Ashlee Church: #NotLikeTheOtherGuys

Ashlee Church: #NotLikeTheOtherGuys

This dealer is following her arrow and bringing change to the auto dealer industry.

Though women comprise half of the workforce, they constitute less than a quarter of auto dealers and staff. So, it makes sense that some of those female dealers are looking to increase that representation in order to better reflect their communities and customers.

Meet Ashlee Church, the general manager (GM) of Volkswagen of Marion in southern Illinois. Together with her mom, the dealer principal (DP) of Ike Family Dealerships, she makes up one of the few female DP/GM duos in the country. Now, Church is climbing onto the industry stage not only as a role model for other women in automotive but also as a model dealer.

Car Dealer’s Daughter

Church was born into a family of dealers. Her grandfather, Edward “Ike” Eigenrauch, purchased his first dealership for Buick in 1974 in Vincennes, Indiana. That dealership had sold only 26 new Buicks the year before; Eigenrauch sold 26 new Buicks in his first month. He was so successful over the next couple years that he was able to purchase another Buick dealership in 1976 in Carbondale, Illinois, setting down roots in the southern end of the state that would grow into more dealerships for the family in the future.

Eigenrauch always hoped the business he opened would remain family-owned and operated. His dream became a reality when he retired in 2012 and his children took over the family’s Honda store. Then, in 2014, the dealer line continued when Church opened Volkswagen of Marion.

Though the conclusion seems inevitable in retrospect, for Church, joining the family business wasn’t always the goal. But it is where it started.

“When I was in high school, my mom said, ‘Pick a sport or you need to go to work,’ and I am one of the most uncoordinated people that you have ever met. So, I actually started when I was 14. I started filing service files in the service department,” Church recalls.

As she worked throughout her high school and college careers, Church moved through all the departments, working in the service department, reception, payroll, human resources (HR) and parts inventory. During that time, she earned her Bachelor of Science in management and later a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Southern Illinois University. When she graduated with her MBA, she was nine years and seven months into working at the dealership — and decided that was enough.

“Our family gives a 10-year award service plaque. And I always swore I would never get a 10-year plaque for my family’s company. So, at nine years and seven months, I left, went and worked for a great HR services company, an Inc. 5000 company. So, I got the opportunity to grow with a company and do a lot of expansion, open new offices.”

That role would provide her with critical experience for starting her own dealership, teaching her about hiring, culture building, creating standard operating procedures and training. Later, Church got the opportunity to teach for McKendree University but realized it wasn’t going to feasible with her current work schedule. So, she thought she’d go back to the dealership.

This Girl Is Made for Leadin’

While it seems like a no-brainer for most business owners to let their children come back to work, if they show interest, the response Church got this time around surprised her: Her mother actually tried to convince her not to go into automotive.

“I think my mom never really saw where I would fit in at the Honda store. I think she knew that I was destined to do something and be that leader and have complete control of something,” Church muses.

But all that changed as they started the process of pursuing Volkswagen. Being the first employee of the family’s open point was “the experience of a lifetime” for Church. From securing the open point through a competitive process with other dealers to building a team and a culture, it was an exciting journey, Church notes. And as much as she thought she knew about running a dealership, she found she was learning so much more.

“I thought I knew everything,” Church says of opening the dealership. “I thought, wow, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve worked in every department. I’ve seen how they all run, but it’s a different animal when you’re actually in the seat. And I have learned more from the things I’ve gotten wrong than I will ever learn from the things I’ve gotten right. And sometimes some of those are expensive lessons. Sometimes you lose good people throughout that. But it’s always that having that inward reflection of, OK, this situation went wrong and maybe I couldn’t have controlled all the variables in it, but let me have a real conversation with myself here and saying, how could we have not gotten to this point? Or what could I have done differently to mitigate it so that we didn’t end up with this outcome?”

Another challenge Church faced actually stemmed from the fact that she comes from a dealership family. Many people assumed that she didn’t have to work for her job. Over the years, she’s had to prove that she is willing to work hard and to put in the late nights if things need to be done.

