YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Diane Sauer and Michelle Primm are two well-known and respected women in the formerly male-dominated automobile industry.
Although they had different starts, both Primm, the managing partner at Cascade Auto Group in Cuyahoga Falls, and Sauer, the owner of Diane Sauer Chevrolet in Warren, worked their way up through the ranks where women once rarely thrived.
When Primm’s father started the dealership in 1969, it became all hands-on-deck for the family. She filed in the service department, scrubbed the showroom floors and then worked in the parts department.
While attending college, Primm still worked in the store, learning all the tasks in the accounting office and rising to an office manager position. She eventually went to Kent State University to obtain degrees in finance and economics. Although she says other industries were calling, she went back to the dealership and started a finance and insurance department. Eventually, she advanced to general manager and then partner, along with her brothers, cementing her career in automotive.
Her father was her mentor in the industry and she calls “amazing” her mother’s steadfast support of him. While her father knew the store inside and out, Primm says he also allowed her brothers and her to make mistakes and learn from them.
She now aspires “to give back to the industry that has given so much to our family.”
When Sauer entered the automotive business, it was because of necessity and not with the goal of running her own dealership someday. She needed a job.
She had a degree in accounting and a minor in finance from The Ohio State University, but jobs were scarce in the Mahoning Valley during the decline of the steel industry. Sauer took the position of office manager trainee at Martin Chevrolet in February of 1976 at a mere 5¢ above the minimum wage.
“I took this job just in case something better came along. Well, that was 1976 and nothing has,” Sauer says. “One thing about working in the automotive industry, it kind of grabs you and takes you in and you just love it. That’s what happened to me, like many other people.”
Within a year, she was promoted to office manager and became the general manager in 1982. In 1993 her boss approached her about becoming the dealer and buying into the dealership. They signed a contract on Dec. 31, 1993, and she was franchised as a Chevy dealership on March 18, 1994. After working under that buy-sell contract for 10 years, Sauer ended up buying a former Oldsmobile location, building there and celebrating a grand reopening in 2007.
“Life is a series of circumstances and luck and bad luck. Sometimes I happened to be at the right place at the right time for a promotion,” Sauer says. “Both promotions to office manager and general manager came at a time when the individual that held the job before me was being transferred to another dealership in the chain and my boss said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. But could you do his job and yours at the same time?’ So that’s where the hard work comes in and luck is often preceded by hard work.”
Both women had their shares of challenges along the way. Primm says when obstacles arise, you just power on.
“If you know your subject matter, speak with confidence, people listen,” Primm says. “I think I just ignored distractions.”
At first, Sauer says she found the industry extremely challenging because there were no women.
“By the time I became a dealer, my own staff had accepted me very well. It was very much my world and there were no challenges within my world. However, on the exterior of my world, there was not much acceptance yet,” Sauer says.
She recalls that a lot of manufacturers did not know what to do with a woman. They would offer incentive hunting or fishing trips or gifts that were too often a shirt that buttoned down the wrong side or a ball cap. She attended a meeting at a building where an elevator operator insisted on telling her what floors she was not allowed to go on.
“I think my generation of women faced that across all business sectors,” Sauer says. “I think we were the generation of women that challenged ourselves.”
Primm says she has attended many meetings where she was the only woman, but that doesn’t happen anymore.
“I am so energized by the enthusiasm and professionalism of the women in our industry today,” says Primm.
She is involved in the Women Driving Auto Retail initiative with the National Automobile Dealers Association, which holds events and empowers women in the industry.
Likewise, Sauer says General Motors now has a program aimed at drawing women to the industry. And Automotive News honors the 100 Leading Women in the North American Auto Industry every few years.
“I think all businesses have found that diversity is a good thing, not only male-female but racial diversity,” Sauer says. “You feel more comfortable when you walk into a room where not everybody looks and acts the same.”
Primm agrees the industry now has thousands of career paths and anyone regardless of gender, race or sexual preference can be successful, if they are willing to work hard. In retail, she sees empathy and nurturing as good traits to have and she believes women naturally lean toward successfully helping their customers and managing employees. Additionally, learning to listen and really hear what is being said is an important skill, she says.
What advice would they give women today considering a career in the industry?
“Do your homework,” Primm says. “Be a subject matter expert and examine your personal values so you can dovetail passion with career … Also, don’t expect to be given positions. Work for it.”
“Do it,” Sauer says. “It’s fun. You have the opportunity to make a good living if you’re willing to do the work and you’ll meet great people, from co-workers to customers and vendors.”