Women find success in INW automotive industry
Some say family ties don’t assure successful careerJune 8th, 2023
Some women serving in executive positions at three regional auto dealerships started their careers in the industry through family connections, however growing up around their family’s businesses didn’t guarantee an easy career, they say.
Whether the women knew that they wanted to work at the family business all along, or not, their time at the dealerships as youths offered opportunities to watch and learn how to lead effectively through cultivating a support network and developing communication skills.
Lauren Benedict, executive manager at Knudtsen Chevrolet Co., in Post Falls, says she began working for the company eight years ago as a project manager responsible for revamping the company’s employee handbook.
Benedict worked with the company’s attorney and alongside Knudtsen’s department managers, who helped guide her and develop new policies and verbiage as necessary.
Benedict says the handbook project was assigned to her by her mother and president of Knudtsen Chevrolet, Eve Knudtsen.
“I learned a lot about myself and how I deal with authority and even juggling that family relationship,” she says.
The employee handbook project transformed into a human resources role for Benedict in 2016.
At the time, “We didn’t have a human resources department,” she explains. “Our office manager handled all of the new employee paperwork, and all of the managers hired as they pleased, but we agreed that with 75 to 80 employees, we were probably big enough that we needed somebody to focus on human resources.”
She is now executive manager at Knudtsen Chevrolet and is responsible for handling some financial decisions, customer and employee relations, and other duties as needed.
Growing up in the industry, Benedict says she’s seen a shift in the perception of women assuming executive roles.
“My mom became the dealer in 1995, and at that point, it still was assumed that the dealership would transition to her brother,” she explains. “She faced a lot more adversity and scrutiny than I did industry wise.”
Benedict adds that by the time she joined Knudtsen Chevrolet, she felt welcomed by a big support network of industry professionals, whom her mother had worked to build connections with.
Benedict describes herself as a servant leader and is striving to reach a point in her career to be able to mentor others.
“Our philosophy as far as employment goes, is that it’s our job to get you ready for your next opportunity; for women…but also the men,” she explains. “If we have an opening for a promotion, we want to be able to offer that in-house, so we need to have already trained individuals ready to go. But mentorship is more than just training. It’s being a resource for somebody as far as developing within the community.”
Benedict says she’s been in her executive management role for about six months and is proud of helping the company survive through the pandemic, however she’s still learning how to balance and juggle her new responsibilities.
Knudtsen Chevrolet has 120 employees, including 102 full-time employees.
Work-life balance can also be a challenge for women with long established careers in the industry, such as Kristin Goff, president of Spokane-based Wendle Motors Inc.
Goff says, “I work hard, and I work a lot of hours and I’ve always struggled with juggling the multiple responsibilities. It’s one of the areas that I hope my daughter is better at. I think with business owners, it’s something that most of us struggle with.”
Goff says she’s worked to maintain a supportive company culture for all Wendle staff, including her daughter Rylee Pulliam, who is emerging as the fourth-generation executive leader at Wendle.
Goff says that Pulliam recently graduated from the National Automobile Dealers Association Academy, a program that educates future dealership leaders with business operations lessons in financial management, parts and service management, inventory, marketing, sales and associate management, and business leadership.
The academy has an intense application process, requires a sponsor, and is expensive to attend, at a cost of nearly $13,000, however Goff contends that it’s a valuable training opportunity.
“It’s well worth it,” she says. “I know that everyone that’s attended from Wendle has gained so much from it.”
Goff says she also grew up in the auto industry and was supported not only by her father, but also by the late Marti Hollenback, owner and dealer principal at Dishman Dodge Ram Chrysler Jeep, in Spokane Valley.
“She was a really good mentor, and it was important for me to see another female—especially someone local—in the auto industry,” says Goff.
Goff says her relationship with Hollenback grew from networking at the Spokane New Car Dealers Association.
In addition to the association here, Goff says that many new car manufacturers also provide some type of networking, support, or development groups for women in the industry, however making time to attend can be challenging.
Goff says that communication is a key skill to have as a woman executive in the auto industry. She credits her dad, Dick Wendle, a Journal of Business Icon in 2021, with teaching her effective communication.
She says she picked up how to listen to differing opinions and how to speak directly but with kindness, among other leadership skills and traits from shadowing him on the job.
“I think that’s important to be able to say what’s on your mind and feel comfortable speaking up,” asserts Goff.
Similar to Benedict and Goff, Kyeli Reinert, human resources director at Coeur d’Alene-based Parker Automotive, also grew up in the family business helping out as needed.
Reinert says she wanted to get work experience outside of the family company however she always wanted to be involved at Parker in some capacity.
Reinert previously worked at Northwestern Mutual in Boston and in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she says she experienced life at a faster pace.
“There’s just so many different ways of doing business and different ideas and different leadership styles,” says Reinert. “I had two really great bosses … and I learned a lot from them and was able to bring some of that back to Parker.”
Reinert explains that communication and staying grounded are important traits for women to have when starting auto industry careers.
“There’s always going to be different challenges, so it’s just working through that and taking care of your people and making sure that you’re being transparent and communicating what’s going on.”