Women breaking through automobile glass ceiling
FRESNO, Calif. -- Caren Myers still surprises a few people when they find out she's the general manager of the Lexus dealership in Fresno, Calif.
They shouldn't be.
Myers has been in the automotive business 42 years, rising from receptionist at a Ford store 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 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 percent 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.
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 percent of women would rather deal with women in a showroom, compared with 10 percent 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."
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 percent are owned by women, up from 2.6 percent 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."