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Interview with Kathy Gilbert a Woman Who Rocks Auto

Kathy Gilbert was honored with a Spirit of Leadership Award during NADA from the Women’s Automotive Association International, and is on the board of the upcoming Women and Automotive Conference,, in Orlando, Fl June 26th- 28th. She is very invested and involved with CDK’s women's initiatives and mentoring women leaders.

Kathy Gilbert is Director of Sales and Business Development for CDK Global, Inc. (formerly ADP Dealer Services). She has management responsibility for the CDK Minority and Women Dealer Business(es), which includes 1,500 clients across the United States with roughly $60M in revenue. Kathy has over twenty years with CDK, where she has held positions in Product Marketing, Field Sales, Sales Operations and Support, and Competitive Intelligence. Kathy is an advocate for all clients, especially minority and women automotive dealers. She continues to partner with internal and external stakeholders to deliver unique, personalized experiences for our clients and to showcase our products and services.

AP: Can you tell us a bit about the award, and what it means to you and the organization?

K: It was a four day event by the NADA organization, and I was fortunate to be given a Spirit of Leadership award from the Women’s Automotive Association International. I started supporting Women’s International eighteen years ago when I joined the organization. The organization actually focused the accomplishments of women in their professional careers and what they do with community and family. So the organization in itself meant a lot to me. As there was not chapter at the time, I started a chapter with the President of the WAAI, and we grew the membership to about a hundred before my organization relocated me to Connecticut. Prior to that, we put on the first women’s day program at the Chicago Auto Show in 2007. It was there we gave the first women’s achievement award. It was an awesome experience for me to be a part of the organization back then, and I have been supporting them ever since. To be honored by the organization that has done so much for women means a lot to me.  WAAI has been giving out these awards since 1997. Prior to that, women were given tickets to the auto show for admission. There was no formal program. Then we partnered with the auto show and WAAI and put together this current program. As to the award, it was phenomenal to be recognized. And I had a personal surprise. I had told my family they had no need to attend, but my brother and my boss teamed up to surprise me by being there. I did everything except cry. I came very close, because I did not know he was there until I saw him standing in front of me.

AP: Awesome. That was wonderful. Let’s go on to the next question. What enticed you to move into the industry?

K:  I think like most women, I could say that I stumbled into it. My background with a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in Business Administration was technical. I’ve been an Administrator and Network Administrator, and when I had the opportunity to come to HP after TDK, it was for a technical role to roll out a brand new product that would take paper and digitalize it, to move away from paper dependency and make those documents available online. I had some sales experience. When I got into this industry, one of the things that I loved the most about it was that it wasn’t a strong technical industry. It was about people. It was about relationships that you developed. And when I entered as an African-American female into the automotive industry back in 1994, everybody was asking if this was really the place I wanted.

AP: That must have been pretty tough for you. How did you handle it?

K:  Believe it or not, in this business it was not a big issue, because it was all about relationships. I wasn’t in a dealership environment. The owners of the dealerships wanted to talk to me because we were selling programs they were interested in. It wasn’t a difficult spot, but it was a unique path, because the owners wanted to talk to me. But you have to have a thick skin, and there was a lot of the “noise” that you just kind of had to look past. We were doing something new, and rolling out a product that was new to the industry. Everybody today digitizes forms, but they weren’t at that time. The use of paper was comfortable. So a lot of the comments that we got didn’t affect me the same way because I recognized their need for our information, as opposed to hindering me. The organization that I worked for developed strong relationships with my dealers, strong relationships with the manufacturers, and strong relationships with a lot of the partners. I think when I first got in I was all excited because it was a new industry and new product and over time I was able to develop this further.

AP: You’re spending a lot of time in recruitment and development of women in the industry. What is your stand on that, and where do you think it is headed?

K:  I would modify that a little in that over my last several years, most of my experience has been in working with my dealers, helping to attract more women into the business and helping them understand the efforts. Over the last year what we focused on not only how to grow the number of women, but also how to retain them. One of the things that has worked for me is my involvement with mentoring and coaching other women, because I have mentored most of my career. Mentoring is very important, because   someone trying to decide which path to take can pick up the phone and have a conversation with an advisor to avoid some of the pitfalls.  This can help and counsel that person on how to handle situations. I think has been one of the keys to my success. I’ve had a coach throughout my career that has been able to give me information for customers I need to reach out to, or help them with decisions with which they were unhappy. Or if they want other women in the industry they needed to talk to, I have been a resource as a mentor and coach for that purpose in most of my career for the last twenty-two years. That I think this plays a big part. You have to have a strong will. You have to have a commitment and motivation. But you also have to be ready to help those who are not afraid to ask questions and seek out those who can help you. Because again, we have all run into people in our careers that haven’t been as supportive. You must have to know where to find the support. We all need it. We need the coaching to help point us in the right direction, especially when times are more difficult.

