Fate had a curious way of altering the career paths of many women who now run their own tire dealerships. Kim Batson Sutphen of Batson Tire & Automotive Center Inc. used to be a loan officer at a large bank. Susan English of Suburban Tire Co. was a proof reader for a magazine. Nanette Walker of Liberty Tire Co. was a teacher with a master's degree.
Various circumstances lured these women into this ``non-traditional'' field where they are a minority. They enjoy the rewards of ownership and they bring a certain perspective to the business.
Ms. Sutphen grew up in her father's Bryan, Texas, tire business but pursued a job as a loan officer after college-only to find she didn't like working for a large corporation where one loses personal contact with the customers. She went back to her family business and eventually became the sole owner.
As an owner, ``I can do what I think needs to be done to help a customer,'' she said, noting she has the final say on whether to give refunds or adjustments to make the customer happy.
``Every day we put money in the bank, we're building something and that's a good feeling,'' Ms. Sutphen said.
Ms. English left her job in publishing to help her husband open his own dealership in Glendale Heights, Ill. After his death in 1990, she took over as president.
But Ms. English's complaint about overseeing six outlets is her job involves ``too much administrative duties.'' She has seen a lot of changes since her dealership opened in 1976-``proliferation of tire sizes, more sophisticated equipment, cost of business has increased. . . federal regulations are stricter. There is more red tape and it's harder to make a profit.''
Ms. Walker worked part-time in her parent's dealership in Cincinnati while pursuing a master's degree in special education. After a record-breaking sales month at the dealership, she caught the selling ``bug'' and never went back to teaching. She later became sole owner.
Meanwhile, Patricia Jasmin, president of Amherst Tire Center in Amherst, Mass., had worked her way up the ladder in a tire store until ``I decided to stop working for someone else. . . I was doing all the work for the boss and had none of the satisfaction.''
She said she received a lot of support from her old boss, whom she worked with for 20 years, and her husband when she decided to open her independent Goodyear dealership in 1979.
Having a good support team when starting a business helps, noted Suburban Tire's Ms. English. ``If you are going into it alone, you may not get the attention and respect of suppliers,'' she said. ``You have to have good financial backing and a good legal team.''
While women dealers share the entrepreneurial spirit of their male counterparts, they also face unique challenges-having to prove themselves and dealing with the old-fashioned misconceptions.
``There have been occasions when a new employee mistakenly believes I don't know very much about the business and tries to take advantage of the situation,'' said Ms. Sutphen, who has worked in the tire business for 20 years.``The employee is made aware very quickly that I can and have worked in the shop along with tire busters and mechanics and probably know much more than they do about this business.''
Ms. English faces similar misconceptions as owner of Suburban Tire. Her second husband is not an owner in the business, yet some vendors still misdirect their sales pitches to him.
``When I attend business meetings, I am ignored and most give their main attention to my husband,'' Ms. English related. ``We both find this amusing.''
She said she handles such situations ``with good humor and try to tactfully explain my position.''
``This is still a male-dominated business,'' noted Ms. Walker of Liberty Tire. ``I'm 20 years (in the business), I continue to meet `old-time' male salespersons who seem to have difficulty relating to women.''
Like many of her peers, Ms. Jasmin faced the initial reactions of disbelief that a woman was in charge. However, that customer attitude soon passes, she said, ``once people understand you know what you're talking about.''
And Ms. Jasmin has had no problems commanding respect from her male employees. ``If you know what you're doing, you get respect automatically.''
And being a woman in the tire business can be an advantage.
``People feel comfortable dealing with a woman for repairs and tires,'' said Ms. Jasmin. ``Women send other women to me because they're not talked down to.''
Batson Tire's Ms. Sutphen echoed that belief. She is the spokesperson in her dealership's television commercials. ``Lady customers said they came in because they saw me on TV and felt if they talk to me, they won't feel stupid,'' Ms. Sutphen related, adding, ``They say they like my commercials because I don't yell.''
Liberty Tire's Ms. Walker shares the same experience from doing her own radio and television commercials. ``We find that we get a lot of women who come in because they like to do business with other women.''
Being a women owner may be enough to draw some female customers into their stores, but some dealers said they try to present their products and services as less intimidating to their customers, especially women, who may be ignorant about the finer points of tires and automobiles.
``We try to make sure women feel comfortable here,'' said Ms. English, who recently moved her headquarters into a new building that sports play areas for customers' children.
``As a woman (independent tire dealer), you don't have to know how to fix a car, but you do need to know how to translate technical terms into layman terms. You have to be a good communicator,'' added Ms. Sutphen.