Automobiles have been a male-inspired industry dating back to 1769, when the first selfpropelled mechanical vehicle was designed by French inventor Nicolas- Joseph Cugnot. (Some dispute who was first to create a motorcar.) But any way you look at it, men have consistently dominated the space.
Even songs about cars have been primarily written and sung by men. Think about it. There is Riding Around in My Automobile by Chuck Berry, Mustang Sally by Wilson Picket, Jaguar by the Who and Little Deuce Coupe by the Beach Boys, to name a few.
But men are slowly beginning to move over on the road as women shift into high gear. Statistics show women to be the fastest-growing market in the industry: Women are buying 35 percent of today’s vehicles, influencing around 80 percent of all purchases and making up 65 percent of service customers.
While automakers and dealerships are putting things in place to address this rising demographic, those who work in the industry are still predominately male. A 2006 survey by the National Auto Dealers Association (NADA) showed 49 percent of the nation’s car dealerships don’t have one female sales representative.
Obviously, this means 51 percent of dealers do have women in place to make the deal. In fact, growing numbers of women can be found in all customer touch points within the auto dealer industry, from salesperson to technician to service writer. Such is the case with the five women profiled here, who are finding rewarding careers.
North Park Toyota in Boerne Betty Purgason has been selling cars for nine years. She sells new and used cars, both in person and over the Internet. She has been so successful that she recently ranked second in sales for the annual August sales event by selling 32 and 1/2 cars.
At 54 years of age, she has made her second major career change. She started working for Empire Lincoln Mercury when she was 17. “I was working in a typing pool at Metropolitan Insurance on Fifth Avenue when a friend recruited me to the car business,” she says. “Since I lived in New York City, where I usually took the bus or the train, I didn’t know much about cars. But I was interested in learning more.”
Purgason quickly adapted to the world of automobiles as a sales secretary for Manhattan Ford Lincoln Mercury. (Shortly after her arrival, Empire Lincoln Mercury merged with Gotham Ford to form Manhattan Ford Lincoln Mercury.) While working there, she obtained her dream car for a mere $300. She parked her white 1965 Mustang convertible with a black top and interior across the street from the dealership in an old run-down garage for $30 a month. (In NYC, $30 a month for parking is unheard of by locals.)
In 1973, she met and married her husband. Shortly thereafter they moved to San Antonio, where she became a sales secretary for an up-and-coming new car sales manager, Clarence J. Kahlig II, at North Park Lincoln Mercury. At the time, North Park Lincoln Mercury was a satellite for Main Lincoln Mercury.
“I quit two times to have my two sons,” Purgason reflects. “But every time I’d quit, Clarence would call me back to work as contract labor.”
In 1982, she rejoined the North Park Lincoln Mercury team full time as Kahlig’s executive secretary. Her responsibilities grew as Kahlig moved from general manager to owner in 1984. Over the years, she experienced the industry from a different perspective from most as she supported the dealer principal of one of San Antonio’s most successful multipoint automotive operations and president of Kahlig Enterprises.
After 25 years of working in the same role, Purgason decided she needed a change. “When I told Kahlig I wanted to be a sales representative, he said I wouldn’t like it,” she recalls. “I told him to let me determine that, and here we are nine years later. In fact, I’ve been with him 34 years because he truly cares for his people.”
Being in sales is strenuous work, with no days off but Sunday during sales months. When you’re a woman, it is hard to have children while working so many hours and still be a dedicated mother. Purgason waited until her children were grown to make this career change so she could easily put in the hours and make the additional pay.
Purgason knows that sales representatives need to be dedicated to customers and the job in order to be successful. “I think physically fit women my age or with teenagers would do well. But you need to be able to stand up for yourself, as it is a dog-eat-dog world,” she confides.
North Park Lexus
Judy Rivet has one title but wears multiple hats. As the warranty administrator for North Park Lexus, she is the only person cross-trained as a service advisor, cash manager, cashier and service manager. When she first joined North Park Lexus, she was the dispatcher and ran the service shop.
Originally, she joined North Park Lincoln Mercury to fill her need for part-time work. “I would work at night as the greeter, and then I became a full-time receptionist,” Rivet says. “I would even help used car managers book deals in the evenings.”
Rivet was fortunate to work for current owner Clarence Kahlig. “He and his exwife always watched out for me,” reflects Rivet. “They would do things like give me tickets to the rodeo so I would have an opportunity to take my kids.” With her children as her focal point, she took three months off to spend more time with them, starting in July, 1995. Three months later, Kahlig asked her to work for his North Park Lexus dealership. And she has been there ever since. “I would do anything for him. My loyalty is strictly to Kahlig,” she says.
With her diversified experience, she finds no two days at work are alike. The only consistency is the 600 to 700 customer touch points she tracks each day. Rivet has found that being highly organized and listening to customers are the most important parts of her job. “Customers will tell you what their needs are if you take the time to listen,” she explains. “And reporting what they say has to be correctly worded for warranty work to be credited correctly.”
Other responsibilities include taking all new cars to the mechanics and getting them ready for delivery. She also makes sure every car that comes in from the factory is in proper working order before it is sold. “I back up everyone and do what needs to be done,” she says. “If cars need to be moved on the drive, I move them.”
She used to find working in a maledominated business to be challenging. “I was a naïve little girl back then,” she recalls. “But now I’m wiser and more direct when it comes to business.”
Over the years there have been male customers who wouldn’t want to speak with women. The typical assumption is that women don’t have the knowledge about cars men do. “Once they ask you questions and you pop back with informative answers, they are surprised, and the barriers begin to melt away,” she says.
