Making Their Mark, Part I

Dec 2, 2009

Our industry competes with others for disposable dollars, and it’s more competitive today than any time in the recent past. In order to compete, companies need to have good people at every level.

We need to attract the brightest and smartest people if we hope to continue supplying the medium used by our car culture to express itself. Both as individual companies and as an industry, we must look everywhere for these people.

That includes being open to diversity on all levels. The performance industry offers great opportunities for young people of all races and gender.

One of the biggest changes to come about is the number of women in our businesses. There was a time when this wasn’t the case, but no more. And I’m not just talking about the “white collar” jobs we commonly think of I’m referring to the hands-on, nuts-and-bolts professions as well.

At last year’s SEMA Show, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Courtney Hansen. We talked a lot about her involvement in the automotive scene and her work on Overhaulin‘. You see, I knew Courtney’s father or, at least, I was acquainted with his achievements in sports car racing, which are really amazing and should be more widely known.

My familiarity with her background removed the need for questions about how she came to be so interested in the mechanical side of this industry, as counterintuitive as it is to see someone with her looks welding brackets on an Oldsmobile. I was surprised, however, being familiar with her substantial mechanical capabilities, when she mentioned that she wished she knew even more about the mechanics of cars and that she regretted not taking some formal courses in the area, such as attending a trade school like WyoTech.

I wasn’t thinking about an article on the subject at that time, but it created some curiosity about how women became involved in this traditionally male vocation. Most guys I know started out in the mechanical side of the industry and worked their way through. Is that the same for women in our industry as well?

It was probably a conversation with Tracie Nunez, CEO at ACT, that really triggered this whole concept in my mind. I was a little surprised when she expressed that while she was very comfortable with her management and business training, she had some regret that she had no formal education on the nuts, bolts and vocabulary of our industry.

This conversation reminded me of the previous one with Hansen. It motivated me to take a closer look at some of the women in our industry. I know, it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. I wanted to see just how they got here and what their thoughts were on that decision and their success.

Now, to be of any use to anyone else, which is the purpose of this diatribe, I wanted to see what some of these successful women could offer in terms of advice to others on what they did to get where they are and what they might have done differently. So, with the help of Tanya Jacquot and Camee Edelbrock, we talked with some of the women in this industry.

What we found was that the paths to their success were as different as those taken by the guys I know. Many of the women we have found in the automotive industry are in the marketing/advertising/public relations side of the business, but there is a sprinkling of CEOs, vice presidents, and women in sales, customer service and even car magazine editors.

TRACIE NUNEZ
CEO
Advanced Clutch Technology Inc. (ACT)

In talking with Nunez we learned that, in some ways, her start was like a lot of the guys I know and not much different than my own. She started out as a parts truck driver for BAP GEON.

She attended college, originally majoring in aerospace engineering. She became discouraged by the government canceling contracts and military base closures in the early 1990s, however, so she decided to step away from college for a short time and reevaluate.

She went to work for Avery Dennison and earned her bachelor’s degree while holding several jobs in various parts of its distribution center. She worked in four different facilities and gained skills in shipping, inventory, customer service, marketing, human resources, safety and facility management.

She also came to understand that the large corporate environment offered little chance to advance and decided to move on. She was hired by ACT to help organize the office and immersed herself in everything the company had going on. Eventually she was running the whole place. The title came much later.

Nunez has been very active in SEMA councils and committees as well. She became involved to network and benchmark other companies, but found her experiences and challenges were very typical for most small SEMA-member companies. Through her service on various councils, she gained a huge respect for this industry, as well as a large network of colleagues.

Her thoughts on being a woman in the industry: “In this industry, a woman will gain her respect with what she knows, how she handles herself and what she admits to not knowing. I am not the typical ‘car’ person but I represent ACT with sincerity, honesty, and tenacity. I know my product line, understand the market, and support the distribution channels. I believe in the long run a woman’s track record of work will prove whether she is successful or not in this industry, but in the short-term women get noticed and remembered for those first impressions.”

