Sharon Kitzman, 51
President, Dominion DMS, Dominion Dealer Solutions
Location: Norfolk, Va.
Education: B.A., business, Ohio State University
What drew you to the auto industry? It was my boyfriend at the time, who later became my husband. His father was an executive at Reynolds and Reynolds, and gave me the opportunity at an entry-level position.
First automotive job: A customer support agent, somebody in the call center taking calls from dealers, [at Reynolds in 1991].
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Big break: I would say my first big break didn’t feel like a break. At the time that UCS acquired Reynolds and Reynolds was about the same time that Dealertrack started recruiting me, and I really felt the culture shift at Reynolds — not necessarily bad or good, just different than how it had been the last 16 years that I had really enjoyed. I guess the reason it was a big break is it was the opportunity that Dealertrack gave me to really grow the DMS business that they had just acquired.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? We had a system outage at Dealertrack that spanned a couple of days. And as a DMS provider, that’s their lifeblood — their system that they rely on to do everything, from sell cars to parts to service work and everything else. There’s other systems that they might use in conjunction with it, but at the end of the day, it’s the repository for their data. And I don’t think I slept for three days and I don’t think my team slept for three days. And every time we thought working with our partner, IBM, that we had solved the issue, we had several setbacks along the way. And I fielded dealer calls directly for three days. I felt their pain. I felt the fact that they couldn’t print payroll checks for their technicians and their salespeople. I felt that they had customers in the showroom that they couldn’t sell vehicles to and I know that’s what they do. That is their business and we were preventing them from being able to run their business. And it hit home. It hit home hard. It’s rare in a week or even a month that a bomb drops in the middle of the corporate table and everybody just kind of turns and looks at you for guidance. Most days, people know what their job is and rarely does everybody turn to you and say what do we do? The only thing I knew to do was lead from the front.
You’ve been in the industry 28 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? Just having to operate our businesses completely remotely in a business that has customer-facing teams. Our sales team used to go out and physically interact with dealers. Certainly our implementation teams that train our dealers on a new DMS had to completely revise the way that they’re going about accomplishing those goals in a remote environment now. And then, obviously, digital retailing, which has always kind of been out there and talked about as the future of car buying in our industry. We had to rip the Band-Aid off and dealers had to adopt that methodology in order to stay in business, especially in March and April, where everybody was very, very concerned about reentering the world, and certainly a retail business like a car dealership.
Describe your leadership style. I follow the servant-leader kind of approach of giving everybody their goals and letting them run their individual departments as needed, expecting them to work together to achieve those goals because it is oftentimes cross-functional, and being there to support them.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career? I probably wish that I had gotten my master’s degree. I probably wish that I would have had the patience, I guess, to not just jump into the job market, but to spend a couple more years and do that. I thought about doing it at one point, and the idea of having a young child and running a household and a full-time career was just a little too daunting for me to also give up my Saturdays and a couple evenings a week to accomplish it. I don’t think it’s held me back, I just think it would be fun at this point, especially given what I now know.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? I would love to have more folks on my team — women or men — that come out of the retail side of the business. I think having that tie to how a dealer operates their business and firsthand knowledge of that would be incredibly rewarding, as well as important to my business. And so I think encouraging women that, if you’re in the family business at the dealership and you decide the retail life is not for you — maybe you want to start a family, whatever it happens to be — that there are other ways to continue your career in automotive that have a little bit more structure to the hours expected from them.
— Lindsay VanHulle