They don't look like tire dealers. Not in the traditional sense. Perhaps that's why their customers go to extra lengths to make sure they sound like tire dealers.
Andy Vuko, Christie Stock and Jilanna Swann know their way around tire showrooms and warehouses as well as any tire business veteran. They are proof positive that there is room for women in a business historically dominated by men.
``I think there is absolutely no reason that they shouldn't be active at every level and just as successful and qualified as men at any level, if they're interested,'' said Tire Industry Association President Steve Disney. ``If a female and a male are equally interested in learning about tires and enjoy the selling or managing of a small business, I don't see any gender reason why they shouldn't be successful.''
Now it's just a matter of getting their customers to see that. Ms. Vuko, Ms. Stock and Ms. Swann each spun nearly identical yarns about how customers routinely ask question upon question before making a purchase. They feel consumers need to test the waters, whereas when dealing with a male they may just take what they say at face value and buy their tires.
``I need to have increased product knowledge,'' said Ms. Swann, vice president and co-owner of Swann's American Car Care Centers in Ripley, W.Va. ``They ask me more questions. They put me more on the spot. Someone asked, `What's the weight load capacity?' I've never heard anyone ask my father that at all.''
Ms. Stock, vice president of Wholesale Tire Distributors in Salt Lake City, said that while customers might question a woman's knowledge, their extra prodding may be derived from a comfort level that comes from dealing with the fair sex. ``I always take it that they're a lot more comfortable, and they're asking things they wouldn't ask the man,'' she said.
Consumer surveys have shown that more than half of those making purchases from tire dealers are women.
With that in mind, it seems logical that getting more women in the dealerships to deal with that evolving clientele only makes sense.
The real crucial issue is that ``the person in the store has to be able to earn the trust of the customer,'' TIA's Mr. Disney said.
The following is a look at the experiences of three women who have blazed trails in the tire business.
Ms. Stock did experience the so-called ``dark side'' of a female running a tire dealership upon entering the business. She first got her own store at the age of 19 in Laramie, Wyo. Upon her arrival, the entire crew quit, she said, because they did not want to work for a woman.
They left her with a handful of incomplete service jobs, which she completed over the phone, with technicians on the other end telling her what to do. She hired a new crew the next day. One of the former technicians, seeing she had completed the unfinished tickets, returned.
But the employees weren't the only skeptics. Working in a market that was home to many retirees, Ms. Stock found the clientele wanting little to do with her.
``I was really young and it kind of blew me away,'' she said. ``I wasn't expecting it at all. I was scared, and I had no idea what to do. Initially I just wanted to walk away.''
But she stuck it out and 17 years later is one of the most successful women in the industry. She was one of two women-former Tire Association of North America President Pam Fitzgerald being the other-to sit on the ``Secrets of a Successful Tire Dealer'' roundtable at the International Tire Expo last October in Las Vegas.
She believes women are making progress in the industry, pointing to the four female tire technicians employed by Wholesale Tire Distributors. However, Ms. Stock also realizes that there is a long way to go and said she sees evidence of that every day.
``People are still in shock,'' she said. ``They say, `I've never seen a woman in the tire industry.' We really do have (a ways to go).''
She has seen firsthand many changes occur already. Despite only being 36, she has spent 22 years in the business. She started out changing tires as a 14-year-old. By 16, when her family relocated and opened its first store in Utah, she was doing some bookkeeping.
From the time she took over the reins in Laramie until the present, Ms. Stock has been in a position of authority within the industry and said she feels it's just a matter of time before many women are in similar spots.
``The tire and service industry is a great opportunity for women today,'' she said. ``The majority of women out there are buying cars. They're making the decisions for tires. Women need to feel more comfortable. For young women it's hard. You tend not to be looked at for your brains.''
It's hard for another reason-one Ms. Stock has experienced to the fullest. While men and women can be tire dealers, only women can bear children.
Since she has three of her own, she said juggling motherhood with a career has been a definite chore. ``It's a struggle to balance it all,'' she said, ``but it can definitely be done.''
Andy Vuko has been around the tire business most of her life. But she didn't know for sure that she wanted to be until she tried another career path out.
Fresh out of the University of Nebraska with a degree in business, Ms. Vuko, now 28, entered the automobile industry and worked one year. She quickly learned to hate it.
After some cajoling from her father, Ms. Vuko joined Walker Tire in Lincoln, Neb. She is currently marketing and sales director and loves every minute of it.
Well, almost every minute. There are still frustrating times-times when her expertise is overshadowed by her calendar girl looks.
``You have to know twice as much as the guys to be taken seriously,'' she said.
That's where Ms. Vuko's intangible skills come in handy. She considers herself somewhat of a sponge for knowledge and is able to regurgitate information at will when needed.
``I can handle a lot of data, which makes me a good learner,'' she said, alluding to the fact that her personal information bank allows her to handle the overflow of questions from the skeptics.
On top of that, Ms. Vuko said she has a very good sense of humor. Talk to her, and this becomes very apparent. She is self-effacing and willing to laugh at adversity rather than let it get the best of her.
``That helps me kind of roll with it,'' she said. ``The satisfaction I have is when I have somebody who's skeptical and, after a long grueling period, they finally do buy, that keeps me going.''
Ms. Vuko tries not to get too caught up in the ``battle of the sexes.'' She believes all tire dealership personnel are out to achieve a common goal: sell tires and provide the highest quality of service possible.
She says that all customers, male or female, will respond to being treated well, regardless of whom they are dealing with.
``I've seen guys in our stores that are so courteous and are very respectful of women,'' she said. ``That's what (a female customer) is looking for primarily, someone who treats her well and talks to her in a manner that they aren't talking over her.''
Jilanna Swann didn't get into the tire business until her late 20s. Like Ms. Vuko, she had been involved in the automobile industry. A divorce left her raising her daughter alone and needing to work somewhere where she could do that and earn a respectable salary.
Her father needed someone to help out at his dealership and had six daughters to choose from-since his lone son is a doctor. Ms. Swann had a knack for the job not because of any affinity toward cars or tires but because she considers herself a natural salesperson.
``That's what it really comes down to,'' she said. ``It's all sales and not necessarily tire sales.''
With that in mind, Ms. Swann sees the industry as being one that is wide open for women. She believes that at first women will thrive in the service area as sales advisers. Eventually she said she would like to see more female oil service technicians.
Full-scale female technicians may be a bit lofty of a goal, she said, since the rest of the industry may not be ready for that.
``That's a whole thing where you're going to have to change the schools' mental outlooks,'' she said. ``That goes much deeper.''
But with the female-oriented customer base that tire dealers are now seeing, Ms. Swann sees the need to get more women in stores to deal face to face with consumers.
``I think there's going to be an explosion of women in this industry,'' she said.
That may take some time. It will take patience on the part of the likes of this trio of women, who have stuck through the innuendos and downcast looks and questioned abilities. It will take perseverance by those breaking into the business for the first time.
And it will take a certain kind of woman to break in and stay there. Because, as Ms. Vuko succinctly put it: ``You've definitely got to be tough to be a woman in this business.''