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Maria Soklis: A woman in a man's world Add to ...

Maria Soklis cannot force car dealers to change their ways, but she can nudge, cajole and perhaps even bribe them to go in certain directions and to act in certain ways.

And that means working with dealers who have yet to realize the benefits of having women on the sales floor, moving the metal.

Soklis, the 40-year-old vice-president and COO of Kia Canada - and the first woman ever to join the senior executive ranks at Kia Motors and one of the few women in a senior role in the car business anywhere - know personally how tough it is to be a woman in what we all know is a primarily a man's game. She's No. 2 at Kia Canada, reporting to CEO Jay Chung.

She does, after all, have three kids and she does, after all, work in an industry that demands long and often weird hours. At the car dealership level, that means salespeople are usually expected to work evenings and weekends on a regular basis.

Anyone with kids -- especially moms -- knows those kinds of hours are a nightmare. The hours, and the generally macho culture of most dealerships, works to thin the ranks of women in car sales.

That's why it's rare to walk into any car dealership selling any brand, make or model, and find a woman working the sales floor. Soklis argues that's starting to change, but we all know change is coming at glacier speed.

"I think that there is a place for women in the automotive industry," she says, adding that while dealers can do more, women who aspire to a career in auto sales also need to be well organized and skilled at time management.

In other words, she's not looking for special favours for women - just a fair deal.

"The (dealers) are going to have to be smart enough to hold onto women in their dealerships," she says. "More than 80 per cent of purchases today are influenced directly by women. And some women feel more comfortable buying from women because women tend to sell a little bit differently than men."

Soklis's job is all about working directly with dealers on almost every possible issue - from sales incentives to customer service training. But Kia Canada cannot dictate the workplace structure in any individual car dealership. That's up to each individual dealer. But she does have influence and Kia Canada does support dealers with funds to back corporate programs.

On top of that, her personal experience at Kia Canada might have an impact at the dealer level.

"It is unprecedented, however it hasn't been as difficult as it may appear," she says. "If you work hard, I have found the Koreans to be very fair in recognizing your achievements.

"And they have given me the flexibility I need as not only a career person, but also as a mom."

In the end, Soklis will be judged by Kia's success at selling cars in Canada. Selling is something she knows how to do. She worked for 10 years with General Motors in Europe and Canada in manufacturing and sales posts, but left GM in 2006.

At Kia, Soklis has enacted Kia's first dealership redesign program for the brand's 155 Canadian dealers. Soklis says 87 percent of the dealers have signed up for the program, for which Kia provides supporting funds.

She also brought a version of the Hyundai Assurance program from the U.S. to Canada. Under the program, Kia promises to buy back a car if a customer loses a job within a year.

As for sales, they were up 20.4 per cent for Kia through the end of July. Not bad, but Kia's sales in Canada grew 26.9 per cent from 2006 to 2008, to 37,520 units.

So there is work yet to be done. Perhaps a few more women selling cars at Kia dealerships might nudge up 2009 sales to the levels seen from 2006-2009.

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