Marleny Neal loves her job in a line of work that was once a male preserve.
She’s a sales consultant at Southern Motors Honda in Savannah.
And she’s worked there nine years.
At her dealership, three of its 14 salespersons are women. Also, the parts director is female. One of two finance managers is female. (She works in a combo position in sales, said Danny Kaminsky, co-owner of Southern Motors Honda.) Also the Honda web sales manager and “99 percent of the web sales department,” is female, he said.
“It’s the best person for the job. It doesn’t matter who it is,” said Kaminsky who is also co-owner of Southern Motors Acura and Southern Motors Springfield Chrysler Dodge/Jeep/Ram.
But Neal’s sex can be a sales advantage, she and Kaminsky said.
Why? “Because women feel more comfortable with a female (sales person);.But you have to be good with everybody, men, families,”.said Neal who has won a national award for sales six years in a row. (For Honda’s Gold Master award, sales people have to sell at least 175 new cars a year. In 2015, Neal sold 220.)
Neal knows cars inside and out. And she knows how to sell them using social media and Bluetooth technology. (She communicates with prospective and regular customers on Facebook And she has to know Bluetooth because new Hondas connect to cell phones on Bluetooth so that drivers can talk on a cell phone without taking their hands off the wheel.
But the secret of her success? “I love to work with people and find the car they really like and need,” said Neal, a former anesthesiologist from El Salvador who had to change careers when she moved to the United States. “This is entirely different,” she said. “But if you’re good with people, any job is good.”
“Women have a strong presence in the current automobile market,” said Southern Motors Honda parts manager Angela Henderson. “There are lots more females everywhere in the automobile dealerships—salespeople, females in service, female technicians. We had this little, tiny girl in the lube rack and she could hold her own of anybody who works in the lube rack. She changed the oil, changed tires and — tires are heavy — she didn’t ask for help.”
Around Savannah, there are more men than women working at car dealers but women have come a long way from the ’60s when, some Savannah car dealers recall, many dealerships had no car saleswomen at all. “I think the interest of women coming into the automobile dealerships would come in the ’70s,” said Kaminsky. “We started seeing interest, not only in sales but management also.”
Women in the service department as well as sales are popular with female customers, Kaminsky said. “Women are more comfortable telling them (service writers) what the issues are. (with their car)….And, he said, sometimes even a male customer feels more comfortable with a female service writer, too.. “They see a female service writer and it brings down their guard a little bit.”
These days, some dealerships are looking to hire more women.
“We are very much looking to employ females.” said general manager Richard Nimphie of Chatham Parkway Lexus and Hilton Head Lexus.
Between the two dealerships , “we have three female salespersons. The general sales manager of Chatham Parkway Lexus is female. We have two female service consultants between the two dealerships. Both office managers are female and one in the parts department is female,”. Nimphie said.
“The ladies are an asset to our business. I’d love to see more of them” said Craig Redker, general manager of Fairway Lincoln/Mazda who has been in the car business 36 years, 34 as a manager. “I will hire every good saleswoman I can find. But our business doesn’t attract them.”
Walter Lewis, president of J.C. Lewis Ford has female service advisers: “It’s just that they’re hard to find in any shape or kind. But we don’t put the emphasis on whether we hire a man or a woman.”
Conversely, Dale Critz, Jr., owner of the Critz Auto Group which sells BMWs, Mercedes-Benz, Buick, GMC trucks and Sprinter vans said that women are relatively easy to hire.
“Thirty percent of our sales force are women,” he said. The numbers break down to six women out of 18 people in sales, two women out of eight service advisors and one wholesale parts representative for Mercedes and Buick/GMC. And the sales manager for Buick/GMC is a woman.
“It’s hard to find good people (for any job)But I’ve found we get a pretty good sampling of women,” Critz said. He was about to look at a job portal through which he hires and “I’ll betcha they’ll probably be a third of the applicants…Women buy 50 percent of the cars…So it makes all the sense in the world to be representative of the customers.”
Still, even at Critz, women are not at parity with the men.
Why more women aren’t attracted to the auto sales business isn’t clear. “That’s the $24 question,” Kaminsky said. “When we put an ad in the paper, 85 percent of people who apply are men.”
Some of the managers and women in the automobile business said the long hours that saleswomen have to put in could make it hard to do for women with children, especially if they had a baby. Neal’s son was 10 when she began working at Southern Motors Honda. “It’s kind of hard but the Kaminskys helped me. I used to pick him up (from school) and take him here (the dealership). He used to do his homework here. When he got older “they gave him little jobs to do. That’s how I worked the long hours,” she said.
Owners and managers of other dealerships said that these days they allow women—and men—to bring school age children to work with them.
Corny Beatty, parts manager at Fairway Lincoln/Mazda for 26 years, and the only female in management there, said she wasn’t sure why there weren’t more women in the automobile business. But, she said, “I think it’s because they don’t have the knowledge of cars—or want to have the knowledge. I guess they don’t think about coming to work in a dealership.”
Maybe. But “more and more women know about automobiles,” Honda parts manager Henderson said. “I’ve had two females that work for me now”, Henderson learned about automobile parts by going underneath cars. “My boss, who was retired Air Force, taught me everything about cars. He would take me to the rack when cars were on the lift and he would show me how the transmission and the axles all go together to make the cars run.”
Some of the women who are in the auto business say their knowledge of cars is what makes customers as well as men in the dealership respect them. “When they first see a female, they think you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Beatty said. “When they realize your mind does work and that you know the underneath of a car, that gets their attention.”
She learned about auto parts in the ’80s from a technician in a small dealership in North Charleston. She was hired as a secretary but “I did the warranties. If we didn’t have a service manager, I did that.” And the technician there would explain how things worked. I saw the parts out of the boxes and on the car,” she said. “I look at a car as a jigsaw puzzle. I look at the parts as a piece of the puzzle.”
Donna Tillman, sales consultant at Fairway Lincoln/Mazda with 14 years in car sales , said that detailed knowledge of a car was the reason for her success..“You’ve got to know your product. You’ve just got to know about cars and the safety aspect top to bottom…And you have to earn their (the customers’) trust.”
But Tillman said “You have to work twice as hard as man because you are in a career that is predominantly men.” Beatty agreed. “I think we work harder. I think we have to. because we’re in a man’s world. We feel we’re still competing with men. We have to prove that we belong.”
Added Redker, “A lady (salesperson) has to be tougher than a man. Some men show a lady very little respect . Unfortunately, we still have dinosaurs in our business that don’t give the ladies the respect. But they’re a huge minority in our business.”
Even though times have changed, car saleswomen still can face clear-cut discrimination.
Southern Motors Honda sales consultant Neal said that about once a year a customer doesn’t want to work with her because of her sex. “They tell me they want a male salesperson,” she said. “I just go and find somebody that will make them feel comfortable.”
Sometimes discrimination in the car business affects the buyer. Some couples who were looking at cars have been offended when the salesman talked only to the husband—totally ignoring his wife. “I’ve seen it before, where a couple will walk in and the salesman will shake the man’s hand and not even acknowledge who the guy’s with,” Kaminsky said.
But, he said, that kind of behavior is not likely to sell a car.
Lanie Lippincott Peterson is a Savannah writer and a contributor to Business in Savannah.