Back when Lisa Copeland owned the most successful FIAT/Alfa Romeo dealership in the world, in Austin, Texas, she made a bet that she and her team could sell a record number of FIAT 500 hatchbacks in a month. The bet was with Tim Kuniskis, then-head of the FIAT brand.
The prize if she won? She could check something off of her bucket list: meeting Sergio Marchionne.
Copeland and her team did break the record. A surprised Kuniskis (who had promised on Marchionne’s behalf but never mentioned it to him) tried to swap Marchionne for an A-list celebrity, perhaps George Clooney or J.Lo? But Copeland stuck with the original bet. Only Marchionne would do.
“I’m still shocked that she would even think I’m a celebrity,” Marchionne said, after flying to Austin on his private jet to congratulate the team. “But it’s a promise I’m happy to keep, even if someone else had the audacity to make it on my behalf. I’m really here for one reason only: to tell Lisa that the only celebrity here is Lisa – it’s not me. So thank you for what you have done.”
Looking back on that event now seven years later, Copeland laughs as she recalls, “One of the best parts of the whole thing was when Sergio first saw me in Texas, he said, ‘You really picked me over George Clooney?’”
Copeland’s admiration and respect for Marchionne, who died from cancer last year, remain palpable.
“He was the greatest leader in automotive of my time,” she says. “He personally saved Chrysler. He was a visionary, he had guts, he never backed down. He was just a great human.”
It seems the feeling was mutual.
With more than 30 years of automotive experience, Copeland believes that her most important work has just begun. It hasn’t been easy.
Cars Her Way: Advocate for Women (& Dealerships Too)
Saying that women love to shop may sound a bit stereotypical, but there does seem to be some truth to it – or at least, behind it.
Bridget Brennan, a behavioral researcher and the CEO of consulting firm Female Factor, has found that in nearly every society women are the primary caregivers of children and the elderly. She also found that this typically makes them responsible for shopping for more people (children, husbands, elderly parents, and pretty much anybody needing a gift) than men are. Thus, Brennan considers women to be “multiple markets in one” – a gateway to everyone else.
But like men, the majority of women don’t enjoy the car-buying experience.
This is where Copeland saw a huge opportunity in the automotive space. With more than 30 years of dealership experience as a saleswoman, manager, and owner, she had plenty of her own research to back up her latest focus: CarsHerWay.com and the corresponding iHeartRadio “Cars Her Way” talk show.
As the only third-party site created to cater to female consumers, Cars Her Way is paving the way for a successful, enjoyable car-buying experience for women.
Each dealership featured on the website, or dealer partner, has been personally vetted by Copeland and her team to ensure that specific criteria are met. This includes not only scouring things like dealership Google reviews and online ratings, but also an onsite visit.
Only after passing the rigorous review can dealers become partners. Like all successful ventures, this provides a win-win for everybody involved.
Which is why Copeland also focuses her work on making what has typically been a male-dominated industry more open to hiring and promoting women.
Steps in the Right Direction
One way dealerships can appeal to women is to hire more of them, especially in the sales role, Copeland says.
“This is a great business, with lots of opportunity, and no degree required,” she says. “Dealers need to be sure to open this opportunity to more women. You want to hire more people who look like your customers.”
According to Copeland, approximately 54 percent of cars are bought by women. With only about 10 percent of salespeople being women, and 90 percent of those 10 percent leaving in 12 months, there is room for improvement.
“Women perform at a high level,” Copeland says. “They’re more collaborative and they put customers at ease. Focus groups have found that they provide the perception, at least, of a better experience.”
Along with hiring more female salespeople, some dealerships could better appeal to women by making changes to their culture. Copeland says offering benefits like childcare and paid vacation go a long way.
Pay is also something to consider. Many people, including single moms, rely on a steady paycheck to make ends meet at times. Straight commission eliminates a good number of talented people from the chance to succeed, Copeland says.
“Once a dealership has hired a couple of female salespeople, they’ll be even more likely to succeed because they won’t feel so outnumbered,” she adds.
Marketing is another area where Copeland would like to see dealers step up their game and shift their focus to women. Approximately 63 percent of women say that dealership marketing doesn’t appeal to them. Subaru is the one exception, Copeland says.
“They’ve gotten it right from Day One,” she adds, citing the company’s Share the Love Event, which has resulted in the donation of more than $140 million to national and hometown charities.
Never Give Up
Copeland is looking on the bright side and at the ways in which the industry is improving for women, both as car-buyers and dealership employees or owners.
She named the appointment this July of Cheryl Miller as the new CEO of AutoNation as a huge sign that things are going well for women in automotive.
“Technology is also helpful for women as consumers, because they don’t have to spend as much time at the dealership,” she adds.
Any backlash Copeland gets in her efforts to bring more equality to the industry just fuels her fire to keep going. She has received anonymous emails and other messages telling her to stop what she’s doing, even telling her that she’s ruining the industry.
On the other side of that are the dealerships who fully embrace her efforts, saying they’ll do whatever it takes show their support.
“This really is a movement. And we couldn’t have done it even 10 years ago,” Copeland says. “Everything that’s happening with MeToo, etc., plays a part. Luckily we have the support of many men too. It’s a tough fight, but one worth fighting.”