Tâ€Šhere probably hasnâ€™t been a glass ceiling in the U.S. automobile industry since Mary Barra became CEO of General Motors in 2014…
But if that ceiling for women is now shattered, itâ€™s full of dangerously sharp glass shards in this still-male-dominated world.
Patti Swope stepped through those shards when she became president of the Sam Swope Auto Group this month. And for those who think thatâ€™s just because of the last name on her birth certificate, sheâ€™s quick to point out, â€œmy father never handed me anythingâ€ after that first job on one of his showroom sales floors, in 1986. â€œHe was too smart a businessman, and too protective of what heâ€™d built, for that.â€
That first job came when the 22-year-old returned to Louisville from Colorado, where sheâ€™d earned a degree in geography and urban planning from the University of Denver and then spent four months as a waitress in Aspen.
â€œHe offered me a job selling Pontiacs in the old St. Matthews showroom on Shelbyville Road, until Iâ€™d figured out the rest of my life,â€ she said.
She figured it out.
The job was no particular sinecure. Even as late as the mid-1980s, an auto showroom transaction was seen as purely a man-to-man conversation. Male customers would talk to female salespersons only reluctantly. (Though, actually, there were very few female salespersons.)
And male salespersons would likely talk only to male customers, even if it was a couple shopping for the car. Even if it was a car for the woman; even if the woman was clearly paying for it.
But Patti persisted. After selling cars, she spent time in finance management, in the business office where the contracts are finalized; she managed the customer service programs; she was a sales manager; worked in advertising and marketing; and was general manager of a Volvo dealership.
And thatâ€™s because she could get under the hood and point out how, with a hemi engine, the hemispherical chamber allows for larger valves that provide maximum power at high RPMs?
â€œNo, I never did become a gearhead,â€ she says. â€œBut I donâ€™t think customers always want a gearhead. I say to a lot of women considering selling jobs in this business, â€˜Itâ€™s really not about cars and engines. Weâ€™re in the people business, offering professional advice and help.â€™ You just have to like people. People buy things from people they like.â€
Itâ€™s not just women salespeople, either. She also tells male job applicants, â€œItâ€™s not enough to like engines and cars. I get that a lot. â€˜I really love cars, I want to be in the car business.â€™ But I warn them that they have to really like people, too, and understand how to work with them, take care of them, address their needs, earn their trust.â€
Swope says women still donâ€™t see automobile sales as a business they want to get into, and yet â€œmany of those who do are among our highest performers.â€
Why? â€œBecause theyâ€™re good listeners, they hear what the customers want, rather than just talking at them.â€
Plus, the business has changed. â€œWe have an increasing number of women customers, and sometimes they prefer dealing with another woman. So itâ€™s great for our business to have a variety of people, as well as a variety of product.â€
Swope has spent a good deal of her time at the company working to overcome some of the negative imagery of car salesmen. Itâ€™s especially important now, she says, because â€œanybody can buy a car on the Internet today. To get customers to come into our dealerships, we have to establish ourselves as offering good, valuable advice and trust â€“ even friendship. Thatâ€™s how dealerships will remain relevant.â€
She is also working to change the culture of the company. There are now 16 separate Sam Swope Auto Group dealerships â€“ 13 new car showrooms and three for â€œpreviously ownedâ€ cars â€“ and tight central management might not work as well as in the old days.
â€œIâ€™m empowering our managers to run their dealerships in whatever unique ways they feel they need to to be successful,â€ she explains. How would a strong hands-on executive like her father react to this â€œanarchyâ€? She would use an analogy dear to his heart: University of Louisville sports.
â€œWeâ€™re like the UofL athletic department,â€ she explains. â€œIt has a number of different teams in different sports with different playing fields, rules, players, coaches. They donâ€™t all play the same game, but theyâ€™re all Cards and they all want UofL to win.â€
To develop the skills that produce the wins, Swope has expanded the Sam Swope Academy, a structured and deliberate one-week training program that every new employee â€“ sales consultant, service advisor, parts and garage worker â€“ must complete. â€œNo matter what their experience, we want them to do it our way,â€ she insists. â€œWe specifically train our sales consultants to ask certain questions, including, â€˜Whoâ€™s the car for?â€™ And if itâ€™s for the woman, our associates are trained to address every question to her.
â€œThere is no reason for a woman to think sheâ€™ll be treated differently,â€ Swope says. â€œI say to my friends, â€œIf you feel youâ€™re treated poorly because youâ€™re a woman, walk right out!â€™ â€
Even if itâ€™s a Swope dealership? Her eyes brighten and she smiles broadly, but thereâ€™s firmness behind her smile. â€œI like to think that never happens in a Swope dealership.â€ VT