Brigitte Kroll-Thaller's gender hasn't limited her career opportunities at General Motors - but it hasn't done her any favors, either.
When the Adam Opel executive had her family, she found that being a woman in a predominantly male environment made a tremendous difference.
Kroll-Thaller, now European brand manager for the Opel Omega and Vectra, would have preferred to take time out from her career when her children arrived. But she quickly realized it wasn't an option.
IN OR OUT
'In a big company, you are either in or out,' says Kroll-Thaller, 47. 'Men don't have to make that decision. Child care is still mainly a female issue. It can be difficult for successful women managers to combine a career and a family.'
She made other arrangements and kept on working.
'I employed a woman who became a second mother to my children, and my husband (a Lufthansa pilot) also worked his schedule around the family,' she said.
The children, now in their teens, are at a boarding school in Brighton on the south coast of England.
Kroll-Thaller has successfully juggled career and family while climbing the ladder at GM Europe. After joining Opel 23 years ago, she was named manager of dealer marketing in 1986. After several promotions, she obtained her current position in 1997.
She is based in Russelsheim, Germany, and runs a core team of five assistant brand managers. The Omega brand managers in each of the European markets also report to her. The majority is male.
'The ratio of male-to-female managers at Opel simply reflects the fact that we are a technical company, and more boys than girls tend to study technical subjects,' she said. 'If your employer values you and you have a good network of contacts within your organization, gender is not an issue.'
LUXURY AND VOLUME
Lately, Kroll-Thaller has had a much bigger issue on her mind - how to make a volume-car brand appeal to luxury-car customers. She concedes the difficulty of that task, given the sharp decline in sales of mass-market large cars.
'Many people who used to buy a large family car have switched to other types of vehicles - such as minivans and four-wheel-drive vehicles - because they were bored and wanted a change of image,' she said. 'But we believe the worst of the decline is over. The market has now stabilized at around 800,000 units a year.'
Kroll-Thaller expects Opel to sell 70,000 new Omegas in 2000. She hopes to achieve this by offering a high level of comfort and the latest in technology at an affordable price.
But the segment presents its own special problem: combining the luxury elements that large-car shoppers demand with the value pricing that is needed to compete with other prestige marques.
She says her biggest challenge is balancing the demands of product development executives and those in sales, marketing and finance.
'Marketing might want a leather interior, because it would help a product sell better,' she says. 'But finance would argue that it is an expensive way of growing sales. A lot of different functions interweave to produce the final product. It takes a lot of cooperation and ability to pull the team together. That's my job.'