On her first day working at an auto dealership, Carol Kitts sold four cars.
“I was so excited, so pumped,” Kitts said. Then her general manager, who had recruited her for the job, pulled her aside.
“He took me to the back lot and said, ‘I want to let you know, these guys are going to try to crack you.’ I had to ask what he meant. He said because I’d sold four cars that day and the other salesmen didn’t sell any, that they were threatened. I was the first woman salesperson, and I was only 19. It was hard for me to understand that there would be people who would try to make me fail. And they did try to break me.”
But they did not succeed. This summer, after nearly two decades in the auto industry, Kitts was named general manager of the brand-new Volkswagen of Fairfield, Calif. The dealership is owned by Fairfield Automotive Partners, a partnership between Schomp Automotive Group and Third Set Partners.
Being elevated to a GM position is the latest success for Kitts, who grew up in Bogota, Colombia, but moved with her family to Colorado when she was 15. “My aunt was already here, and my parents saw the opportunity to live a better life, with more opportunities and a better education for me and my three brothers,” she said.
“My grandmother wanted me to be a nurse like herself,” Kitts said. She started taking college classes, but also took a full-time job at an auto parts store. “Two of my brothers were into cars, modifying engines on a Honda Civic. I did so much work with them. Once I started at the auto parts store, I told my grandma, ‘I think this is something I like better than nursing.’ ”
She was working at the parts store when that first dealership boss, Brian Jacoby, came into the shop, and pegged Kitts as a great salesperson. She was, despite the challenging culture at that first dealership.
“Brian was my first mentor, and he really stuck with me. He believed in me,” she said.
Kitts eventually left Jacoby’s dealership and moved to a sales position at a Toyota store. She appreciated the new store’s culture but struggled with the ups and downs of a salesperson’s paycheck during the 2008 recession.
“I loved sales, but the unstable pay was a problem for me. When I asked my GM for more consistent pay, he suggested I try a service adviser role,” she said. “It was an incredible move, and an easy transition. I love service.” She became the dealership’s first service adviser to be ASE certified.
“My manager would test me for my ASE certification and my U.S. citizenship test at the same time,” Kitts said. “I felt like I was on top of the world when I got both at the same time.”
After working 11 years at the Toyota store, Kitts got a call about a service manager position at another dealership. She took the job, but said, “That was when I saw the reality of how hard and cruel the industry can be.”
On her first day on the job, four male service employees walked out, saying they didn’t want to work for a woman. Kitts stuck with it and improved the dealership’s customer satisfaction scores and sales. But she was burned out.
She made the tough decision to leave the dealership, and briefly tried a career as a realtor. But soon she was recruited back to the industry — first to work on Cox Automotive’s Xtime service platform, and then for a headquarters position at Schomp. While corporate fixed operations director for Schomp, Kitts helped the company grow to 13 dealerships from four and was named to the 2019 Automotive News 40 Under 40 list.
Now, she’s ready to pay it forward. “I want to help other women in the industry,” said Kitts, an active member of the Women of Color Automotive Network.
“Women bring two-thirds of vehicles to dealerships for maintenance and repairs. And those same figures are true in sales. It’s so important to ensure that we have that diversity on our staff, of having women in these positions. We have got to make sure there are opportunities for women to get to the next level in such a male-dominated industry,” she said.
“Women bring so many things to the table. We’re the whole package: smart, competitive, empathetic. We need those qualities at every level of the industry.”
Kitts has been working to do her part to hire women, including a longtime industry veteran as service manager at VW of Fairfield, in addition to two service advisers, one client adviser, a parts adviser and a finance lead.
Despite the challenges she’s faced, she said she’d recommend the auto industry as a career for women. Her advice? “Stay strong, keep your head up and look forward. Ignore the distractions,” she said. “Don’t let anyone, including yourself, get in the way. Women can be their own worst enemy by self-doubt. Believe in yourself.”