Women in auto retail with Stacey Gillman, Gillman Automotive Group; Jodi Kippe, Crowe; and Sarah Seedig, Holland & Knight.

Women in auto retail: Driven to succeed

Auto Dealer

In recognition of Women's History Month in March, Jason W. Smith, head of Truist Dealer Commercial Services, sat down with three respected leaders in the automotive retail industry to discuss the challenges they’ve faced, the strategies they’ve found successful, and the changes they envision for the industry’s future.

Stacey Gillman, president of Gillman Automotive Group; Jodi Kippe, managing partner at accounting and advisory firm Crowe; and Sarah Seedig, partner at the global law firm Holland & Knight, share their experiences in the traditionally male-dominated auto retail industry.

Getting started in the automotive business

Smith: You’ve spent decades developing expertise in the automotive field. How did you end up specializing in automotive and transportation?

Seedig: I grew up in suburban Detroit, and my father always worked for General Motors, so I spent a couple of summers interning there. It was part of my family’s life growing up.

Then, after law school, I joined Holland & Knight. One of the partners had started a mergers and acquisitions (M&A) practice for auto retail dealerships, and with my background, I found it interesting. I started slowly, working a deal here and there. As my experience grew, so did my work in the industry. Now, it’s basically all I do.

Kippe: After graduating from college in 1985, I started with Crowe. Soon after, I joined an exciting new industry vertical within the firm, our dealership group. We started with one of our clients there and built relationships in South Florida over time.

We saw a great opportunity to expand the group, and in 1995, as senior manager, I moved to Fort Lauderdale to open the Crowe office. From working with dealers as clients, I became drawn to the automotive industry, which spurred me to learn more about the latest trends and factors that impact the industry.

Gillman: Pride and tradition drew me to work for our family’s business. My grandfather started this company and passed it on to my father. I started working as a car salesperson in high school and college and have worked in every position in every department.

My brother and I were fortunate to inherit a stable, prosperous, financially secure organization. My responsibility is to be a good steward of our family’s business, building on our past successes, nurturing our heritage, growing our options, and maintaining our reputation for customer satisfaction. It’s a tremendous responsibility that I take very seriously.

Opportunities and barriers

Smith: How have the opportunities and roles offered to women changed? What are some of the barriers you’ve encountered?

Seedig: Automotive has traditionally been a male-dominated industry, but that’s changing. At industry events and conferences, such as the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) or the National Association of Dealer Counsel (NADC), I see the number of women and other historically underrepresented groups growing, but it’s still not as diverse as I’d like to see.

Attitudes towards women in the workplace have shifted, but I do recall something that happened to me at a closing six or seven years ago that illustrates the progress we’ve made.

The opposing counsel was an older gentleman, and we needed someone to make copies of some documents. His eyes landed on me, and a male partner I worked with noticed. He stepped in and said, “You know what? I’ll do that.” It felt great to have his support, and I’d like to think that how he handled that situation helped shift the man’s perceptions. Having allies support you like that really helps.

Kippe: Fifty years ago, men dominated most industries. Since then, the opportunities and roles offered to women in both the accounting profession and the automotive industry have changed significantly, with more women partners and women in leadership positions. 

I don’t recall any specific barriers because I had the support of the male partners and the dealership owners I worked with. I did, however, have to create my path without female role models. Early in my career, I decided to be myself and not buy into the belief that if you’re working in this field, you need to act like a man to succeed. I’ve found that being a trusted business advisor and bringing value to my dealer clients is key to earning their respect and confidence.

Gillman: While every management position has challenges, a person’s success is measured by how they deal with their barriers. A leader needs a real presence in the business. They need to be there to stimulate thinking. Motivating personnel and evolving in a changing environment is a never-ending process.

Our goal is to get the job done correctly, which means finding the right person. As President, I’m not always the right person to deal with a problem or policy issue, but because I’ve built a strong team, we work together to find effective solutions to difficult situations.

Shifting attitudes

Smith: What do you think is creating the shift in attitudes? Is it happening naturally or are there specific processes drawing women into the automotive industry?

Seedig: I think it’s a mix. Women make up a large percentage of the overall workforce but are still underrepresented in management and executive positions. As women such as Mary Barra at General Motors and Lisa Drake at Ford crack the glass ceiling, it’s easier for women to see themselves rising in the ranks.

There are initiatives that have been successful at increasing women and minority participation in the industry. In connection with our Rising Stars program, Holland & Knight annually selects a group of talented women attorneys to participate in a year-long program to prepare them for potential management positions within the firm. It helped me get where I am.

