General manager, Volkswagen of Marion
After Ashlee Church got her master’s degree in business administration from Southern Illinois University, she left her family’s automotive retail business and moved on to bigger adventures.
When she decided to come back to help her family open a Volkswagen dealership in Marion, a small town in southern Illinois — well, even she admits her timing couldn’t have been much worse.
“Our timing has been absolutely horrible. Some days, I feel lucky to still be standing,” Church joked while reflecting upon opening the store in spring 2015 — just six months before the German automaker’s diesel emissions scandal broke.
It was a tough way to start a business in a town of about 20,000 people, but living through that crisis right out of the gate and finding success in its wake prepared Church to lead her store through the COVID-19 crisis.
“I think that the biggest lesson from COVID is, we’ve all known how long and how fast the industry is changing,” she said, “but I think that COVID was the realization that more people are going to get on board with that change, and it’s going to accelerate even faster, and that the way that consumers are going to buy in the future is going to be different.”
Church was Volkswagen of Marion’s first employee and delivered its first sold car. Coming out of the diesel emissions scandal, Church refocused the store’s marketing on grassroots events, including a yearlong marketing effort to give away a Tiguan compact crossover, which reignited regional interest in the German brand.
In 2019, the store sold 263 new Volkswagens and 473 used vehicles. The dealership’s success after the diesel scandal left Church with few regrets about leaving her former job as an up-and-coming executive with a growing human resources management firm.
“I’ve never wanted the easy way out. I’ve always pushed my family, even from the time I was 14 in the sales department [of the family’s nearby Honda store], asking, ‘Why are we doing this this way?’ ” Church said. “But at the same time, I severely underestimated how big of an impact external factors that you really don’t have any control over can have on your business, and what you’re going to have to do to pivot in order to pay the bills, to pay payroll.”
— Larry P. Vellequette