OXFORD, Pa. -- Walk into Gordon Atkisson's adjoining Chrysler and Chevy stores here in rural Pennsylvania, and you'll find something unusual.
"I have two finance managers, and both are women," says Atkisson, president of Country Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram and Jeff D'Ambrosio Chevrolet next door. "I would not have anyone other than a woman run my finance department."
Why only women? They're better listeners, he says.
"The ladies seem to be able to build a rapport with the customers; they take ownership of the customers and build relationships with them," he says. "The customers feel that the women have their best interests at heart, and they let their guard down and are more receptive as a result."
That relationship-building has turned into a plus for the stores. Roughly 30 to 40 percent of the dealerships' sales are repeat and referral business, Atkisson says, and about half of that can be attributed to the women, auto retail and finance veterans Becky Friel and Lisa Halsey.
Friel, 36, is business manager at the Chrysler Group store; Halsey, 41, carries the same title at the Chevrolet store.
Female F&I managers are a distinct minority. Nationwide, about 16 percent of dealership F&I managers are women -- not quite one out of every six, according to the 2012 Dealership Workforce Study prepared for the National Automobile Dealers Association by Florida consultancy DeltaTrends. Female sales consultants are scarcer -- about 9 percent of the total.
"You don't see a lot of females" running F&I departments, Friel says. But she and Halsey may be nurturing a future candidate: 22-year-old Kara Lewis, their shared assistant, who joined the dealerships last year from a retail banking job at National Penn Bank. Friel, Halsey and Lewis make up the entire F&I department for the two dealerships.
All three women say that being female in a male-dominated profession can sometimes be problematic, but it can be an advantage, too, in working with customers and lenders.
Friel says: "With us it's not always, 'Hey, can I get a deal done?' We ask about people's families, and you end up with relationships on another basis."
"That's important to lenders as well, not just to the customers. I think it means something to a lender when I endorse somebody: 'It may not look like it on paper, but I know these people and they will pay. They're not going to skip out.' I can get deals done."