For Kitty Van Bortel, the owner of Van Bortel Subaru and Van Bortel Ford in Victor, New York, last year was a tad disappointing. After three years of taking the prize as the top-selling franchise of Subaru of America Inc, Van Bortel came in second.
Even so, sales at her Subaru dealership held steady at about US$43 million, and she lost the top spot by a mere 17 cars.
PHOTO: NY TIMES
Not bad, especially considering how difficult it has been for women to break into the retail car business. The National Automobile Dealers Association has never officially called its training academy "the Dealer Sons' School," but that's how women of a certain age remember it.
Although women now buy 50 percent of all cars and are on a path to buying even more, the number of women selling cars has risen only slightly.
Dealership owners, like Van Bortel, are even scarcer.
Women hold about 7 percent of all jobs in dealerships, up from 3.5 percent in 1990, according to CNW Marketing Research. But while women account for 60 percent of the office staff, they fill only 7.1 percent of the general manager roles and 4.9 percent of the ownership positions, numbers that haven't changed much in the last decade.
Acknowledging the importance of women in the marketplace, automakers have long been rethinking how they design vehicles.
Many cars displayed this week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, for example, are marketed to appeal to women.
Of General Motors' 7,400 dealerships, 226, or 3 percent, are owned by women. At Ford Motor, women own 278, or 5 percent, of the 5,165 dealerships. It's much the same for other automakers.
The retail car business, like many others, has long been a father-son story. Sons took over dealerships as their fathers retired or died, and showrooms and service bays looked much the same for a century, with few women or members of minorities.
Then, if sometimes only by circumstance, a few women started inheriting dealerships from their fathers or, increasingly, from their husbands, and it appeared that time was finally marching on.
The major automakers have offered programs in recent years to recruit minority dealers, and they have now extended those efforts to women as well.
In January 2001, GM became the first automaker to create a dealer development program for women. Some other companies, like Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc -- which counts 33, or 2 percent, of its 1,406 dealerships as owned by women -- offer only financial assistance, and only to candidates with extensive experience in the car business.
GM and Ford, meanwhile, make loans and pay for intensive training and internships through the dealer association's academy.
Women who own dealerships tend to do well, and several manufacturers report that franchises owned by women are at or near the top in overall sales volume.
"The reason women become so successful is we're interested in treating women right when they come in," said Van Bortel, 48. "I don't mean to sound stereotypical, but women have so much more empathy for customers."
She has research on her side. CNW says 39 percent of women would rather deal with women in the car showroom, compared with 10 percent of men who prefer to buy cars from other men.
On the flip side, 13 percent of women prefer to deal with men, and 11 percent of men want to deal with women. The rest are indifferent about the sales representative's sex.
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