Rivet believes the key to a rewarding position in service is working for the right dealership management and owners. “This is a high-stress job with long hours, deadlines and pressure. But if you want to meet people and make good pay, this is the right business to be in,” she says.
Ken Batchelor Saab Caroline Riak has been in sales for 24 years, spending the past five years in the auto dealer industry. Her success at selling cars can be attributed to her diverse background and wealth of experiences in the field.
As she was earning her degree in sociology from the University of Florida, a summer job opened her eyes to a career in sales. “If you don’t mind working hard, you can see the fruits of your labor and make a lot of money in sales,” she comments. “I discovered it to be something I was good at, and it fit my personality Knowing that the amount of money I could make depended on what I accomplished was really motivational.” Riak’s sales career began in New York when she worked as a headhunter for clients such as MasterCard and Calvin Klein. With the recession, a moonlighting job became necessary to make ends meet, and she began serving cocktails at a comedy club. This position transitioned into a full-time job as the club’s sales and marketing person. (Her stories from these two positions alone could fill pages.)
While in New York, Riak met and married a Texas oilman. “We moved to Scotland, and I began managing a couture boutique for mothers of the bride in a chain of stores called Fraisers,” she reflects. After relocating to San Antonio several years later, Riak spent four years working for a high-end jewelry store. The craziness of the retail industry prompted her to answer a blind ad, which just happened to be for Ken Batchelor Saab.
Now, five years later, Riak knows she has found her home. As the selling manager, she is responsible for ordering the Saab product line, as well as meeting with customers to answer questions, discuss incentives and run numbers on the cars. Riak will also sell anything in the store, including Cadillacs, Hummers or pre-owned cars. “The other thing we are selling is ourselves and the service benefits of the dealership,” she says. “We are very customer-service-oriented at Ken Batchelor. We make sure people have a good time and know they will be taken care of while they are with us.”
Before moving into management, Riak was selling an average of 17 cars each month. Now that she is involved in helping other people close their deals, she finds each day to be different, with new challenges. “We’re not just selling cars, we’re building relationships with people we might not have had the opportunity to meet or know otherwise,” she says. “Our clients become our friends. This job is about taking care of people, and being able to do that everyday is just plain fun!”
SALES CONSULTANT/INTERNET MANAGER
Cavender Saturn Fredericksburg native Elizabeth Wolff has lived in San Antonio for over 20 years. Until two years ago, she spent most of her career working in health care administration as an office manager for vario
us agencies, including managed care, hospice and pediatric home health care.
Little did she know that her life would dramatically change when she purchased her first Saturn Vue in 2005. “I had a great experience buying the car and working with the sales consultant,” she recalls. Shortly thereafter, she was invited to attend Saturn’s annual car show, and the rest is history, as they say.
“While I was at the show, I started talking with Rick Cavender, and he told me he was sure they’d have a place for me if I was ever looking for a job,” she says. “He made me feel so comfortable that I took him up on his offer and sent in my résumé that November.”
Wolff learned that they weren’t looking to hire until May or June. In the interim, she was encouraged to go through the Saturn testing process. As fate would have it, two openings became available earlier, and she began her new career in automobile sales in February. “The sales manager who hired me wasn’t sure if I could do the job since I hadn’t been in the car business,” she remembers. “But his need for someone to hit the ground running sealed the deal.”
Even though Wolff was a bit nervous about this major career transition, she really felt like it was meant to be. “I’m still trying to hold onto the best advice I received since I started,” Wolff confides, “which is to stay dumb and enthusiastic because when you start to know too much, you think you know it all.”
She quickly learned the key to success at Saturn is embracing their distinct selling proposition. Saturn’s culture is a different kind of experience from what one experiences in traditional dealerships, as they build brand loy
alty in unique ways. In addition to follow-up calls and thankyou notes, Saturn has a no-hassle, nohaggle philosophy. This approach zeroes in on finding the vehicle that meets the needs of the customer, not the needs of the salesperson. Other techniques include a launch site celebration so customers feel like they are driving their cars off the showroom floor.
“My goal is to be with this company a long time and to move up,” she says enthusiastically. “The only way to do this is to learn what the people above me do.” In keeping with her goal, her new role as Internet manager is helping her learn about marketing and selling to the younger buyers who shop online before coming into the dealership.
Wolff has also been learning that having a tough skin in this male-dominated industry will serve any woman well. “When someone doesn’t buy a car from me, I’ve learned that it’s not personal,” she says. “But I’ve also noticed that people let their guard down around women, which can make my job much easier.”
SALES REPRESENTATIVE/SERVICE ADVISOR
BMW of San Antonio Nicole Leon started selling cars five years ago after a friend insisted she would be a perfect fit for the business. At the time, her friend was making a killing selling Porsches, so she trusted he knew what he was talking about. After a few months of selling Nissans, she moved to Infiniti and really found her niche selling high-end cars.
“I found that not being the stereotypical salesman really gave me an advantage,” she explains. “I found people putting their guard down around me.” Leon believes that the best way to earn someone’s business is to be confident, funny, sincere and relaxed. She attributes her success in the business to this approach.
Since most men do not expect a woman to know anything about cars, Leon has enjoyed “blowing people away” with her product knowledge. “People love to hear me explain what torque is,” she says.
Leon recently made the decision to move into the service department at BMW as an advisor. “Having two” tween boys at home made this decision a no-brainer,” she remarks. “It makes sense to have an easier schedule so I can keep my eyes on them. I look forward to the challenge of a new career, but I’m sure I will miss the excitement of closing the sale.”
Author: Joy Capps Powell
Photographer: Robert French