Kippe: Crowe is committed to DEI and has many business resource groups, including Women Leading @ Crowe, which offers programming to inspire, nurture, and connect our current and future leaders. These initiatives enable women across the firm to reach their full potential.

Twenty-five years ago, I was the only female at professional meetings for accountants in automotive. At a recent meeting, I noticed more women were attending, and other women noticed the same thing, but we still feel more progress is needed. This prompted a larger group discussion about whether we’re doing enough to achieve the diversity we want, and we agreed that we need to actively focus on bringing this to light.

Gillman: The auto retail industry is a challenging environment because of the time commitment. That’s a hurdle for anyone—not just women. I’ve invested in time management training for all departments. You need to work hard and manage time well to get it all done.

Picture of Gillman Fort Bend Honda auto dealership.

The role of mentors

Smith: Have you had a direct mentor help you in your career?

Seedig: I’ve been working for 15 years with the partner who started the firm’s automotive practice, and he’s been a great sponsor. I doubt I’d be where I am today without his help. I think women often leave jobs—or even careers—when the workplace environment is unsupportive or isolating. I am fortunate that my mentor has always really listened to me and helped me adapt to changing circumstances, both personal and professional, so that I’ve felt supported and connected.

Kippe: The Crowe partner who started the dealerships industry vertical was a direct mentor; he guided, challenged, and supported me along with other Crowe dealership partners. When I first became a partner, there was a female partner who shared strategies and offered support, which helped me advance my career while starting a family. Now that I’m a senior partner, I try to do the same for others—to be a mentor for them.

Gillman: My dad helped open doors for me, but then I had to earn my place. It wasn’t just about earning his respect. I had to earn the respect of others. Hopefully, I can provide the same support for others.

Strategies for advancement

Smith: What strategies do you consider important for success? What needs to change to advance more women to high-level positions in the industry?

Seedig: In the back of my mind, I’m always thinking about whether we’re actively hiring and promoting women, persons of color, and other underrepresented groups. I stress the need for each woman to find her voice. This comes with experience, and I remember that early in my career, I didn’t have the confidence to speak up. It can be intimidating for associates, so it’s important to notice when a colleague’s voice is drowned out and look for opportunities to amplify that voice. Those of us who’ve had that kind of support recognize the value of advocates.

One of the biggest hurdles for women is the small number of females in general manager (GM) roles at dealerships. One path to ownership is to start as a GM and eventually buy into the business. To increase the number of woman-owned dealerships, we need to have more women in management roles.

Kippe: Creating connections and a strong network is vitally important. It’s never too early to start building and growing business relationships. Interact with people. Introduce yourself. Go to events. An internal network will help you navigate within your company, while an external network will help guide you in the automotive industry. Continuous learning and growth provide valuable opportunities for yourself, your team members, and your clients; it’s never too late to learn something new.  

Gillman: It’s critical to become a strong, confident communicator. There’s been unprecedented change in the auto retail business. We must continually adapt. This means perfecting communication skills when speaking, using email, texting, or social media platforms. We must develop an understanding of how each customer or teammate wants to connect and use their preferred communication channel. And when you commit to doing the job, do it the best you can.

Auto retail in ten years

Smith: In what ways do you think retail dealerships will look different in ten years?

Seedig: Ideally, we won’t be having these same conversations, and we’ll see more diversity in upper management. I hope young girls are looking at the Mary Barras of the world and thinking, “Yeah, that could be me!” As that happens, I think we’ll have more discussions about hybrid work environments and how to better coordinate family and work obligations.

Kippe: The diversity of a team is important. Compared with ten years ago, I see more diversity among dealership owners and their teams, and that creates new business opportunities and career paths, bringing valuable resources to the automotive industry.

Technology will continue to shape the way dealerships interact with customers. So much relationship building happens before a customer even sets foot in the door—I believe that trend will continue. You can’t underestimate the importance of creating the best experience possible at every point on the sales continuum.

Gillman: Based on the rate of change we’ve experienced in the past ten years, it’s hard to predict or even imagine what’s to come. Advertising channels will continue the shift towards digital platforms. And because manufacturers want to “share” in the sales and service process, the retail experience will also evolve. We need to surround ourselves with progressive thinkers so we don’t get stuck in the tarpits.  

Change requires effective communication, and our team members will need to be more technically astute to make the customer experience more fluid and streamlined. What won’t change is our commitment to excellence and our focus on customer satisfaction. 

Celebrate the women in your business and the diversity they bring.

Success in auto retailing often comes from the capable people you have in every function of your dealership. A diverse team backed by a commitment to developing talent can provide the winning hand in today’s market. Your Truist Dealer Services relationship manager can point you to resources that help with inclusive succession planning and leadership development that advances your business.