CANADIAN AUTO DEALER TALKS WITH WOMEN WHO HAVE TRULY MADE THEIR MARK ON THE AUTOMOTIVE RETAILING LANDSCAPE
In the car business it’s often very easy for us to say he did this or he did that. The perception is, that automobiles and the related industries that sell and service them are very much a male dominated environment. However, as you’ll see from our cover story this issue, women do indeed populate the ranks and in growing numbers to boot. Here, we talk to four ladies who have been pioneers in the business, women who besides establishing themselves on their own merit, also oversee and operate some of the most successful new car dealerships in the country. To quote a certain television show, these are their stories!
Susan Gubasta, president of Mississauga Toyota, in Mississauga, Ont., was born into the car business but at an early age was adamant she’d end up doing something else. She grew up in a hard working immigrant family with her father Joe, getting into auto sales after trying his hand as a technician. “Strong work ethic was always important in our family when I was growing up,” says Gubasta, one of four siblings. “My dad was ambitious and my mom was a working woman. She ran her own hairdressing business and brought home the bacon while my dad worked to establish himself as a new car dealer.” Joe’s plans paid off when the family acquired a Ford store, which was later followed by Nissan, Acura and ultimately Toyota franchises. When the time came for Susan to consider a career path, the legal profession was her first choice. “So I went to school to become a legal clerk,” she says. However, she quickly found out that long hours spent poring over documents wasn’t really for her. “I’m a people person and for me it just wasn’t satisfying.” Gubasta’s father had long said she would do well in the car business, so she decided to give it a go. “I was literally thrown into the business office,” she says “And it really was a case of learning on the job, with just one week of training.” Gubasta ended up working in the business office at the family Ford store for three and a half years.
Natacha Methot, general manager at Methot Chevrolet Buick GMC in Victoriaville, Que., was also born into the industry but fairly early on, knew she liked cars and that this was where she wanted to be. “I’ve basically nearly always considered a career in the automotive industry,” she says. “However, being raised in a dealer family is still no guarantee
of developing passion for this business.”
For Methot, though passion was indeed a motivating factor. “I especially had an interest in the workings on the retail side,” she says, “how dealerships actually operate.” Although she might be in the family business, Methot has gotten where she is today, largely on her own merit. “I started working on the sales side. As a sales manager I quickly learned how important it was to really develop a rapport with customers, building those relationships is so critical because at the end of the day our customers are our business.”
Like many GM dealers, Methot found itself caught up in the “Great Recession,” and with it, General Motors’ bankruptcy and restructuring. “It was a very scary time,” says Natacha Methot. “We just didn’t know what was going to happen. Many dealers lost their franchises but fortunately we stayed in the race.”
For Methot, the re-birth was a chance to really prove herself, so she enrolled in NADA University. “It was very educational,” she says “and rewarding both on a professional and personal level.”
Katie Quinn, general manager of BMW Toronto, was like Methot, born into the business and at 26 years old must rank as one of the youngest GMs in the country. She coached hockey in her teens and in the summer worked at the family dealership, Parkview BMW, in Toronto. “I started as a receptionist,” she says “but gradually took on more responsibility.” It was then that Quinn realized that maybe this business was for her. “I did a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Guelph but I’m a people person, so I wanted to not only be in
business, but work in a customer service oriented environment. The car business is unlike any other and the more I worked during my summers the more I wanted to be involved with it.” So after graduation Quinn dove in the deep end, becoming a service coordinator. “Working on the fixed ops side gave me a new level of appreciation for those who are in it. You deal with happy customers and some not so happy ones. It’s a challenging environment where problems often need to be solved quickly and we simply don’t give service advisors, coordinators and technicians the recognition they truly deserve.”
Marilyn Sheftel, dealer principal at Silverhill Acura in Calgary, Alta., runs one of the most successful Acura franchises in Canada, but originally planned to be an early learning teacher. “I’ve always had a strong instinct to nurture and help,” she says. Like Susan Gubasta, Sheftel’s father was in the car business and her mother a working woman. “My dad was a salesman at a Ford store and my mom worked in a men’s clothing store. This was in the 1960s and having both parents work, at least where we lived [in Winnipeg] was rare.”
Sheftel’s life changed when her family decided to move to Calgary for “two cents,” as she puts it. Initially, Sheftel says she was opposed to moving and elected to stay with relatives while she went to school. “I thought Calgary was a hick town where cowboys roamed the streets.” Nevertheless, missing her family she went out one Christmas and discovered what all the fuss was about. It was in Calgary where she met her husband, budding businessman Harvey Sheftel. Harvey had multiple businesses ventures including several dealerships — a Hyundai, Subaru and a Jeep-Eagle franchise. “One day, in 1985, my husband came home and said, Marilyn, you’re going to work at the Subaru dealer. Harvey said that he thought marketing and advertising would be great for me, so off I went,” she says. At around the same time, Harvey and a partner (which he eventually bought out) acquired the rights to one of the first Acura franchises in the country. “He wanted me to learn the ropes in marketing and advertising with the idea that I would play a part in the new store when it opened.” Silverhill Acura started operations on MacLeod Trail in February 1987 and Sheftel soon found herself immersed in the auto business, dealing extensively with Acura and Honda’s manufacturer representatives.
