by Valdi Pereira


Passionate about Cars


“I am often amazed at how radically things have changed for women in South Africa. If you look at government in particular, it is not token change. Change has been embraced extensively, unequivocally and unquestionably. It is heartfelt and something the people fundamentally believe-in and live,” says Lexus Lynwood Dealer Principal, Tania Cleary.


However, when one turns to the economy in general, Cleary says the degree to which things have changed, and the degree to which opportunities have been created for women, varies from sector-to-sector: “I am not sure the lower you move down the organisation whether you get the same level of acceptance of women. Furthermore, there are still massive differences in remuneration between female and male executives,” she contends. 


In South Africa, the motor industry remains a male dominated environment. “There are certain brands where there are no female executives, whatsoever. The operations, administration and management, is largely multinationals; these are owned by various multinational groups. To a large extent, they have sorted out the cultural acceptance of women in management positions, however, the minute you start to get into the retail environment, it is a completely different place,” she informs. 


The motor industry is no less attractive to women than many other industries: “Women have traditionally been very good sales people. When South Africa started to change and provide opportunities to previously disadvantaged individuals, women were part of this group. Women were promoted. Some groups, more so, than others, have done a very good job in terms of giving women opportunities. Women run some of the most successful dealerships. However, I do not think there are many women outside the industry, who aspire to come into the industry to run a dealership,” she observes. 


Cleary emphasises the fact that Toyota does not discriminate in terms of providing its workforce with access to opportunities: “There is an Ownership Experience Manager on assembly. This is the best qualified person. Toyota spends a lot of money on training. If you go to the factory you will see males and females, being trained and working in their factory. However, at dealership level, I cannot think of a single dealership which has a woman in its technical division. Again, I am not sure that it is because women are excluded. I suspect it is because they might not be interested in such a role.”


There are challenges around attracting more women into the automotive industry in South Africa: “I do not think there is a lot of drive currently at school-level to get people in general, into the technical field. There was for a while, but this has gone quiet. There was a drive from MERSETA; they were pushing quite heavily for original equipment manufacturers to run training programmes. However, to the best of my knowledge original equipment manufacturers are backing out of these programmes because they pose a number of challenges in terms of what is being asked of them.”


Attracting women into the automotive industry is also a challenge globally: “Even globally, there are no female chief designers, and there are also, no up-and-coming female vehicle designers. Women appear to have a lack of interest or ambition to be in that environment.”


Cleary says it is an anomaly for a woman to be as passionate about cars as she is: “You need to be passionate about motor cars in order to be involved in car design and development. It is a passion, not a job. If I put 20 women in a room I might find one woman who has some passion, but it is usually: ‘I like the design of my car.’ It is never about ‘I love the drive or the feel.’ There are very few women who talk about how their cars drive and how they sound. It is the status, and luxury-look that appeals to them; this is where it stops.”


Although women are not currently involved in the technical designing of vehicles, they are included in the research phase: “Manufactures undertake extensive customer research to understand from an ownership perspective, what vehicles should look like and what functionality they should have. The opinions of women is taken into account, because, so many women own and drive motor vehicles, globally.” 


Turning to the Lexus brand, Cleary says unlike well-established brands such as Jaguar, BMW and Mercedes Benz, the Lexus brand is very young; it has only been around for 20 years: “It is an incredibly youthful brand. However, in terms of the effort that went into creating that brand and understanding what the customers wanted in the brand, I have never seen an effort like that.” 


The brand was constructed after thousands of interviews with luxury vehicle owners in the United States: “They were asked what they would like the car to look like, what they would like it to offer; what the dealership experience and the ownership experience should be. They were asked what was important to them.”


The Lexus product was developed around these customer requirements: “The brand is aimed at differentiating itself based on the ownership experience, the customer’s experience, and the intimate involvement of the people in the dealership, with the customer throughout their ownership experience. It is never going to be a volume brand, because they made a decision that it will be a customer-centric brand.”


Lexus is the top selling luxury brand in the United States: “As a global brand it is not aiming to be the top luxury vehicle, globally. It’s aiming to be differentiated on the basis of customer experience.”


This aspect speaks well to the female market: “When women come into the dealership, from the moment they express an interest, it is about whether they are being treated with respect. Are they being understood? Are their needs being understood? Are they being treated truthfully and honestly, and are they being given the attention they require?”


According to Cleary, women seek attention in any relationship: “This is who we are. We demand your entire, undivided attention whenever you deal with us, whether it is in our relationship, or whether it is the purchase experience. Women do not want to be treated like a number. They want your absolute total attention. Unless you give this to them, they will leave.” 


The Lexus brand ticks a number of boxes for women, including the cost of ownership: “When it comes to parts and the cost of services, you will be amazed at how inexpensive the cost of Lexus ownership really is. This is very important if you are going to keep the car beyond its maintenance plan. Luxury cars’ ownership can be prohibitively expensive. People are often forced to purchase new cars as a result.” 


Cleary cites a female customer, who owns a Lexus RS250 with 200 000 km on the clock: “We asked her whether she might consider purchasing the new model. She told us she likes the shape of the old model, and intends driving her vehicle until it falls to pieces, which is going to take a very long time. It is a pretty shape, so, I can fully appreciate her feelings. This is women for you. It is not an ego-driven purchase generally. It is very much a case of is the vehicle good looking? Does it have some luxury? It is also, about reliability. A Lexus will not let you down. We only see cars in our workshop for services. The only other cars in the workshop are cars with a high mileage, which we are checking.”


She concedes that there is room for improvement in terms of raising brand awareness among women in South Africa: “Lexus is an unknown brand to many women. Women tend to stick to or hug the brands that they are more familiar with, because motor cars are an uncharted territory for them. So, to venture into an uncharted territory and an uncharted brand is maybe generally a step to far.”


Cleary cites Deborah Coleman as an important role model: “I was very fortunate to have worked with her at Ford for two years. She was an absolute firebrand, no nonsense woman. She was incredibly professional and tried to pull the organisation together. I have also had the privilege of working for inspirational men, including Andrew Daniel. His business acumen was amazing. He had the ability to see where the business needed to go and to take us all along with him.”


Cleary believes women have an important contribution in terms of taking the South African economy forward: “If you look at business many years ago, loyalty, developing people and mentoring, were very much part of the business ethic. The boys did this amongst themselves, officially or unofficially. People were mentored. You were brought in. There was a period of orientation where you were placed under a ‘master,’ who guided you, not only through the corporate culture, but in the nuances and how to play the political game. This has gone south. It has become very much a ‘me- environment’, with each man for himself.” 


This is where women play a very important role in the economy. “Women are rated for their compassion, their understanding of people, their inclusion of people and their ability to nurture. As we mature, we are more comfortable bringing this into the work environment. These are areas where businesses have fallen down in the recent past. Women have a huge role to play in this regard,” Cleary concludes. 



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