Indiana Honda dealer's commitment to diversity attracts female employees

Internet sales chief Julie Janssen says a flexible schedule and dealer Terry Lee’s willingness to listen to the women on his staff drew her to the store.
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Automotive News -- October 17, 2013 - 12:01 am ET

Julie Janssen manages Internet operations and marketing at Terry Lee Honda near Indianapolis.

She also is a mother of four.

Fortunately for Janssen, her job offers a flexible work schedule. For instance, she recently had to leave work early to attend an open house at her 14-year-old daughter's school.

"When I came to Terry Lee, we kind of negotiated that I would not have to work every Saturday," says Janssen, 49. "I only work Saturdays if another manager is on vacation. I just do one evening a week."

Flexible scheduling has helped the dealership recruit, hire and retain women since owner Terry Lee opened the store in 2009.

Seven of Lee's 16 managers are women, he says, and he has 17 female employees on his 60-member staff. That is impressive given that many dealers struggle to attract and retain female employees. In auto retailing, many employees, especially those in the sales department, are expected to work long hours, often on evenings and weekends.

"Sometimes women are not even considered or they are overlooked for certain positions because they might have been stereotyped out of a position," Lee says. "I like to interview everyone and hire the best person."

Terry Lee Honda is eight miles west of Indianapolis in Avon, Ind. In 2012, it sold 2,369 new vehicles, up 10 percent from a year earlier.

When Lee opened the store as a new Honda point, he had projected selling 700 new vehicles a year.

"We really came out of the box quickly," Lee says. He realized he had to hire quality people and he wanted diversity.

"It wasn't like we targeted hiring females. It was a target to hire the best person," Lee says.

But Lee's willingness to recruit women and offer flexible work hours attracted female applicants. Lee says he values having women on staff because they provide diversity.

"When you have your typical car dealership that has all guys, you have a singleness of thought," Lee says.

"We want to make sure we have input from the females when we market. It might include more thought-provoking things that guys didn't think of, and a female customer might relate better to a female salesperson."

Janssen joined Terry Lee Honda in May 2012. She had worked at two other dealerships for a total of 12 years. Lee recruited her from a competitor when he recognized her talent.

Besides the flexible work schedule, Janssen says she was drawn to the dealership's culture and Lee's willingness to listen to the women on his staff. She says on her first interview, she sensed respect and professionalism.

"There were other women working there and they were in a role of management and I saw how their voice and their opinion really counted," Janssen says. "They really listened. That's a huge reason why I picked that dealership. I wanted to make a difference and work hard."

Janssen says many dealerships she has interacted with claim to want to hire a woman, "but they still don't want to listen to her."

"They still want to have the last word," Janssen says. "At Terry Lee, your opinion is listened to."

Janssen says the dealership's mission is to incorporate tender, loving care into every part of its operations. TLC tends to be a feminine notion, she says, but it makes buying a car more personal.

Janssen took the TLC idea to heart. When Janssen started at Terry Lee Honda, for instance, the dealership had been using an outside vendor to handle the dealership's live Internet chat, she says. The vendor pressed customers to set up appointments during live chats, she says.

"The way we were doing it wasn't very TLC," Janssen says.

Janssen changed that by bringing the live chat in-house. Now she and other staffers answer customer queries.

"It made it more personal," Janssen says. "Each of our pictures drops down and it says we are an employee of Terry Lee Honda. We can answer from our computer, our phones or from home and if no one answers, they can text message you. And customers love that."

Janssen says she does not pressure customers to make appointments, but chats with them about the vehicles.

She says Terry Lee Honda's sales via live chat have soared from one or two cars a month last year to seven to 10 cars a month today.

"I think as a woman I bring a comfort or trust to shoppers," Janssen says.

"Terry has set the tone with his commercials and marketing and has many women managers on staff that believe in the same values. The customers truly feel this when they come in."

Lee relies on employees' references and word of mouth to recruit women. A full-time trainer ensures that all employees are mentored continuously.

Lee says, "When I look to put a team together, it's the chemistry of males and females working together and a respectful environment where everyone can understand where everyone is coming from."

You can reach Jamie LaReau at jlareau@crain.com. -- Follow Jamie on Twitter


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