Tire dealerships, though male-dominated, are not exclusively a male preserve. Women, long relegated to dealerships' back offices and positions as secretaries and bookkeepers, increasingly are working their way into sales and management-and occasionally even into the service bays.
In a recent TIRE BUSINESS survey, a group of 63 women tire dealers and dealership employees discussed some of the challenges and rewards they have found in their jobs, and shared their perspectives on the tire business.
As independent businesspeople in a very competitive field, they share a great deal of common ground with their male counterparts, but there are some significant differences.
The overwhelming majority of the women dealers said they had to work harder to prove to customers and co-workers that they knew what they were talking about where tires were concerned. Virtually all had stories about customers who assumed they wouldn't have the product knowledge or expertise to be of assistance, asking instead to talk with a sales-man.
Significant minorities also indicated they had experienced sexual harassment on the job or did not receive the same pay as males in the same position.
Still, the vast majority said they would advise other women to consider a job at a tire dealership, where they believe the different approach women take to selling and relating to customers is an asset.
The survey respondents represented a wide range of background and experience. Nearly 80 percent worked in primarily retail tire dealerships, with the remainder split between commercial and wholesale operations.
A large majority-81 percent-held some sort of management position; fully one-quarter were their
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company's owner and/or top executive; almost as many were at the vice president/general manager level. Only 11 of the re-spondents were non-executive salespeople.
They also were a fairly experienced group, having spent an average of nearly 15 years in the industry. One in three had been in the tire business 20 years or more.
They tended to have gotten their start in one of three ways:
One-third entered an established family business, begun by a parent or sibling;
Another third went into business with their husbands; and
The final third were hired into the business like any other regular employee.
But regardless of their background or experience, most of the women said a challenge they regularly must deal with is ``being taken seriously,'' ``earning respect'' and ``overcoming male customers' preconception that you're a female and therefore can't possibly know about tires or mechanical repairs.''
Jann Dibert, manager of a company-owned Goodyear retail store in Columbus, Ohio, said she often must ``prove myself knowledgeable in tires and service to our customers.
``When I go out to their vehicle to look at the tires, customers continually say, `May I speak to a service man about my car?' or `Do you know about tires?'*''
``Some men in the business tend to discount your abilities,'' echoed Pam Fitzgerald, president of Mike Gatto Inc. in Melbourne, Fla. ``Knowledge and professionalism combat this-along with a sense of humor.''
Most of the women agreed that thorough product/service knowledge is essential in gaining the trust and respect of customers and co-workers alike.
``People assume that men know about tires. As a woman, you have to earn the respect of your customers and fellow employees and prove your knowledge to them,'' said Connie Hartje, president of Hartje Farm Home & Tire in LaValle, Wis.
``I believe that we, as women, need increased knowledge to gain the same respect as a man in the field,'' added Lisa Sheerin, vice president of Network Tire Inc. in Warrington, Pa.
Then there are some male customers who simply seem unable to perceive a woman working in the showroom as other than a secretary or receptionist and who insist on speaking to ``someone in charge''-i.e. a man.
More than 90 percent of the survey respondents had found themselves in this sort of situation, and their responses were surprisingly similar, and practical.
``A few men have sent clear signals that a woman was not going to tell them what tire to put on their truck,'' said Sue Adams, owner of a Big O Tires Inc. franchise in Englewood, Colo.
``If I can tell they are not coming around and do not want to deal with me, I find a way to gracefully `hand off' to my manager (a male).''
In such situations, ``I refer them to a salesperson whom they have more confidence in,'' said Jane Fountain of Fountain Tire Service in Wilmington, N.C. ``I don't want to lose the sale because of some personal belief of the customer. I'm not here to change their attitude; I'm here to sell tires.''
``The most important thing is the customer, second is the sale, third is my ego,'' added Mary Scammon, a store manager for Schlott Tire Inc. in Lawrence, Mass. ``I've realized I can't make them deal with me, so as long as they are treated fairly and are happy when they leave, it does not matter who they spoke to.''
It is precisely this focus on and sensitivity to customers' needs that makes women employees definite assets to tire dealerships in the areas of sales and customer relations. More than 85 percent of the survey respondents felt women had a different approach than men in these areas.
They described women as more patient, less intimidating and better listeners, who generally show more personal interest in their customers than do their male counterparts.
``Men don't always take the time to explain why a customer would need a certain tire or service, where a woman takes the time,'' said Ms. Scammon.
``I explain things more clearly and with more patience-especially with women customers,'' said D.D. Coley, president of Consumer Tire Inc. of Mentor, Ohio.
Other respondents added that women tend to put less pressure on customers and are perceived as less likely to rip them off.
On the other hand, women working in the tire business can be on the receiving end of some unwelcome pressures, including sexual harassment. More than one in three of the survey respondents said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment on the job-most frequently from customers, but also from co-workers and others.
And while 36 percent may not seem like a high figure, when one considers that half the women surveyed are top executives in their companies and therefore less likely to be harassed, the number becomes more sobering.
The same is true of the issue of equality of compensation. One-quarter of the respondents reported earning less than a male in an equivalent position-not a staggering percentage until one considers the number of top executives in the survey, many of whom set their own salaries.
Also, fully two-thirds of the survey respondents work in a company owned by them, their husband or another member of their family, and may therefore be less likely to be a victim of discrimination.
One woman who has worked for the same Illinois dealership for 27 years, complained that a male hire is making the same hourly wage after only two years.
``Women still are not given credit for what they do or the knowledge they have,'' said a salesperson at a Colorado dealership. ``It is, after all, a man's field.''
That may be so, but there's plenty of room for women to get involved, the survey respondents agreed. More than 90 percent said they would advise other women to consider a job in a tire dealership, though several cautioned that they should go in with their eyes open.
``Learn your job, be as effective as you can and don't wear your feelings on your shirtsleeves,'' counseled Suzy Darter, president of Marion Tire Inc., Marion, Ind.
``Understanding tires and auto repairs is not a male-exclusive ability,'' said Kim Batson Sutphen, president of Batson Tire and Automotive Center Inc. in Bryan, Texas. ``There are many opportunities in the industry for good communicators.''
Added Louise Boyles of Boyles Tire & Auto Care in Pontotoc, Miss.: ``If an employer will give the same training and salary to a woman that he does a man, without any partiality shown, the woman can achieve her goals.''