(WOMENSENEWS)–Cheri Fleming, the American International Auto Dealer Association’s 2006 dealer of the year, runs an unusual showroom.

The Valencia Acura dealership she co-owns with her husband in Santa Clarita, Calif., is what she calls “comfortable.”

Manicures are offered on Mondays. An esthetician is there on Tuesdays. “I love seeing a male customer relaxing in a back booth with a green mask on his face,” says Fleming.

Wednesday is massage day and Friday is shoe shines. Every day fresh cookies are baked on the premises and fresh flowers are delivered weekly. Two dogs–Scooter and Spark Plug, the couple’s Shih Tzus–are the official greeters.

Women are now purchasing roughly half of the vehicles sold each year, spending more than $80 billion a year on automobiles, and expressing a preference for female salespeople.

Recent surveys by CNW Marketing Research, a Bandon, Ore., publisher and industry sales tracker, meanwhile, find that women are comfortable buying a car from another woman, and that saleswomen are less likely than male counterparts to ignore female customers or to ask them if their boyfriend or husband is helping finance the purchase.

But female dealers such as Fleming are nonetheless a noteworthy rarity. Men, by and large, still run the showroom.

Five Percent Are Women

Of the 20,000 new car dealers who belong to the National Automobile Dealers Association–the sector’s primary trade group based in McLean, Va.–approximately 900, or 5 percent, are women, says Kathy Sims. That’s up by only two percentage points since 1990. Sims is one of the association’s first female board members and has served for a decade.

In other dealership ranks, women make up somewhere between 8 percent and 10 percent of general managers and between 15 percent and 18 percent of finance and insurance managers at dealerships, says Gerry Myers, president and CEO of Women’s Automotive Dealer Exec-U-Link, a group of 10 to 12 female dealers who meet a few times a year to talk business strategy.

“The agenda is set by the women,” says Myers, referring to her group, which functions as a board of advisors of sorts. Myers worked as a consultant to the auto industry in the 1990s. “It can be succession planning when they have kids in the business, improving profits, balancing work and family, how to be taken seriously, or whatever is urgent. We can’t get this kind of meeting anywhere else.”

But the low participation of women in the business may be set to change.

Car dealerships have a steep entry fee; expect to pony up $2 million to $3 million to get started in a franchise, Sims says. Often, they are family businesses, says Jeffrey Beddow, spokesperson for the National Automobile Dealers Association.

That means a generational influx of daughters may be getting ready to blow the door off the stubborn gender stats.

The dealer academy in McLean, Va., teaches sons and daughters of dealers in the car business. Now, about one-third of the students are women, says Sims.

“These businesses are passed from one generation to the next,” says Sims. “The girls are going to be right there to say, me too dad, count me in.”

Family Ties

In many cases female dealers are wives who succeeded their late husbands, or daughters who bought or inherited businesses from their fathers. Siblings also sometimes run dealerships together.

Jill Merriam, for instance, is co-owner with her brother of Key Hyundai in Manchester, Conn. She says her family has been in the car business for 50 years. She initially went into investment banking but when her father announced he planned to retire, her brother asked her to get involved. Their father had second thoughts about retirement and she and her brother opened their own dealership in 2002. Today, they have 25 employees and sell about 78 cars a month.

Christina Dawkins entered the family’s Colorado auto business in 1994, and worked her way up. By the time her father retired after 40 years in 2004, she had been running the Fort Collins BWM store for many years. Today she heads up operations at BMW in Loveland, which she co-owns with her sister.

“As a woman you have to work twice as hard to get respect and I think I’ve gotten it because I’m decisive,” she says. “When you get things accomplished, you get respect.”

Dawkins says women are still far outnumbered by male dealers. “When I go to a meeting of 350 BMW dealers, I’m usually one of two women. I can always get to the bathroom.”

But while a tiny minority, women have been grabbing limelight in the business.

In 1999 the Automotive Hall of Fame, in Dearborn, Mich., awarded its distinguished service awards to women for the first time since it began doling out the honor in 1945, says Lorraine Schultz, CEO and founder of the Women’s Automotive Association International, an advocacy group in Birmingham, Mich.

And next year a woman–Annette Sykora, currently vice chair–will take over as chair of the National Automobile Dealership Association.

Proving Their Chops

Women such as Rhonda French, meanwhile, have been proving that women are fully capable of running the car business.

Since 2003 she’s been general manager of Ancira Nissan in San Antonio, Texas. During her tenure sales revenue has grown 40 percent. In 2005, her dealership was awarded the Nissan Owner First Award of Excellence for outstanding service, a national recognition bestowed that year on only 33 dealers out 1,075.

The industry is also making some female-friendly moves.

For the last couple of years the National Automobile Dealers’ annual convention, for instance, has included a breakfast for female dealers.

Manufacturers have also introduced dealer development programs for women and minorities.

Groups such as the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association have held career fairs and panel discussions for women to encourage them to go into the industry.

In 2001 General Motors created a program to increase its numbers of female dealers and executives and to improve the overall work environment for women.

The program provides training and financial options for qualified candidates to become future GM dealers. Today the company has 266 female dealers, up 3 percent from the number of female dealers on record in 2001.

“Equity will take time,” says Myers. “It’s just been over the last 10 years that the car companies have realized that women are a tremendous customer and to begin to think about us in car designs; the mirror over the driver’s side visor is a good example. Getting our due in owning dealerships, that’s the next step.”

Sheryl Nance-Nash is a freelance writer based in New York, specializing in personal finance, small business and women’s issues.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

Women’s Automotive Association International

Note: Women’s eNews is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites and the contents of Web pages we link to may change without notice.