It was October 1984 and Marion Luna Brem was bald from massive doses of chemotherapy. Her marriage had crumbled, and the 32-year-old single mom of 12- and 7-year-old sons needed a job.
After applying for 17 dealership sales positions, she finally got a break. She said she'll never forget the guy who hired her.
'He said, `I've been thinking about hiring a broad lately, and you seem like the nervy type,' ' she recalled with a chuckle.
Tenacious? For sure.
Today, Brem owns two dealerships, an advertising agency and a real estate holding company. And she is writing a book, Women Make the Best Entrepreneurs, which is due out early next year.
Despite the achievements of women in some areas of the auto industry, dealerships seem to lag in advancement of women. In the past 25 years, women and minorities have become more prominent in the workplace, including at dealerships, but most dealerships are owned, operated and staffed by white men.
Brem is among the small but growing number of women who have achieved their dreams of becoming new-car dealers.
It's hard to tell how many women are in the dealer ranks. Not even the National Automobile Dealers Association knows.
An informal survey of auto companies conducted by Automotive News indicates that women hold an ownership stake in at least 2,029 of the nation's 22,038 dealerships.
Out of reach
Soaring real estate and building costs have made starting a dealership from scratch cost prohibitive for many aspiring dealers of both genders.
The average dealership costs $2.5 million to $3 million.
Not surprisingly, many of the women who own or operate dealerships are related to men who started the business. Others got their shot by securing a spot in manufacturer-sponsored dealer-development programs for minority men and women.
Brem bought her first dealership, Love Chrysler-Plymouth in Corpus Christi, Texas, in August 1989, after sending portfolios about herself and her accomplishments to 50 CPAs along with a letter saying she was looking for a business partner. Two weeks later she got a response.
Brem's partner, a Texas physician, borrowed the cash; Brem ran the dealership. She paid her partner off within two years.
'I survived and I thrived in a male-dominated culture because I know what women want from a dealership they choose to do business with,' said Brem, who also owns Love Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep in Alice, Texas.
Brem tries to recruit women to work at her dealerships. One-third of her salespeople are women.
Still, 'women are not working in dealerships in respectable numbers,' said Gerry Myers, owner of Myers Group, a consulting and training company in Dallas that specializes in marketing to women.
Consider these NADA statistics:
Of the nation's 220,400 new- and used-vehicle salespeople, almost 17,000 are women
An estimated 46 percent of the nation's franchised car dealerships have at least one saleswoman; more than half have none
Women make up 7.7 percent of the nation's total dealership sales force and 19 percent of its managers.
Also, the industry in general is inflexible and not friendly to women, who still have most of the child-rearing responsibility in a family.
Joe Lescota, chairman of automotive marketing at Northwood University in Midland, Mich., said many dealerships require salespeople to arrive at 8 a.m. and stay until late evening.
'The real estate industry is dominated by women, successful women - women who work long hours, weekends and holidays,' Lescota said. 'Why can't we attract more women to the auto industry? We have to change our thinking.'
Change is occurring in some influential circles.
When Kjell Bergh, owner of Borton Volvo in Minneapolis, was chairman of the American International Automobile Dealers Association in 1995, he surprised some of his colleagues when he told them that the organization's board was 'too pale and too male.'
Two years later AIADA elected three women to its board for a total of five. Its current leader is Barbara Vidmar, who owns Vidmar Motor Co. (Honda-Volks-wagen-Chrysler-Plymouth-Jeep-Oldsmobile-Daewoo) in Pueblo, Colo., with her husband, Bill.
Bergh said he championed the cause for diversity for a simple reason: 'It was the right thing to do.'
In June 1997, NADA changed its bylaws to include four at-large board members - two women and two minorities, one each from the eastern and western halves of the country.
Barbara Vidmar has been the dealer principal at her company's import stores, starting with Honda in 1975.
Vidmar, 53, said she was on the AIADA board for 10 years before becoming its chairman. She said she sometimes felt alone. Bergh encouraged her and was a wonderful mentor, Vidmar said.
'We're color- and gender-blind,' she said of AIADA. 'We're looking for the best person.'
Ellenae Fairhurst started her career in the auto industry as a secretary at Ford Motor Co. in 1968. The 57-year-old black woman successfully completed the former Chrysler Corp. dealer development program and now owns Huntsville Dodge and Infiniti of Huntsville in Huntsville, Ala. She expects to open Lexus of Huntsville in October.
Women, she said, bring something extra to the retail auto industry.
Said Fairhurst: 'They bring a more human element to this industry and they have an excellent work ethic.'