or a woman in this industry—or any industry, for that matter—mentorship plays a key role in career development.
I have both male and female thought leaders I look up to and learn from. I don’t think there is any better way to learn the ins and outs of a profession than by listening to people who have been there and done that, and, specifically in my line of work, who have come up with successful, actionable ways to make their companies operate more efficiently and more profitably.
In turn, I enjoy passing that knowledge onto my team. When they do well, we all do well.
Lang: Mentors and role models are vital for today’s young workforce across every sector, and the automotive industry is no exception. I never had an official mentor myself, so once I earned my own seat at the table, I focused on being a change agent for the next generation.
I’ve directly seen the impact that mentorship programs can have on young women, helping them grow the confidence and the strength required to succeed both in professional and personal life. It’s very important to recognize the accomplishments women are making, support them throughout their careers, and elevate them into leadership roles, so we can groom the next generation of female leaders.
To support that vision at Epsilon, I’m launching a “Women in Leadership” initiative this year, with the goal of inspiring and supporting strong female talent across the company.
Francisco: Mentorship is important early in your career, to help lay a foundation and avoid mistakes that can damage your career. I had the chance to learn from people who went on to lead strategy at AutoNation, CDK Global, and TrueCar, so I was fortunate to be surrounded by brilliant minds.
Mentors can only take you so far, though. If you truly want to advance, finding an advocate is critical. Advocates can be hard to find, but are essential to helping you make connections with the right people and companies for your next career step [when] they wholeheartedly believe in your talent and drive.
Networking, and maintaining thoughtful follow-up and meaningful communication, can help you identify a potential advocate. Be smart about engaging on social media, at industry events, and with vendors and thought leaders to find potential advocates.
Q:Comparing the beginning of your career to now, how much progress has been made in terms of opportunities for career growth for women in automotive?
Chatel: We still have lots of challenges ahead of us. When I first started, the biggest one for me was the amount of time I had to invest away from my family.
As women, we are expected to be in the workforce, and at the same time be available for PTA meetings, birthdays, and other events because of the demands of the business and end of month. It comes back to the individual, and how willing we are to push forward with our career goals.
This is where a good internal and external support network helps to inspire and encourage. In terms of opportunities, there have been so many great women who have proven to be an integral part of this business, from engineering to mechanical, to management and leadership.
We need to keep pushing the envelope. I currently have two certified master technicians who are women. This gives us hope that more women will embrace this industry.
Boren: There are many opportunities for women in this industry. There really are.
Whether you’re on the dealer side, the supplier side, or the manufacturer side, if you’re smart, hard-working, and have good communication skills, you’re going to do well. At our company, for example, numerous women have held VP positions throughout our history, a woman currently sits on our board of directors, two female colleagues of mine are currently VPs, over half of our sales staff are women, and I am the CFO.
There has never been a single occasion at Autobytel when I felt as if I couldn’t advance. In fact, advancement is encouraged. I have many friends in this industry at other companies who share the same sentiment.
Lang: Women have made significant progress in the automotive industry over the last few decades, and I’m proud to have played a role in driving that evolution.
As an example, I reflect back on how I have taken our own leadership team from a single female leader to the group we have today, where 40% of my own leadership team is comprised of women. The women who work for me are absolutely killing it, and there’s no doubt that having that diversity is positively impacting our bottom line and providing a real competitive advantage.
On the brand side, we’re seeing more and more women successfully helming companies and taking senior executive positions—General Motor’s Mary Barra, the car industry’s first female chief executive officer; Trudy Hardy, marketing vice president at BMW of North America; and Cheryl Miller, executive vice president/chief financial officer at AutoNation.
As an industry veteran and change agent myself, it’s great to see other strong women breaking the glass ceiling and starting to eliminate the gender gap that exists in the automotive industry.
Francisco: I’ve seen a significant amount of growth over the past 18 years, both personally and across the industry. Women are more visible on the speaking circuit, in management, and across all areas of dealerships today.
