Gender engenders results for Manitoba GM store

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After seeing sales almost triple in five years at Selkirk Chevrolet-BuickGMC, in Manitoba, the dealership thinks it has found the secret to its success: Women in senior roles. 

Women in sales and sales management. Women in nontraditional roles, such as technicians and service advisers. And women in financial management. 

“That’s something we’ve always been proud of,” said Matt Walters, general manager of the dealership in this city, about 22 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. “We’ve created a culture where everyone can be successful.” 

Since the push to put more women into senior roles began five years ago, annual newand used-vehicle sales have risen from fewer than 400 in 2014 to more than 1,100 today, said Walters, a third-generation owner. 

In fact, the business has done so well, the family recently bought the Steeltown Ford dealership across the street and appointed a successful woman from the General Motors dealership to be sales manager there. 

‘ESTROGEN GM’ 

At the Selkirk store, women make up more than a third of the staff of 75, Walters said. 

Between the two stores, three of the five sales managers are women. Two of the technicians at the GM dealership are women, as is one parts adviser and two of the dealership’s five service advisers. 

One of them, Nancy Wendell, joined the Selkirk GM store in 2014 and was top seller two years in a row. She left to spend two years at a dealership in Alberta but was lured back home with the offer to become a sales manager. Wendell replaced Diane Little, who was promoted to general sales manager. 

Little is credited with giving the dealership its nickname: Estrogen GM. 

“Women kind of have a different way with things,” Wendell said. “A lot of customers are just kind of put at ease.” 

Women sales staff, she said, are able to cater to a whole different demographic, including women who are intimidated by the traditional sales experience. 

“If you’re a young girl,” she said, “who would you rather talk to?” 

Wendell noted that women work in every department, including parts and service, and all earned their way up through merit. 

“It started with Diane,” she said. “The hardworking females have slowly worked their way to the top.” 

FROM ‘TRENCHES’ TO THE TOP 

Kelly Balmer began with the Walters family in 2011 and is now general manager at Steeltown Ford. She began in finance and then applied for a sales-manager position when it became available. 

There’s no magic to her success, Balmer said. She has worked “in the trenches” as a junior staff member and learned that winning over customers hinges on “paying attention to the small ball.” 

“The customer has to come first,” she said. “Sometimes in the car business, we forget that.” 

John White, interviewed shortly before his Aug. 30 retirement as president of the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association (CADA), said 159,000 people are employed in dealerships across the country. Just less than 80 per cent are men. That’s slowly changing. 

“If you look at 10 years ago, it was about 90-10,” White said. “Women are making inroads.” 

CADA supports several initiatives to attract nontraditional employees, including the carsandjob.com recruitment website. About a year and-a-half ago, the association began a push to attract more women, millennials, new Canadians and veterans into automotive retailing.

At the same time, “Dealers on their own are taking measures,” White said, adding that recruiting women into sales only makes sense. 

“Fifty per cent of your buyers are women,” he said. “Dealers are learning how to tailor their presentations to them.” 

‘A WAKE-UP CALL’ 

Marc Bland, chief diversity officer at the IHS Markit automotive division in Michigan, said the smart dealerships are giving women more responsibility. 

“Women influence 85 per cent of all new-vehicle purchases. I think it’s a wake-up call for all of us.” 

Women are best suited to address the interests of their peers who are looking to buy a vehicle, he said. 

“Those dealer owners in Manitoba are pretty smart,” Bland said. “Do like-minded cultures — and I think this applies to genders, too — seek out dealers like themselves? The answer is, ‘Yes.’”

While the car business is historically male-driven, Selkirk hires for the person rather than emphasizing product knowledge, Walters said. It requires a little more training up front, he said, but it’s worth it. 

New employees who come from outside the industry are more likely to challenge conventional wisdom, he said, citing one 21-year-old female employee who has made a number of suggestions on how things can be done better. 

“A lot of people would’ve looked at her resume and said, ‘No car experience,’ ” Walters said. 

That fresh perspective encourages the dealership to let go of tradition-bound thinking. 

“New people say, ‘Why do we do it that way?’ ” Walters said. “That’s a real pitfall — to be constantly looking at the past.” 

Instead, women are helping this small-town dealership accelerate into the future, which is an encouraging trend, said CADA’s White. “It’s not as fast as we would like to see, but it’s got to start at the grassroots.” 

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