ALL ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS
For Susan Gubasta a pivotal moment came via tragedy. “It was when my brother Paul passed away,” she says. “Paul had been running our Toyota store and it was growing. I had been working in fixed ops and had attended NADA University, which completely changed the way I looked at the business. It was a real eye opener and helped me prepare for being a general manager.” However, with Paul’s untimely death, somebody needed to take over the Toyota store and Susan was seen as a good choice. “My dad really wanted that person to be me,” says Gubasta, “so one day he introduced me to the board and said this is my daughter Susan, she’ll be taking over as president of Mississauga Toyota! It was a day I’ll never forget.”
Adamant about building on the foundations Paul had put in place but with her own signature, Gubasta quickly worked on creating a new culture at the store, something she felt would prove essential to its success moving forward. “We wanted to make sure everybody who worked here felt part of a team and that meant breaking down silos between the different departments” she says. “We needed to ensure we had a flow of support through all departments so customers always felt they were being taken care of, no matter which part of the dealership they were in. And in order for our customers to be happy it also meant the staff had to be happy and know they had the support they needed.”
Besides fostering an environment where teamwork and openness are essential elements, Gubasta has also been somewhat of a pioneer, being among the first dealers in Canada to really embrace digital marketing and using the store’s online presence to drive business. “I’m the first to admit that I’m not the most technically inclined of people,” she says “but I understood that we needed to do this, to embrace the future.”
Marilyn Sheftel also suffered personal tragedy when her husband Harvey passed away in July 1991. Because of the relationships she’d been able to develop at Honda’s corporate level, she was asked to become dealer principal at a time where the idea was almost unheard of. “I did it without hesitation,” she says “I really didn’t know what I was doing but by the time people found out I would,” she says. “I was also lucky to have a great mentor at Honda’s corporate level, Jim Miller. He really believed in me and encouraged me every step of the way. Without his support I probably wouldn’t have done it.” In a case of when it rains it pours, besides dealing with a family tragedy and a very steep learning curve, Sheftel also had to contend with an economic recession, a fledgling auto brand plus a huge amount of debt hanging over the store and a difficult bank manager. Nevertheless, despite the obstacles, Sheftel says she “attacked it like a mama bear. We just chipped away at it and whatever money we made we retained.” She also changed banks. “My manager didn’t show me, nor my accountant Vivian a lot of respect, so we moved institutions and developed a great relationship with our new lender.” For Sheftel and Silverhill, it was the start of something big.
Natcha Methot says that the time spent at NADA University proved instrumental and enabled her to gain a greater understanding of the business. “As a woman, you often feel you have to overachieve. Although this business is full of professional people, there are still stigmas and prejudices,” she says. “That means it’s important for women in this industry to have strong role models, to band together and to stay positive. There are many challenges in the car business but also opportunities. You need to stay committed in order to succeed.”
Now that GM and the store has been able to whether the storm, business is growing, yet Methot says that a key to maintaining growth and running a successful dealership is to ensure you focus on the customer. “You really need to earn that loyalty,” she says “because it will help you through both the good times and the bad.” She also says that women in this business can learn to take advantage of their often more relationship focused approach. “Many customers want to know you care,” she says “that you take a genuine interest in their needs. I think it’s something many women can do well, perhaps because of their more nurturing instincts.”
Katie Quinn, discovered that a key driver to success was a willingness to learn and gain experience in as many different aspects of the business as she could. “I think having an understanding and being able to get involved in the process as much as possible is what will help drive you further.” After working in fixed ops, she moved into accounting and payroll, learning about the inside aspect of the business. “I felt it was so important, to understand how it all worked,” she says. This was then followed by stints in the business office and then back in the front end as sales manager, general sales manager and ultimately, general manager. However, despite her age, Quinn demonstrates a wisdom and understanding far beyond her years. She also makes a conscious effort to ensure her door is always open and that she is willing to help staff and tackle any job needed. She cites one example when, during her first general manager post at BMW Waterloo, she heard the lock on the door to the mens’ room was broken. “It had been for years,” she says “and although nothing had been done I decided to fix it. So one day I went to Canadian Tire purchased a lock, came back and fixed it myself. It was interesting to see the reactions of staff at the dealership, because I was so new at the time.” Quinn says that in being a general manager it’s important “to be the one that picks up the hammer.”
It’s a view shared by Marilyn Sheftel. Today, Silverhill is the highest volume Acura dealer in Canada and boasts an incredible retention rate, not only when it comes to customers but also employees, with a sizeable number having been with the dealership for 15 years or more. “We all spend more time here than we do at home,” Sheftel says “so we’ve tried to really create a sense of family and an environment where people want to come to work. We really are a team here and I care about everybody and want to make sure we always make time for each other.”