Of course, Church’s biggest test came just six months after she opened the dealership in the form of Volkswagen’s Turbocharged Direct Injection (TDI) crisis, also known as “Dieselgate.” The Environmental Protection Agency accused Volkswagen of equipping its diesel vehicles with software designed to manipulate emissions tests, and while litigation was pending, Volkswagen dealers had to issue a stop sale on all their TDI vehicles.

“One of the main reasons we had pursued [Volkswagen] was because of the TDI,” Church says. “We are in a rural market, so we had 47% TDI sales where the rest of the country was somewhere between 20 and 25%. And we lost that overnight.”

Church focused on retaining her staff during that time, going so far as to pay out unearned bonuses, simply because, while she was confident they could weather the storm, she was afraid she would end up on the other side of it alone. Under her leadership, Volkswagen of Marion overcame that crisis, and none have compared to it since. Now, with the dealership celebrating its 10-year anniversary in 2024, Church isn’t looking to rest on her laurels.

“I think 10 years in, the goal now becomes not to get complacent, not to get too comfortable, because we worked so hard for the first 10 years to set ourselves apart,” she proclaims. “So, we’ve got to continue to push the needle. And so for us, it’s about continuing to grow those people, bringing in new people and making sure we don’t get complacent.”

To do that, Church and her staff embrace her personal and professional motto: #NotLikeTheOtherGuys. Essentially, Church’s goal is to eradicate the negative stereotypes in the industry. She wants both her clients and employees to feel welcome in the dealership and to enjoy doing business or working there — and she’s instituted several practices to make sure that happens.

Don’t Lie

You know that stand-up-and-cheer moment when the curtain drops on that concert you’ve been waiting forever to see? That’s the same feeling that auto dealers want to inspire in their customers when they hand over the keys to their customers’ new rides. But sometimes, the way a dealership does business can sour that experience. Church is trying to turn around those negative stereotypes of auto dealers and change the face — or rather, faces — of the industry.

Dealerships comprise several different departments — fixed operations, detail, marketing, administrative, service and more — which often get siloed, inspiring a sense of competition and hierarchy instead of the camaraderie and teamwork needed to row the company in the same direction. But at Volkswagen of Marion, Church has set up a culture to change all that.

“One thing that is very important to me is that our leaders work interdepartmentally to unify our teams. And that is something that we remind them of all the time. And that we are one business moving in one direction even though we’re all different businesses that operate within one,” Church explains. “You have to show that example to your team that not one department matters. So, as a GM, it’s very important to me that my service manager knows that he is just as important as the person who manages my new and my used car inventory. It’s important that our technicians know that they’re valued and appreciated and that the salespeople aren’t more important than the technicians or the people who work in detail.”

Another one of Volkswagen of Marion’s core values is transparency with the customer.

“I believe that the price that a consumer sees on our website is the price that they should be able to come in and transact on the vehicle,” Church asserts. “But we are in a world of competition. We are in a world of the third parties driving who is listed first by the price that the vehicle is. And we are now even seeing this has even moved from new cars and moved into the used car side of things as well, where now we’re even seeing people not list their reconditioning costs and the price of their cars on some of the third-party websites. And then they’ll come in and they’ll say, well, there’s a $1,500 reconditioning fee. So yes, I had the cheapest Volkswagen Jetta certified pre-owned in the market, but there’s another $1,500 fee tacked onto that. We don’t engage in those consumer tactics. We want to make sure that we have a transparent approach.”

With this mindset, Volkswagen of Marion focuses on hiring the type of sales rep who goes out of his or her way to clarify aspects of the car and pricing to customers upfront on the phone and not blindside them with new markups when they arrive on the lot.

Man! I Feel Like We Need a Woman

Another of Church’s passions is bringing more diversity in dealerships, and she’s committed to making Volkswagen of Marion a model of what that can look like — and how positively it affects the customer experience.

Fifty percent of Volkswagen of Marion’s sales floor staff are women. Having this female presence, she says, allows women and families especially to come into the dealership and feel like they belong. While a woman doesn’t have to work with a woman to buy a car, just being able to see them around is reassuring.

But how does Church manage to get such a diverse staff?

