Back in 1985, when Barbara Vidmar was getting really serious about the car business, she went to a zone manager for his signature so she could attend dealer candidate school.
He looked her in the eye, she recalls, and said, 'Women have no place in the automobile business.' That was only 15 years ago.
Vidmar respectfully disagreed and went on to get the training she wanted. She is now vice president of Vidmar Motor Co. of Pueblo, Colo., and is about to become chairman of the 10,000-member American International Automobile Dealers Association.
As such she will be the first woman to rise through the ranks to head a national automotive trade association.
Despite that accomplishment, she no longer sees herself as a breaker of barriers, in part because the industry has become more diverse and in part because she already has proved herself.
'I've been in the business long enough. I feel like I've earned my stripes. I've run a successful store,' she says.
Vidmar, 52, operates Vidmar Motor Co.'s Honda dealership, which averages 500 new-car sales a year. Across the street from that store, the family-owned business has Volkswagen, Jeep, Chrysler and Oldsmobile franchises.
The business was started by her father-in-law, the late Jake Vidmar. Husband William is president, and two of the couple's three children work at the dealerships. Daughter Shawn runs the online business, and son Derek is assistant new-car manager.
Barbara Vidmar says the involvement of three family generations taught her how important it is for AIADA to keep pushing for repeal of the federal estate tax, one of the organization's top priorities in Washington.
'I'm second generation, and I have a son and daughter in my store, coming up, and it would be very difficult (for them financially), if (my) plane crashed on the way home,' she says.
Other organization goals are to repeal the 25 percent tariff on imported pickups, to keep the phase-out of the excise tax on luxury vehicles on schedule and to promote free trade.
'I believe this business has been very good to me and my family and I feel that it is my honor and duty, without sounding corny about it, to protect those interests and to encourage and educate' others, she says.
Vidmar appears suited to the task. She is a robust, energetic, youthful-looking woman whose conversational style is easygoing, tending toward stream-of-consciousness. Her laughter is infectious.
In meetings she is strongly opinionated but is a consensus builder, managing to advance her positions without stepping on the feelings of others, say some who have worked with her.
A son's viewpoint
Derek Vidmar, who has the unique perspective of being her son and employee, says his mother is not a tough disciplinarian but believes in openness about mistakes. And she is quick to acknowledge her own.
'She always told us, `You might as well tell me rather than have me find out - because I will find out,' ' he says.
Her management style is deliberative. 'She is definitely a person that likes to sit down and review everything before she makes a decision,' Derek Vidmar says.
Others in the business may not be dealing so rationally with today's twists and turns.
Barbara Vidmar says she does not recall a time when dealers were doing so well and feeling so anxious. Many are uneasy about big changes sweeping through the industry. But she believes those who do their jobs well have nothing to fear from change.
She says, for example, 'I like Internet sales because those people have done their research. They are contacting us because they are committed to buy a car. They want to buy a car. Now, it's up to me to sell them that car. And I think it's great.'
Vidmar is AIADA's representative on the board of the National Automobile Dealers Association Charitable Trust Foundation, and she has served as chairman of AIADA's government relations committee.
Her personal politics are pro-business and increasingly conservative although she is registered as a Democrat. That's because, in mostly Democratic Pueblo County, the important electoral decisions are made in Democratic primaries, she said.
A native of Bellingham, Wash., Vidmar's first careers were as a wife, mother and school speech pathologist. By the mid-1970s she was ready for a change. She and her husband agreed she would study computers and work in the dealership part time.
Learn by doing
'Every time something happened at the store, you know, a payroll person would quit, and I'd say, `Any fool can do that job.' ' So, she would wind up figuring out how to do a payroll the night before it was due. 'I simply didn't know what I was doing, but I had the confidence that I could learn,' she says.
Over time, Vidmar learned to focus on things she does best - employee relations, customer relations and factory relations - while husband William concentrates on 'where the rubber meets the road,' she says.
'We work together very efficiently,' she adds.
That doesn't mean she doesn't care about vehicles. Even though she can't explain its origin, she has a passion for cars.
She drives a Honda Accord and owns a Mercedes-Benz SLK230, a car that, she confesses, she bought on impulse. At long last she can understand those customers who come to the dealership just to look but leave in a new car, Vidmar says.
Other favorites in the Vidmar family stable of a dozen vehicles are a 1928 Reo, 1939 Packard and 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass convertible.
Says Vidmar: 'I've always loved cars. And I really think that's necessary to be in our business. It can't just be a passing fancy.'