Heels and Wheels 2012Posted on June 4th, 2012
How women buyers are changing the car market
By Nina Russin
Today, at least fifty percent of all new car purchases are made by women. What was once thought of as a niche segment has become the subject of intense scrutiny by automakers, in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
At the second annual Heels and Wheels women’s automotive conference, I had the opportunity to interview car designers and engineers about the impact of women buyers, and what it’s like to work in an industry where men still outnumber women.
When Buick began its product line makeover half a dozen years ago, the automaker set as targets decreasing the average age of its buyers, and increasing the brand’s attraction to women. At the time, 22 year-old Ven Lai was living in San Francisco, where she was attending the Academy of Art University.
Lai, who was born in Vietnam, grew up on the Gulf coast of Florida. She loved the warmth and sunshine of her childhood home, and had an early interest in shape and color.
She moved to San Francisco at age 18 to attend college, with the goal of graduating with a significant job offer. A double major in fashion and design, Lai did internships at the Gap and Abercrombie& Fitch. As a senior, she placed second in a CFDA competition sponsored by Target.
“I learned the difference between being an artist and a designer,” she said, “putting your work behind a consumer with a product which affects their everyday life.”
At the end of 2006, a group of GM recruiters visited the university, saw Lai’s portfolio and offered her a job on the spot. She began working in Buick’s Color and Trim studio in July 2007, immediately after graduation. Her first project was the Verano compact sedan, followed by the 2013 Enclave which debuted at the 2012 New York Auto Show.
“Our design studio is all very young,” said Lai. “We didn’t have preconceptions when we arrived about the Buick stigma.” Because of that, they were truly able to begin with a clean sheet of paper.
The Verano is built on the same chassis as the Excelle sold in China. Color and Trim’s job was to remake the exterior and interior in a manner which would appeal to American buyers. Because Buick was targeting women drivers, there was a focus on tactile surfaces and fashion oriented colors.
For example, the team introduced an upholstery color called Choccachino. The leather’s warm earth tones contrast with ice blue ambient lighting throughout the interior. In keeping with the Verano’s upscale image, the leather grade is the same as that used in the larger LaCrosse, known for its smooth surfaces which are free from mars and scratches.
“Millennials don’t have brand loyalty,” said Lai. Buick’s new design team sees that as an opportunity. “There’s nothing wrong with making a product which is beautiful and functional,” she said. According to Buick’s recent sales figures, the strategy seems to be working.
The laboratory that never sleeps
Jeanne Merchant has seen a lot of changes at General Motors since she first joined the company in 1978. The most significant is the shift from Detroit-based product development to global teams. Merchant, who was the Vehicle Line Development engineer for Chevrolet Malibu Eco, Buick LaCrosse and most recently the Cadillac XTS, explained that in today’s competitive environment, the laboratory is never quiet.
“I have no bones to pick,” said Merchant, after I asked her whether she felt gender bias had at any point limited her career. “This is a 24/7 global industry which is globally competitive,” she explained. “You have to work hard for (success).”
She used the current Buick LaCrosse as an example, which was launched jointly with a team working in Shanghai.
“Twenty-four hours a day, someone was working on the car,” said Merchant. “It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.”
Unlike, Ven Lai, Jeanne Merchant was born into Detroit’s automotive culture. Her grandfather was in the tool and die business, and her father was a draftsman for Ford. While Merchant followed her family into the industry, she bucked the trend at the time she entered college by focusing on electrical rather than mechanical engineering. It was a fortuitous decision.
Merchant began her career at GM as a project engineer, bringing robots onto assembly lines and working on automated machine vision systems. She worked on minivans for several years and went back to midsized cars seven years ago.
“The XTS is a product of an engineering team which is over fifty percent female,” said Merchant. The chief engineer, product and quality engineers were all women.
“It’s important to encourage women to enter technical fields from a very young age,” she said. “Women are born multi-taskers, good team leaders, collaborators and very technically competent. They are interested in how technology can benefit them.”
A world full of color
When LaShirl Turner was growing up in Detroit, she was more interested in the city’s museums than the cars rolling off the assembly lines.
“As a kid I always drew and sketched,” she said. She admits that at one point, the bathroom wall in the family home was her canvas.
At first, the family seemed pleased. Her mother, who worked as an engineer, sent her to art lessons at the Detroit Institute of Art. But college was a different story. Her mother made it clear that LaShirl was to follow in her footsteps, beginning with an engineering degree at Wayne State.
Turner gave engineering her best shot, but at the end of the day, a technical career wasn’t for her. Since her mother wouldn’t help her pay for art school, Turner worked two jobs to foot the bill herself. She eventually graduated from CCS with a major in textile design.