Still, I feel we have quite a bit of work left to do. Although women are becoming more of an industry force, when walking the halls of NADA, our numbers are still a significant minority.
Striving for balanced representation in leadership is a challenge, and the best way to achieve this is to attract more women to our industry early in their careers by promoting the many attributes of the industry, and the opportunities and prospects that it holds.
Q:How can more young women who are interested in business careers be enticed into the automotive industry?
Chatel: It is our responsibility to show, in the actions we live every day, that it is a great business with lots of opportunities. Most women limit their options because they still see it as a “man’s industry.”
There are very few women general managers/owners, so it’s our responsibility to spread the word that it’s not just a man’s business. Our hiring processes need to not limit us on candidates based on gender.
Boren: The attributes that would entice anybody to a particular career—male or female—are what organizations should focus on today.
Let’s face it: Attracting and retaining talented employees across the board is extremely critical to a company’s success. Flexible work schedules, fair and equitable compensation, solid benefits, career path options, upward mobility, and child care support are all very important.
As a parent of two children, I’m around moms and dads all the time at school and sporting events. The family dynamic has changed and today, dads share a lot of the burden too.
Companies that make it easier for people to balance work and home life are particularly forward-thinking, in my opinion, and it’s this type of thinking that will attract more talent.
Lang: The automotive industry is a very exciting space right now.
The pace of change, technological advancements and digital evolution has impacted—and continues to impact—how we approach sales, marketing, and product development. Not to mention how it impacts all of us as consumers, and our futures.
While historically male-dominated, the automotive industry is evolving to look much like the technology industry, whereby it’s attracting young talent from all walks of life and backgrounds. I think nearly everyone is curious how connected and self-driving cars will change life as we know it.
Who, gender aside, wouldn’t take an opportunity to be part of history?
Francisco: I think we need to work harder in our recruiting efforts, be visible at job fairs and colleges, and promote how important our sector is more aggressively.
The auto industry continues to grow, powering almost 20% of our economy, and offers great opportunity. It’s about technology, marketing, human connections, and more than just mobility.
If we’re pitching a job at our company that’s about making money and selling something, we’re negating the human element that makes the auto industry thrilling. We’re not in sales. We’re in the people business, and if you’re smart, driven, and a great communicator, you can win here.
That resonates across both gender and age. The auto industry is about the American Dream. Who doesn’t want to be part of that?
Q:What is your best advice for success that you would offer women who are just getting started at a dealership or other automotive industry-related job?
Chatel: The most exciting part—and best advice—is that we don’t have to do things the way we’ve always done them. I’ve seen millennials and younger women changing processes to things we never thought of.
My advice is: The sky is the limit.
Our business is changing daily. There are no bad ideas.
Boren: “Attitude and aptitude” is my mantra.
The first is easy—work hard, be pleasant, be a valued contributor, and always have the best interest of the team at the forefront.
Aptitude can be a little more difficult, but search out and find those things at which you excel. Some people are natural-born marketers, others are finance professionals, others are engineers. Discover the areas that you enjoy and for which you have a natural ability.
Lastly, find mentors and never stop learning. Learn from your mentors’ successes and failures. Learn as much as you can from people who know more than you, and put that knowledge to use in your own role.
Lang: My advice is the same to women in any industry—be confident, tough, and strong.
Women deserve a seat at the table as much as anyone else, so don’t be apprehensive about voicing an opinion or asking for help.
The biggest challenge women face is a fear of not being heard.
Francisco: Make sure you make your intentions known early on, and boldly.
After my first year on the job, my CEO called me in to his office and asked me where I saw myself going with the dealership. I told him that one day, I’d take his job and keep him on retainer, just in case.
I was young and half joking, but both he and I ended up taking it seriously. He knew I wanted more, and I earned the right to have it.
If you don’t raise your hand, you’ll never get the chance.