“I actually don’t tell my male managers that they have to hire women. I don’t think that that would go over all that well,” she clarifies. “And do the women working in the dealership really want to feel like they were hired just because Ashlee said that we were going to hire more women? I don’t believe that they would want that to be the case either.

“When I have a job opening though, what I encourage my team to do and my managers to do, or actually I require it, is I require them to interview a diverse candidate pool. And so, if they have done all of their interviews and they’re ready to make a job offer, but they’ve interviewed all people who have the same background, who look alike, who may all be men, I am not going to give the final hiring approval for that position until we go back and interview a more diverse pool of candidates.”

Of course, stereotypes still run high in the automotive industry, and you can’t always be assured of a diverse applicant pool when putting up a job posting. But Church notes that sometimes, one little change can make the difference.

“We had an opening for an express service advisor, and almost all the applicants for that position were men. We changed the job title to express customer service liaison, posted the exact same job posting, exact same compensation, exact same job duties and went from a job ad that generated almost all male applicants to a job ad that generated a majority of female applicants. And then you get the opportunity to talk to a wider range of people. And from that we ended up hiring a woman for the position,” Church says.

But it’s not just about hiring women — it’s about retaining them too. While people assume the reason women don’t join the industry are that they never considered a job in a dealership before or they need flexible hours, those are actually only the second and third most popular reasons. Church notes that the number one reason women are turned off is due to unattractive work environments (or a perceived unattractive environment). Often, this comes down to company culture: crude jokes behind closed doors, lewd looks at women or conversational topics that aren’t inclusive of them (think football). In addition, women also want to take care of their customers, and if that isn’t part of a dealership’s culture, then they’re not going to stick around.

Ashlee Church is an inspiration to all women in the industry. She is the Vehicle Care RockStar lifting others up onto the dealership stage with her and showing that they too can join the band.  ■

To learn about more Vehicle Care RockStars, visit www.VehicleCareRockStars.com.

 

Backstage Pass:

Watch below to learn more about Church’s dealership family background and her challenges in starting her own store.

Jam Session:

In the video below, we learn more about Church’s views on EVs; how to create a tight-knit staff; combating negative stereotyping with compensation structure, pricing transparency and the customer experience.

You May Also Like

Everyone Has Something to Teach Us

Don’t let pride keep you from learning and expanding your skill sets. Create a “learning zone” where knowledge is freely shared.

Everyone Has Something to Teach Us

By parking our pride, we will build skills at work and life

I feel bad for those who believe themselves superior to those around them in everything they do, because they’re missing amazing opportunities to grow, not just as a professional but as a human being.

Our Vehicle Care RockStar: Ashlee Church

Turning around negative stereotypes of auto dealers and changing the face — or rather, faces — of the industry.

Ashlee Church
Are You Ready to ROCK in 2023?

It’s time to meet today’s Vehicle Care RockStars, and we are asking you to help get us backstage.

Vehicle Care RockStars Unveiled at AAPEX 2022

Vehicle Care RockStars will honor today’s vehicle care professionals for their accomplishments, leadership and innovations.

Other Posts

Reducing Worries for Dealership GMs

No GM wants to be pulled away when something comes off the rails or slammed by unexpected events they thought were being managed by our products.

Reducing Worries for Dealership GMs
Why Dealers Should Care About the Coming Auto Insurance Recovery

The anticipated upswing of the auto insurance market in 2024 — and lower insurance rates that come along with it — should have dealers celebrating.

Why Dealers Should Care About the Coming Auto Insurance Recovery - Polly
Navigating Shrinking Margins: Acquisition Lessons from the Stock Market for Dealers

Initiatives are being developed to ensure that dealers can access the necessary vehicle data without facing prohibitive costs, aiming to make vehicle data more affordable and efficient.

Navigating Shrinking Margins: Acquisition Lessons from the Stock Market for Dealers
Unleashing the Power of Customer Data with CRM, AI and Analytics

From the moment a potential buyer expresses interest, to post-purchase engagement, every interaction can be optimized for a seamless and personalized experience.

Unleashing the Power of Customer Data with CRM, AI and Analytics