When deciding which partner in a couple has the purchasing power, the question is not, "Who wears the pants in the family?" but rather, "Who controls the pocketbook?"
According to EVEolution: The Eight Truths of Marketing to Women, published in 2000, data on women’s purchasing power included the following statistics:
Savvy dealership executives who recognize this trend have been bolstering their sales and F&I staffs by hiring more women. In an ongoing study of consumer attitudes about new-vehicle acquisitions published in F&I Management & Technology, a growing percentage of both men and women say they would prefer to see a female F&I manager. In 1980, during the first evaluation of gender, about 44 percent of women said they would prefer a female F&I manager. That figure swelled to nearly 48 percent by 2003.
"Nowadays, in something like 60 percent or more of the buying public, the decisions are made by the woman in the household," says Beverlee Hamm, finance director for South Bay Lincoln Mercury in Manhattan Beach, Calif. "I think opportunities for women in the finance office are opening up because there are more women buyers out there. I think they feel less threatened, less intimidated dealing with a woman, when they go in to buy a vehicle or do the paperwork."
A position in an automotive finance office puts women on an equal footing with their male counterparts. The industry is lucrative, enabling managers to earn executive incomes without the necessity of a college degree. Women are entering the business from an assortment of industries, including real estate, lending and other customer service or sales fields.
"I think there’s a great opportunity for women," says Hamm, who entered the business 20 years ago. "Since a lot of the dealerships are corporate-owned now, I would think there would be more opportunity because the big corporations are regulated more than an individual type of employer. It’s almost like it’s the best-kept secret in town. Women could break through and work side by side with males. There’s a huge opportunity out there, and I just don’t know if women realize it."
Compromises Are Often Needed
Such an opportunity does not come without personal sacrifice. Long evening and weekend hours can raise havoc with schedules, especially for single mothers.
"I’ve been lucky because I have a Mr. Mom at home," says Hamm. But not every woman is as fortunate.
Susan Rocca, finance manager for Spirit Honda in El Monte, Calif., says single parents have to work extra hard to juggle all their responsibilities. "My situation is that I waited until my kids got older so they could be more self-reliant. Then, I could go ahead and work the hours and not feel like I needed to be home all the time.
"You have to sacrifice a lot when it comes to a family and social life. I believe the sacrifices are worth it, because it does produce money, which is stability for your family."
Prior to going to school to learn finance, Rocca spent 11 years at Nelson Honda in the business office. Her constant worry about how to pay her bills prompted her to pursue a career as an F&I manager. And she knew exactly what she was getting into: a job that would provide self-satisfaction, require long hours, and pay an income that nationally ranks in the top 5 percent.
"Without being in the finance world, I’d still be struggling payday to payday," she says. She attributes her ability to put her son through college and her daughter through an exclusive, private high school to her work in finance. In addition, Rocca handles three car payments and the monthly rent without any assistance.
Balancing Work and Home
Not all dealerships, however, require the type of arduous sacrifice that Rocca makes on a daily basis. Ericka Moreno, a finance manager for Young Buick Pontiac Cadillac, a relatively small dealership in Escondido, Calif., doesn’t earn the kind of money that Rocca does. Nor does she need to. Her overhead is considerably lower, and most importantly to her, her flexibility is much greater.
"This is a great opportunity to make good money and still be able to be a mom when you come home, or have a social life," she says. "There are a ton of stores where you can combine a career and family life without having to make too many sacrifices."
Moreno says she is able to drop off and pick up her daughter from the first grade every day thanks to her flexible schedule.
Before Moreno became a finance manager in 2000, she was a 21-year-old medical assistant earning minimum wage. She had never even purchased a car before. Four years later, she is earning more than enough to care for herself and her child, and she still has time for a relationship. She plans to marry in May.
"Word is getting out about the opportunities for women in finance," she says, "and I kind of don’t want it to. There are a lot more women in finance now than when I started four years ago."
Moreno says she has always been treated well in her work environment. "I love my job and knowing that I’m helping somebody, especially when it comes to challenging financing," she adds.
"I truly believe in service contracts, GAP protection and other aftermarket products, especially for people around my age. I do relate to them." In this regard, Moreno’s sentiments are shared by Rocca and Hamm.
Since Moreno didn’t have an automotive or financial background before entering the field, she challenged herself to prove her worth to her employers. Part of accomplishing that, she says, is simply a matter of gender. Her theory is that boys and girls are traditionally raised by their mothers, resulting in an innate trust in women that continues into adulthood. This gives women a distinct advantage in her line of work, Moreno says.
"A lot of college grads don’t make this kind of money," Moreno continues. "My sister is a college grad and doesn’t make near what I make. But she is opening her own business, so hopefully that will change."
Results Are Name of the Game
The reason Moreno, Hamm, Rocca and a growing number of other women have shattered the automotive glass ceiling is because they produce results.
Mike Kelly, regional manager for JM&A, works with both male and female F&I managers. He says he believes women bring an additional air of professionalism to the finance office, one that equates to bigger profits.
"The finance world has really changed," he says. "It’s now more about full disclosure and soft sell and letting the customer make the choice. They need to be very gently led down that road and very professionally led down that road."
Kelly says he reminds his employees that customers come to buy the car, not the extra stuff.
The responsibilities of the F&I staff include three key functions outlined by Kelly.
"The first is to protect the dealership, the second is to deliver the car, but third, they have to make money," he says. "And making money means selling the stuff."
To accomplish these goals, you must have employees who look and act professional, and do not act aggressively toward customers.
"Women do this very, very well," Kelly says. "Whether they are aggressive or not aggressive, they do a good job in not appearing aggressive, generally."
Kelly says women finance managers often bring strong tools to the table. These include a tendency to put the customer at ease, because they are less threatening and their voices and manners are usually slower and easier.
"If I tell a guy that he really needs a service contract, he may argue with me," Kelly says. "But if a woman tells him he needs a service contract and gives him the reasons why, he will (often) take the positive role and agree with her to show he’s kind of in command. It’s sort of reverse psychology, but it really does work."
Scott Paul, general sales manager for Nissan of Buena Park, Calif., says he agrees with Kelly. He has hired at least seven female F&I managers during the last six years, and all are still in the business.
"They are good producers," he says. “Their paperwork is usually cleaner and neater. They seem to pay more attention to detail, and I also find them to be punctual, which is really important.”
Set Ground Rules, Earn Respect
Women have gained more respect in the finance office throughout the years. According to Hamm, it’s important for a woman to establish the proper professional tone when she begins working at a dealership.
"You always want to be professional, and you want to be respected and accepted by your male counterparts, but you don’t want to be treated like one of the boys," Hamm says. "I think an individual female has to come in and set the tone. I mean, if she’s going to tell dirty jokes and use foul language, they’re going to treat her like one of the guys. But I think you can still be respected and say, 'Hey, I have a job here to do and I expect to be treated properly. Don’t use your four-letter words around me and all that other stuff.'"
There is no doubt the dynamics of the dealership workforce are changing. This is a reflection of both contemporary marketing research and today’s evolving social climate. All indications are that the trend toward women in finance will continue.
"Because of the industry’s understanding of the decision-making process in the purchase of an automobile and aftermarket products, more women are being hired in the retail sales of the automobile, and in the finance end of it as well," says JM&A’s Kelly.
"And it’s not stopping there," he adds. "A lot of women are becoming service managers now, too."
Keith Tuber is vice president of corporate communications for the College of Automotive Management, an F&I training school. He is also a former journalist with 16 writing awards.