AP: That’s great. This brings us to how you are handling the traditional male dominance in the industry, which has become a consistent source of irritation to those trying to develop change. What are your views on this?

K:  Again, my path has been a little different as my career in the industry has been on the supplier side. I haven’t been competing against sales with men on the sales floor trying to get a deal. I have experienced what a lot of women have where you arrive at a dealership, and the salesmen look at you to find out if your husband or boyfriend is with you to help you buy this car, because you aren’t able to buy it by yourself. It’s always for me about preparation. If you are going in to talk to a client, if you are going in to purchase a vehicle, then you do your homework and you know the details, so that they can’t look at you as being ignorant. Ask the right questions and with confidence and strong will, because if you don’t you can easily get intimidated. I had one of my best friends told me that sometimes you play for chips and sometimes you play for cash. You have to pick your battle: Is this the battle you want to fight? I’m not afraid to fight that  battle, but I am cautious about which ones I pick. And having someone in my corner that can advise me about the approach being right or not with any person, then we have the option to seek out someone else. You can’t win every battle, and because of that I’ve been selective about the battles I fight. I develop relationships in which I can experience a great deal of respect. And that has helped me a lot. You have to get past that first five minutes of “Oh, honey,” or that certain look they give you. When you begin to talk and your confidence and will comes out, it helps. To answer your question, if we have more women in the industry, with more women in powerful positions, and you see more women doing the things we want, it inspires you to do more. Part of what I am doing in automotive and AskPatty and WAAI is how to bring awareness in the industry to accomplish really wonderful things.

AP: What do you think it is going to take to change those that recline in their tilt-back chairs, traditional-thinkers, not really motivated toward change in the industry? How can we get them to recognize that at least 85% of all auto purchases are directly made or motivated by women, and that the survival of their business may depend upon them?

K:  What I would say is that I believe there are two things: One, we are starting to see this change. We are starting to see more women in influential positions, where women are being put out in front. Women have been in the background, but we are starting to have more presence and recognition. I think that’s going to help because the more marketing, the more support and recognition we get is going to bring about change. I’m a “Baby Boomer.” And if you look at the Baby Boomer generation, we are slowly starting to lead the workforce. And the experience that we have is leading with us. We have the Millennials that are coming in, and they are eager and excited, but they don’t have the experience. So some of it has to be with how you pair these two together. How is your business impacted by that lack of experience? The second part of it is by looking at the number of women graduating college. More women are graduating and coming out of college than before. I think this is one of those situations that the remedy is inevitable. Dealers that are more progressive are beginning to recognize the fact that more women are out there, and they have to do a better job of marketing and recruiting women. Because if they don’t, they’re not going to have anyone really able to fill the need of those starting to lead the industry.

AP:  The future of the industry is in for a huge change, and many specialists are speculating that within five years the majority of the details of vehicle purchases will be made online, with little need for actual visitation to the dealership, and that additionally the vehicle purchases will be personally delivered to the owner at the residence of place of business. They speculate this will leave the dealerships in a different image. What do you feel about that?

K:  I think there are two schools of thought. I think your description is one. That the auto dealer will become a delivery mechanism. Because my customers are dealerships, we look at it a little different. We look at it from the perspective that the dealer is an important part of the vehicle purchase. So what we have been doing is that yes, we are going to have a large percentage of buyers going online to price out the vehicles and determine what their current vehicles have in value. A lot will be done before the customer will come into the showroom. So the role of the dealer is changing. Instead of it being an environment where they tell the buyer about the vehicle and try to sell it to them, it is more about educating. The dealership now becomes more like a trusted advisor helping the customer through the purchase process. We don’t believe the dealer will ever go away, but that their role in the industry will change. The progressive dealers that are looking at how they will stay relevant, are now looking at how they will become more focused on the customer experience. And that the customer will not only want to come in and by the vehicle from them, but that they will also come back to them for service. And this gets us back to the role of women in this change. If the progressive dealer is really looking at the industry, and realizing that there are so much more online transactions, then when women do come into the dealership, their experience must be dead on, or they will go someplace else.

AP: Observations of many people in the industry are stating that women salespeople are more trustworthy, and that there is more comfort in dealing with a woman, than experiencing the frequently more pressurized treatment by the traditional male. Also, as we know the majority of decision-making is done by women, do you think the dealerships are actually starting to see the financial rewards of having women in their organization?

