Males have dominated most aspects of the car business from the days of Henry Ford, but Larry Sutton is showing that in his precinct of automotive retailing, women are going to be holding up half the roof. There are lessons for other CEOs and CHROs in how he’s been transforming RNR Tire Express stores into a female-friendly management and operational culture.
Glass-ceiling shatterers such as General Motors CEO Mary Barra have demonstrated that at the auto industry’s top levels, women are moving into crucial leadership positions. And at many auto dealers across the United States, female ownership and management of these largely family-controlled enterprises have been a staple for decades.
But as of a few years ago, Tampa-based RNR Tire Express could count very few women on its executive team or even in regional or store-level management, even as women comprised a significant part of the customer base for the company’s “rent-to-own” business model for tire and wheel sales. RNR has grown into a $200 million company, with 14% sales growth in 2021.
“Traditionally, our industry is a male-dominated one,” Sutton told StrategicCHRO360.com. Indeed, women account for fewer than 25% of auto-industry jobs despite representing a huge portion of the American workforce in the industry’s vast concentric circles, according to Catalyst and USA Today. In some sectors of the industry, women account for as few as 9% of employees, while females are strongly represented in auto-plant blue-collar jobs.
At RNR Tire Express, Sutton confessed, “We hadn’t put much effort into changing that. So we sat down and decided to recruit more women. I wanted women in every position but in particular in managing stores and regions. We’ve been very successful with that, and now there are a lot of very bright women in our stores as sales folks, managers and assistant managers. A couple are in positions of leadership, and we recently made three heavyweight promotions in our office, and all three were women. It’s something you have to focus on and control, although we’re not close to where we want to be.”
Three women also rank among the owners of RNR Tire Express franchises, which comprise about 140 of the chain’s 163 stores in 27 states.
Sutton’s company got there by following a very deliberate path that includes pointers for any CEO or CHRO with a similar aim:
Do the obvious things: In its hiring outreach on Jobs.com and other online sites, for instance, RNR “started picturing women in ads that talked about management positions,” Sutton said. “Women aren’t predisposed to want to work in a tire store. So it was a selling thing. For us, it was a subliminal move in the right direction.”
The company also began to poach women from management in other sectors of retailing, enlisting RNR employees in the process. “We always have a reward for someone who finds us a new ‘teammate,” Sutton said.
Change the environment: It’s one thing to bring women to a tire-store chain but another thing to bring the stores to women, and the latter is what Sutton decided to do. He launched a systematic remodeling of stores that previously had featured checkerboard-flag patterns and racetracks on poured-concrete floors.
“We wanted a more friendly environment for everyone, not just women,” Sutton said. “We went with some different colors to make the stores more pleasant and more inviting, a combination of grays with red as accents.”
Improve the culture: Sutton has tried to create what he calls a “servant” culture through RNR leadership that emphasizes “serving your associates and teammates the way you want them to serve our customers. We’ve got a great recruiting team, a good story, good commissions and bonuses. We can convince women that we are a great thing to be a part of.”
It may be a cliché of the management game, but Sutton said that women typically respond well to such cultural markers. “They’re better in some areas of this kind of culture, just with patience and willingness to listen and understand,” he said.
Recognize women’s success: At the company’s annual management banquet in February, two female owners received an award that is named after Sutton’s mother. The other franchise-owning woman was recognized for a fantastic first year after opening.
“Other women see this kind of thing and get more interested in having a career in the tire business,” Sutton said.