Women find ways to turn challenges into opportunities
A large number of the female executives single out the 2008 economic crisis and its resulting fallout and reorganization as the greatest personal challenge they have faced in their careers. From auto retailers to manufacturing engineers, the economic crisis stands as a kind of communal milestone for many women in the business, according to interviews with the group.
The memories shared with Automotive News tell a story of women on the front lines of those dire days in 2008 and 2009, when U.S. commerce froze and companies wondered if they would survive.
"That was a very, very dark time for a lot of us that were here," says Kim Brink, COO for Team Detroit/Blue Hive, the Detroit automotive ad agency, recalling her time at General Motors during the bankruptcy. "You had this idea that we're going to come out of bankruptcy, shed our ways and things are going to be great. It really wasn't that way. It took a long time to recover."
The 2008 meltdown brought some of the mightiest corporations to collapse, closed factories and destroyed retail businesses, eliminated tens of thousands of jobs, consumed wealth and ruined careers. The event was a traumatic multi-year experience for many.
But the challenge of coping, the stress of saving businesses, protecting workers and creating solutions to get through the storm now serve as an identifying hash mark on many careers. Many say they developed as professionals through the turmoil.
Andrica Nuechterlein, vice president of global sales - electrical for Lear Corp., was in the thick of it. Lear itself went through bankruptcy as the industry crashed. Managers found themselves in the unpleasant position of demanding pricing concessions from customers and requesting early payments to help Lear survive.
It was a similar learning and team-building experience for Karen Folger, vice president for original equipment services sales, North America, at Bosch Automotive Service Solutions.
"Dealing with these challenges required a level of calm, and a true sense of trust and partnership," Folger says.
"There were many cases where we swallowed hard and allowed receivables to extend far past our normal accepted levels, took leaps of faith when it was required, and maintained a constant sense of openness and partnership with our customers," she says.
Part of weathering the storm included "trying to ensure that our employees were secure, ensuring we were able to deliver our customers and their dealers the service they required and expected," she says, "even when funding wasn't available, and continuing to look forward with our OEM partners at a time when none of us was certain who would be left standing."
"My goal was to not lose a single employee, yet achieve measurable expense reduction," she says. "With the help of everyone on our automotive team, we streamlined processes, improved our operations, increased profits, reduced expenses, and became an even better company."
To be sure, Automotive News' Leading Women have other shared challenges in common. The struggle to balance careers and family life looms as another frequent source of angst among the industry leaders. Many of the women on the 2015 list lamented that, over their years of work, they often wished to have more family time. They expressed regret at missing their children's ballet recitals and baseball games.
"We made seven moves over the course of my career, all different states," says Janet Barnard, president of Manheim North America in Atlanta. "It was only the four of us. Having to create a support system -- schools, doctors, friends -- for my family every time we made a move was really a much tougher challenge than things going on in my work life."
Finding an effective work-life balance during her children's younger years was taxing on Julie Martin, vice president of sales and marketing for Hella Corporate Center USA. Her desire to be a higher performer in the office "while still meeting my parental objectives" eventually prompted her to propose a job-share agreement.
"We were able to successfully promote another high potential female to job-share with me, allowing both a high performance on the job while allowing both of us to have more flexibility with our family life." The idea helped establish credibility in the organization for job sharing, she says.
"I think every couple faces that challenge when you have two people who have significant careers," Pittel says. "My husband is in finance at another Fortune 500 company, so I think that the biggest challenge we faced was managing both careers and having a family."
Marlo Vitous is philosophical about what it takes to weather the disruption many of the Leading Women have experienced.
Vitous is director of product development purchasing at FCA US, and led the automaker's powertrain purchasing team as Chrysler passed through bankruptcy, merged with Fiat and developed new engine technologies.
"When you have that revolution," she says of her experience, "you have to show yourself again. You can't rely on, 'Oh, they knew you back then, and you have that respect and trust.' You have to continuously earn it.
"With my old managers, I used to say that every day is an interview," she says. "That's been the constant challenge. You have to prove yourself by your hard work, by your ethics, by your passion and your skill, because you don't know who your next leader will be or what the market will do."