K:  Absolutely. Women tend to listen more, and they listen differently. A woman is going to be more compassionate, to help you get into the right vehicle for you. They are trying to make sure that based upon they put you in the vehicle that meets your needs. And I think that’s the reason that women come across a little more trusting, because they are interested in finding out what you want and how you are going to use the vehicle. They are going to help you into the vehicle that will work best for you. Because women generally tend to look more long-term in terms of developing a relationship, as opposed to just selling a vehicle. When I look at my career, a lot of the customers that I have worked with over the years, many of them have become repeats, where they have come back because of their experience with me. And even if they decide not to buy, they still maintain a strong relationship with the dealer management system. They know I will continue to do the very best I can to take care of them. This is more about listening to the customer, and this is where we are getting to now. If I give you an awesome experience, this is where I set myself apart from others. Women are doing their homework. They have already narrowed it down to the vehicle they want. It is all about the experience they get and how well they are listened to.

AP: Let’s talk a little more about the surging population of Millennials. Perhaps their demands are not much different than before, but are certainly more vocal. What do you think their influence will be?

K:  One of the things that I have heard said is that the Millennials want the same things that women want. They want the ability to have a career path that is very clear in where it will lead to. They want things to be spelled out. They don’t want to be held back just because they are women. I think that is a big area for women, and Millennials. I also see that Millennials as well as women value technology, with the ability to go online and pull up vehicle information before they go into the dealership. Millennials and women want the same things: Career Purpose and Path opportunities for advancement; they value experience and want to develop it; pay stability and equality; a good work/life balance; and diversity in the workforce.

AP:  What do you think our dealerships will have to do to accommodate and attract them?

K:   I think the biggest thing is that the dealerships will have to make a concerted effort to address this. They will have to change how they hire, and how they promote themselves. Because Millennials are looking for culture. Right? Salary and compensation any more is not just dollars. And they are not going to stay if you are not giving them the flexibility by giving them opportunity to be innovative. Dealers will have to make a genuine effort to market to women, and look at the wording they use. I run into this as well as an African-American female. You can’t have all of your ads featuring white women or white men, while looking to attract African-Americans. If you are not positioning and tweaking your message to attract the clientele you are looking at, you are not going to be successful. And adjustments will have to be made for the specific needs of the family woman. I will tell you what you see is that aggressive dealers are being more flexible, and are doing pay plans and schedules based on what women want. Even more men are now staying at home with the children, and their wives are working. The traditional family is changing, and in order for aggressive organizations to really leverage and take advantage of the new work force, they will have to make ecessary adjustments.

AP:  More and more of our educational systems are responding to these concerns. What do you think is going to be happening in our colleges and other systems to address this?

K:  More is being done on the recruitment side, and I personally am doing more public speaking in an effort to address helping retaining women in the industry. We are starting to look at specific skillset, whether it is technology, or in leadership. We are looking at how we have presence in school systems, starting at high school level or at the college or university, or the MBA or higher education programs. We have to make sure that women’s issues are being addressed. Are we showing them all the opportunities that are available in automotive?  You can work with the manufacturer that knows the vehicle and the dealership that is selling the car. You can work with the finance company, and you can work with the service or aftermarket organizations. There is so much opportunity within the industry, but I don’t really believe that women are aware of the opportunities here. I think part of achieving this goal is in partnering with the schools until women discover that there are real opportunities in the auto industry. We must expose them to our leaders that have been successful. This is the beginning to bring about this awareness. Women in technology and automotive are the two that are the closest, and that is where we have to do a better job as a company, an organization, and as a community to make sure that women coming out of school really understand these opportunities. I think these are the kind of things that will help attract more women to the industry.

AP: What do you think the role of women will be in the future of the industry?

K:  I think that from the viewpoint of a minority woman and women in general, the representation should mirror the demographics. I like equality across the board, and that is not going to be easy to achieve. I think that when more women are in leadership roles, and their decisions are affecting you with stronger sales, you will have more recognized opportunity for everyone. Change is coming. A big change across the board is coming from social media and the online community. If I am treated badly at a dealership, I will leave and immediately go online to tell everyone I know, as well as posting my negative comments with rating organizations.

AP: Kathy, it has been an enormous pleasure to speak with you, and glean hope for women in the industry from the excellent experiences and achievements you have had. Thank you for your time spent with us. Best of everything to you in the future.

K:   Thank you. It has been my pleasure to share my feelings.

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