Her advice for women in the industry: “You are a female you can’t change that, so own it. Prove with your actions you are capable and confident, regardless of your gender. Be professional, honest, educated, positive, dedicated and patient. Opportunities present themselves when the time is right. Until then, learn everything you can. Leaders aren’t only the people with titles leaders are the people who inspire others to be more. When leaders are doing it right, they get noticed. Finally, when you are given that chance, don’t be afraid to take it.”

LAURIE MARCELLUS
Publisher, Off-Road Adventures Online
Advertising Sales, Off-Road Adventures Magazine

With Marcellus we again found that her path was really like many guys in the industry. Her first job in the performance world was as receptionist/inside sales at Hedman Hedders.

After graduating from college, she started in advertising sales for the Performance Racing Industry (PRI). After some time selling ads for truck publications, she then moved into management as publisher of Four Wheeler magazine. She chose to accept a position from a customer, 4-Wheel Parts Wholesalers, with an opportunity to build a companion enthusiast site to their publication, Off-Road Adventures.

It was her tenure at PRI that really locked her into the industry. She had been attending drag races as well as midget and sprint car races since the age of 16. During her tenure at PRI, she was able to attend NASCAR races as well.

She also spent time in manufacturing facilities in order to learn more about the products. When she got into the off-road side of things, she purchased two off-road vehicles and began “wheeling.” She says that using and understanding how these products actually work has been a great tool.

Her thoughts on being a woman in the industry: “I grew up in a home where I was taught that all people are created equal, regardless of gender, race, age or sexual orientation. I believe that since I don’t view myself any differently than I have viewed the men I work alongside of, they don’t either. I have also found that most men are more willing to talk openly with a woman. The appearance of competition or weakness is diminished or absent.”

Advice for women in the industry: “To thy own self be true. Be genuine and real in all situations and you will succeed. Also, I think that mechanical training offers an enormous advantage for a couple of reasons. First, speaking for myself, as a member of the professional off-road community, it gives me that much more of an edge when I am trying to discover the best way to market a product. Then, as an individual that is out in the field using and (ugh!) breaking these products, having that mechanical aptitude will save me a ton of money.”

S. KELLIE COLF
Market Development Manager
Eaton Detroit Spring Inc.
Chairwoman
SEMA Businesswomen’s Network

Colf’s first job out of college was as a territory manager selling and servicing capital equipment industrial metalworking machines. From there she moved on to material handling at a manufacturer of hoists, gantry cranes, chain, etc., as a national account manager.

She moved from that industry to the automotive aftermarket when someone she knew from the local car show circuit told her about an opening. She made the jump and said she wouldn’t go back.

Colf says that her education helped her in all of her positions from a business standpoint, but that first and foremost she is a gearhead at heart. She has been collecting and showing cars since she was 14.

She said she didn’t go home and rebuild hoists for fun while working in material handling, but she really does go home at night and work on cars. She credits SEMA as a whole and its various councils and committees as having been extremely beneficial to her career.

Her thoughts on being a woman in the industry: “The automotive aftermarket does have a stigma of being quite male-dominated, but it is much less so than the other industries I came from. Having cut my teeth there, this isn’t so bad. You think car guys are bad? Go put on some coveralls, walk into an auto plant, and tell their seasoned union labor guys you’re going to fix their machine. As a female in any industry, you do need to be a strong personality to overcome some people’s stigmas.”

Advice for women in the industry: “Enthusiasts here are welcomed, regardless of gender. This industry is not ‘just another job.’ It is populated with people who are genuine fans of the hobby and that shows through in our dedication. Prove yourself as a competent professional and gender becomes irrelevant.”

SANDI R. HOLDER
Cylinder Head Technician
Hendrick Motorsports

Holder started with an AS in Health Information Management and was working at the local rehab hospital. Her husband, Ernie, was an automotive machinist and engine builder, and they opened their own business in 1996.

As their business grew, she quit her job and went to work with Ernie full time running the business. They ran Holder Automotive Machine for almost 10 years before selling it in 2005.