Turner, who had learned weaving at an early age, began incorporating metals and found objects into her textiles. She was fascinated by woven body shields certain African tribes fabricate to bring luck to warriors before battle. Her work transitioned from two-dimensional textiles to three-dimensional sculpture. Her teacher suggested a textile program in color and trim, which eventually led her to Chrysler.
Turner’s job at Chrysler as head of the Advanced Color and Engineering studio was her ticket to explore the world. After the Fiat merger, she had the opportunity to go to Italy. Travels through Europe, the Materials Library in New York, athletic shoes, fashion magazines, music, art and architecture have all influenced her automotive interiors.
“Through my job at Chrysler, I am able to help create industry-leading innovation and support through color and materials,” she said. Turner’s most recent project is the compact Dodge Dart which rolled out this spring.
The design team avoided the bland interiors typical in compact cars by including bright yellows, reds and blues among the interior color options. The base interior upholstery is a new black inspired by athletic shoes. Contrast stitching in upscale models comes from clothing design.
Turner and her team are currently working on the next-generation Dodge Viper. To her, working on Dodge’s super-car is the most obvious indication of how far women have advanced in the automotive industry.
“When I started at Dodge, only men worked on the Viper,” she said. “Now my team, which is almost all women, has its hands all over the car.”
You can take it with you (and you can have it all)
Brenna Kaufman could be the poster child for women working in male-dominated fields. Over the past twenty years, she’s balanced the demands of raising a family with a fast-track career path in the car industry.
After graduating from Michigan Tech with a degree in mechanical engineering, Kaufman went to work for Johnson Controls. Two years later she answered a newspaper ad for a plant vehicle engineer at Chrysler and got the job.
At the same time that she was raising her growing family, Kaufman moved up the ranks at work, working on seating and restraints, and program management for the 2005 Grand Cherokee. She had another child after launching the Grand Cherokee, but continued to follow the fast-track career path, overseeing a team of sixty engineers working on exterior systems for all of Chrysler’s rear-wheel drive cars.
She was the senior program manager of the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and Dodge Challenger, seeing those projects from beginning to end.
When I asked Kaufman how she felt about being a woman in a male-dominated industry, she answered, “I don’t think much about it. I don’t want to be thought of as a woman engineer. I’m an engineer who happens to be a woman.”
“One of the reasons I believe I’ve been successful is that I don’t pretend to know everything,” Kaufman continued. “But I’m a good leader. Once people realize that I won’t pretend to know something I don’t, they’re OK with that.”
“I think maybe once in my career someone made a comment about my leaving work early to do something with my kids. I just blew it off. Now, thanks to computers and the internet, if I have to leave to do something with my kids I can take the work with me and work from home.”
Kaufman attributes Chrysler’s recent turn-around to two main factors: the Fiat merger, and a new focus on the customer.
“The previous generation Chrysler 300 wasn’t a bad car,” she explained. But Kaufman and her team wanted it to be a great one.
So the team focused on criticisms from existing customer about visibility, interior quiet, fit, finish and safety. For example, customer clinics revealed that owners wanted the trunk lid to pop open rather than simply unlock, so engineers used more costly gooseneck hinges to make that happen. Interior touch points became softer and more inviting.
“Women think differently and have a different perspective,” Kaufman continued. “They reach for things differently. They have fingernails.” Adding a female perspective didn’t make the new 300 a poorer fit for men; it simply added features which an all-male engineering team might not have thought of.
While automakers are keenly aware of the financial muscle women buyers have, there are still flies in the ointment. The biggest challenge remains at the dealership level. Since almost all dealerships are independently owned franchises, automakers have limited influence on how salespeople treat women in the showroom.
But new businesses such as Carmax do. Audrey Marsh is the location manager for Carmax of Irvine: one of the company’s biggest dealerships. Like many of her female colleagues, Marsh had first-hand experience of how frustrating it can be for women to try to buy cars.
Car Max, which is owned by Circuit City, has circumvented many of the problems traditional dealerships have with sales staffs by paying its associates during a 6-8 week training period, and basing commission on the unit rather than the type of car sold. Half of the sales associates are women, so female customers don’t face an unfriendly pack of male salesmen when they walk through the door.
“A woman is smart, educated and has done her research,” said Marsh. “If traditional dealerships would pay attention to that, we’d have competition.”
Heels and Wheels is an annual conference which brings together women working in all aspects of the automotive industry, including journalism, sales, consulting, marketing, public affairs, engineering and design. For more information, visit the program web site.
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