The Women's Automotive Asso-ciation International gave its first Spirit of Leadership award to Mary Simonson Rehwald, owner of W.I. Simonson Inc., a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Santa Monica, Calif.
The award, which was accepted by the recipient's two daughters at a breakfast in conjunction with the National Automobile Dealers Association convention, will be presented every year to women in the auto industry who persevere through adverse conditions and mentor other women.
Indeed, women at the association's breakfast heard two inspiring stories of women who have persevered.
When Rehwald's father died in 1976, she took over the dealership he had founded in 1937. Although employees and Mercedes officials pushed her to sell and warned her that she would fail, Rehwald insisted that she would run the dealership.
'If my father wanted someone else to have it, he would have given it to someone else,' she told them.
Rehwald, who lacked any formal business education or automotive training, was one of only about 50 female dealership CEOs at the time and was the first female CEO of a Mercedes dealership.
A fire destroyed the dealership in 1986. Again Rehwald was encouraged to close shop. Instead, she rebuilt the dealership, and it has won numerous architectural awards.
When Rehwald took over in 1976, dealership sales totaled $13.6 million. Sales climbed to $43.5 million the year of the fire and reached $68 million in 1997.
Rehwald has retired. Her three children run the dealership.
The breakfast's keynote speaker was M. Kathleen Sims, owner of Coeur d'Alene Honda in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Sims and Betty Jo Moore, owner of Moore Auto Group in Wil-liamson, W.Va., last year became the first women on NADA's board of directors.
Raised in a crowded 27-foot house trailer, Sims went to work at age 13. Three years later, she was married and pregnant with the first of her three children.
Sims held a host of jobs, from planting trees for the forest department to clerking at an IGA grocery store. Then she and her husband bought a Honda motorcycle store from a friend for $5,000. The 'dealership' was housed in her brother-in-law's basement when the hot water heater sprang a leak.
'That was my start. I became the parts manager,' Sims recalled, matching soggy paperwork to the parts.
In 1973, she wanted to buy a Honda automobile dealership. 'Those little cars aren't going to sell,' she was told. But she bought it anyway. A year later, envisioning a better way to run the dealership, Sims purchased an $80,000 computer and learned how to use it.
With her marriage on the rocks and her emotional state a disaster, Sims headed to San Diego with $2,000 in cash and a pile of McDonald's coupons. She worked as a waitress and eventually took a job with the company from which she had purchased her dealership's computer. She set up systems and trained dealers to use computers.
Sims headed back to Idaho, took over the dealership from her ex-husband and built it into a successful business. Today, the dealership sells about 600 cars and 600 motorcycles annually.
Sims said opportunities for women in the auto business always have existed.
'Today,' she said, 'we're smarter and courageous enough to seize them.'