Ernie was hired by a NASCAR team and the family moved to High Point, N.C. Sandi knew the guys from Clevite from her business and from participating in and winning (along with Gail Ault of Ault & James) the Inaugural Clevite Women’s Engine Build Showdown. While working with the Clevite Engine Showdown at Hendrick Motorsports she was noticed by Hendrick and they offered her a job washing engine parts in the teardown/clean-up area. She was quickly moved into the engine parts department and spent a year there before moving to the cylinder head department.

Holder got a great education from being in business. The Automotive Engine Rebuilders Association (AERA) was a big help with technical support. She thinks the biggest advantage of being involved with these groups was the networking and friends she gained in the automotive industry. She was also a supporter of ASE and made sure all of her employees were ASE certified.

Her thoughts on being a woman in the industry: “When we owned our own business, if Ernie wasn’t working on engines we weren’t making money. As the front person for the shop, I had to gain our male customers’ confidence in my ability to help solve their problems. When I didn’t know something I was honest and told them I didn’t know but I would find out, which gave me a lot of on-the-job training. Now at Hendrick Motorsports I work with a great group of about 110 men and I really enjoy it. I put more pressure on myself to earn their respect as a fellow worker than any of them have ever put on me. I think most men I encounter appreciate and respect the fact that I do enjoy learning this trade and most go out of their way to help me learn and understand things. Out of all the jobs I have had working with women and men, the automotive industry has definitely been the most personally rewarding. For me, a technical school probably would have helped. However, I think hard work and being challenged only makes you stronger and I like to learn from experience. I am luckily being offered the opportunity to do that in my current job.”

Advice for women in the industry: “Educate yourself and use every experience as a learning opportunity. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Network every chance you get with other shops/vendors/racers. Attend trade shows and events to stay on top of new technology and network, read, volunteer, get ASE certified, work hard and don’t give up.”

LIZ MILES
Technical Editor
Popular Hot Rodding Magazine

In high school Miles saw a 1968 Camaro and had to have it. Fixing it and making it faster for racing made her realize she would like to work with cars for a living.

While in high school she worked at Morgan’s Speed Shop in Walnut Creek, Calif. After high school she attended WyoTech, specializing in chassis fabrication and street rod courses, as well as focusing on applied service management, which covers the business aspect of the auto industry.

The reputation of the school and preliminary skills she gained there, along with her passion and determination got her a job at Dominator Street Rods, then with Boyd Coddington and finally with Popular Hot Rodding. Liz says her WyoTech education, attending car shows, her drag racing hobby and building the Camaro have all helped her get where she is today.

Her thoughts on being a woman in the industry: “You have the upper hand when you know more than people think you do. But, it does have its disadvantages when people don’t want to give you a chance. However, if you were to meet 50 guys and one girl, who are you going to remember? I look different, sound different and am different from most of the people doing my job out there.”

Advice for women in the industry: “If you present yourself as if you are afraid or not confident, then people won’t have confidence in you. Focus on the positives of being a woman. You’re easier to remember and easier to talk to.”

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So, what did I learn about women in this business? Some were born into the industry, some married into it, many chose it because they had a love of cars, and some stepped in because they had the experience and knowledge to do it, but didn’t necessarily know much about the industry itself at the time.

What they all seem to now share is a passion for the industry, whether they had it when they started out or not. What they also share is a desire to improve their own knowledge of the business they love.

Gee, that sounds an awful lot like the guys I know.

My advice we are all selling something. Selling is like riding a bicycle, the front wheel is like people knowledge, it steers the thing. The rear wheel is like product knowledge, it powers the thing.

The business of this industry is not so unique in its administration it does, however, have a unique “dress code” and vocabulary not taught in traditional educational environments. Understanding the people and the products is essential if you want to get anywhere in this business.

In fact, we interviewed so many great women for this article that there wasn’t space to fit them all, so we’re going to follow up with a Part II. There’s something to be learned from every woman who is out there working every day to make this industry what it is, and hopefully their stories will inspire others to follow in their footsteps.

To read Part II, click here.