Women wheel and deal
Caren Myers still surprises a few people when they find out she's the general manager of the Lexus dealership in Fresno.
They shouldn't be.
Myers has been in the automotive business 42 years, rising from receptionist at a Ford store in Santa Rosa to owning her own Saturn dealership in Southern California a few years ago.
"Yes, even in this day and age, some people still think that the general manager is a man," said Myers, who took over management of Fresno Lexus in October 2005.
While Myers still may raise a few eyebrows, perceptions are changing in the automobile industry. An increasing number of women in the United States — and especially Fresno — are taking leadership roles in dealerships or owning their own stores.
Industry analysts say it's a smart trend; women buy about half of all new cars and trucks sold in the United States.
Automakers and their dealers are paying attention — making sure that everything from the look of the dealership to who's running it appeals to women.
Web sites devoted to car buying by women have popped up, too: AskPatty.com and Edmunds.com/women.
"Women today have a much larger influence in the market than ever before," said Marcella Rojas, spokeswoman for the California Motor Car Dealers Association in Sacramento.
"And there are many good women auto dealers that have broken through the glass ceiling and have earned the trust and loyalty of their franchisers, employees and customers."
Nationwide, about 7% of new-car dealerships are owned by women, and car makers are pushing for bigger numbers with efforts such as General Motors' Women's Retail Initiative, a program that recruits and trains women to become car dealers.
California lags behind with just 3% of the new-car dealerships owned by women.
Fresno's female car dealers — TheeAnna Stevens at Fresno Acura and Yrma Rico at Weber BMW — represent 10% of the local market.
Among general managers, Myers at Fresno Lexus is joined by Linda Gist at Bingham Toyota in Clovis.
"I think Fresno is very unique to have that many women involved in the industry," Myers said. "When I owned a Saturn store in Orange County, I think I was the only woman dealer."
Myers is somewhat of a pioneer.
She began her career answering phones, working her way up at a time when opportunities for women in the car business were few.
She spent nearly two decades on the accounting side.
"I didn't know I could sell cars until I was about 35 and someone told me that I was wasting my talents. Everything changed after that."
Myers' skills were honed at GM's women's retail initiative program in 2001, and she took over a Saturn dealership in San Juan Capistrano.
She owned and operated the store for about two years before selling it in 2004. She was later recruited by the Romero family of Southern California to run its new Lexus store in Fresno, where she says nearly half the buyers are women.
"I like to be very visible in the community and in our showroom, and I think that makes a difference," Myers said.
Automobile analysts agree that the female factor matters in the car business.
A survey by CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore., found that 39% of women would rather deal with women in a showroom, compared with 10% of men who prefer to buy cars from other men.
"What we have found is that women relate better with customers, and there is also the trust factor," said Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing.
"And given that we have such a large percentage of women who are new-car buyers, it makes sense to have more women on the sales floor and in the organization. But you also have to create a career path for women."
Finding women to fill those jobs is not easy, said Stevens, owner of Fresno Acura.
Stevens has owned the Fresno dealership for more than 20 years, having grown up in her family's auto business in the Bay Area.
She had the opportunity to learn the business from all aspects and said she learned that selling a car doesn't require a lot of technical know-how.
"Some people think that if you don't know how to change the oil or the tire that you shouldn't have anything to do with selling vehicles," Stevens said.
"But what we have learned is that it is important to understand how that car fits into a person's everyday lifestyle. Those are the skills we need to apply."
Rico, owner of Weber BMW, knew very little about running a dealership before deciding to partner with her son-in-law Jerry Pajouh, an industry veteran with more than 20 years experience with BMW.
Rico made her fortune in television as one of the founders of Entravision Communications Corp., a giant in the Spanish-language television industry.
She said she recalls the time she met 20 other BMW dealers from around the country for a strategy session.
"In the beginning, it was a little difficult because they didn't know very much about me," she said.
"But when I began talking about marketing and sales and how we use those things in the television industry, their attitudes changed. Pretty soon I was putting together presentations on how to target the Hispanic market. I earned their respect."
The path to owning a dealership varies. But the industry is seeking out more who see it as an opportunity.
At General Motors, still the world's largest automaker, officials said they are pleased with their progress in creating new opportunities for female car dealers.
Of the 7,000 GM dealerships, 3.7% are owned by women, up from 2.6% in 2001 when the company launched its women's retail initiative.
Joycyln Waters, director of the initiative, said the training program attracts a wide variety of women — those with business degrees to those with extensive experience in the automotive industry.
"This has been a man's world for a long time," Waters said.
"And what we are trying to do is change the environment so that we can make it more attractive to women to become owners and operators."