Donna Parlapiano, 51
Senior Vice President of Franchise Operations and Corporate Real Estate, AutoNation
What attracted you to the auto industry? My dad. When I graduated, I got three offers: one from a pharmaceutical company, one from a toy company, one from Ford Motor Co. My dad said, "Absolutely, you should work for Ford because Henry Ford had such a positive influence on the common man by providing mass transportation." So I said, "OK, Dad."
First automotive job: Customer service representative, Ford Motor Co., in 1986
Big break: It was difficult. I was at Ford for 12 years. Making the decision to transition to AutoNation. I loved my experience at Ford and it provided an incredible foundation for my success. But coming to AutoNation, it was scary, and at the same time, I was so energized.
What is the major challenge you've faced in your career? It's probably a personal challenge more than anything of always trying to be my best and maintain who I am and being feminine in the auto industry. Sometimes as women, we have a tendency that we can lose ourselves trying to fit in. And I worked the whole 29 years trying to be me. That's been the greatest challenge but also the greatest reward. Many times, through the years, I've always been the only woman in meetings.
Professionally, AutoNation being the first publicly traded [retailer], we were trying to work with the manufacturers to [have them] understand that we were a real partner to them. For a long time, it was so new [the OEMs] were concerned about what could happen if we were too big. Through the years by working with them and through our performance, we've garnered the respect of the OEMs as a true partner.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career? At AutoNation, there are two. One is (CEO) Mike Jackson, who's been so supportive through the years. He trusts us, and he has very high expectations for us. It's just a wonderful feeling to know your opinion and expertise are valued.
The other is Michael Larson (chief investment officer for AutoNation shareholder and Microsoft founder Bill Gates), who serves on our board. He's always been a great adviser to me.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? There is a misperception that the automobile business isn't for women. The career opportunity in the automotive business needs to be highlighted on campuses so women understand it. It's something I should spend more time myself doing. That's something that all of us that you're speaking with should be doing more.
Tell us about your family. I have my immediate family with my parents, who had an incredible influence on all my sisters' and my life. I also feel my work is like a family. We go through so much together, challenges like the recession. Surviving that feels like a family connection. Then I have my girlfriends, which I'm so grateful for, who are like family. So I've been very blessed in my life to have wonderful parents and colleagues and friends.
What's your favorite weekend activity? Right now, my favorite weekend activity is dancing (because of participating in the charitable Boca Ballroom Battle).
In the last month, I've learned the samba, the salsa, the hustle, foxtrot, waltz, bolero. I play golf and tennis and go on dates, spend time with friends, family, travel.
Name one thing about yourself that most people don't know. I have a very sensitive heart. You can't really cry in meetings, but I would always cry at the Hallmark commercials. Here at AutoNation, we did a lot with Special Olympics. And I was a hugger. Oh, my gosh, crying tears coming down your face.
If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be? Eleanor Roosevelt. She was true to herself and very influential in her own way. She was a strong force as first lady.