The schoolteacher who became Cadillac Kate

Kate Sullivan, whose husband sold boats, delivered a dinghy in 1978 to the general manager of a Detroit Cadillac store, and it changed her life.

The challenges, and rewards, of finding and recruiting women for work in dealerships are not new. Consider the case of "Cadillac Kate" Sullivan.

Sullivan, 63, was a schoolteacher for seven years before she became one of the first women to sell Cadillac vehicles in Detroit in the late 1970s.

"Cadillac Kate," as she came to be known by her customers, was an oddity at a time when men dominated dealerships as employees and customers.

"At that particular time -- this was a long time ago -- mostly men bought cars. It wasn't a woman-man type of family thing," Sullivan says.

In 1978, Sullivan, then 28, taught hearing impaired elementary schoolchildren. Her husband owned a boat business. One day, during Sullivan's summer break from school, she agreed to help at her husband's business. She delivered a dinghy her husband had sold to Paul Mika, then general manager of Seymour Cadillac in downtown Detroit.

That's when lightning struck.

'You need to sell cars'

"I was telling [Mika] all about the boat and he said, 'Wait. Stop. You need to sell cars,'" Sullivan says. "I laughed and said, 'I am a teacher.' And for a whole year he called me and he called me and said, 'You'd really be good at this and we need women.'"

Mika, 76, now owns Hyundai of Newport in Middletown, R.I. The native of Vienna, Austria, says that as an immigrant who worked his way up from a mechanic's job, he was blind to ethnicity, race and gender. Mika saw only talent in people, he says.

"I knew she would be very good. I just knew it," Mika says. "She was personable, very honest. I needed good people."

After a year of Mika's pursuit, Sullivan left teaching in 1979 to become the second woman to sell cars at Seymour Cadillac. The first was the owner's daughter, she says.

"I remember I would greet the customers and they would say, 'OK, honey, can you go get me a salesman?' As if I couldn't sell them a car," Sullivan says. "I would say, 'I'd be happy to, but I sell cars, too. How can I help you?'"

Sullivan says her male colleagues were supportive, but customers initially were taken aback.

"I was something new and different. The customers were not used to it," she says.

Sullivan was tenacious and became a top salesperson at the dealership, which sold about 1,600 new cars a year at that time, Mika says.

'Nice to a fault'

"In the beginning, she was nice to a fault," Mika says. "I remember telling her, 'Katie, you're so nice to these people, which is great, but we need to sell cars, so ask them, 'Why don't we sign you up today?' It took her a few months to learn that, but after she did, she was wonderful."

Mika says he is proud of Sullivan's success. He uses her story as an example in sales training at Hyundai of Newport. Sullivan and Mika say a key to her success was that Sullivan had no children. She could work long and odd hours when many women could not -- and still struggle to do so today.

In 1985, Sullivan left Seymour Cadillac to join Heritage Cadillac outside Detroit, where she became a sales manager. In 1994, she joined Tamaroff Buick as new-car sales manager, and in 1998, she became sales manager for Les Stanford Oldsmobile-Cadillac. Both stores are in suburban Detroit.

"It was also unusual for a woman to become a manager then, too," Sullivan says.

Sullivan also starred in some of Les Stanford's commercials.

In 2002, Sullivan started a dealership training and consulting firm called Sales Assist in Detroit. In effect, she has come full circle, from teaching to sales to teaching sales.

"I find if you can talk women into working in a dealership, they're usually top-notch," Sullivan says. "It's difficult to recruit them, but they are very nurturing and they are very good listeners, and the best way to sell something to someone is to listen to what they say. They'll tell you everything you need to know to sell them a car."

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