Evelyn Chatel’s life story is nothing short of astonishing. When she was a young girl she barely made it out of Communist Cuba with her mother as a refugee, arriving to a cold, snow-bound Chicago with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. For the next several years, her family scraped and saved to build a new life, with Evelyn becoming a greeter at a Honda dealership to help make ends meet. Not only did Evelyn survive, she also thrived, steadily advancing in an industry dominated by males. Today she is general manager and part-owner of Freedom Auto Group in Pennsylvania, where she has shaken up commonly accepted business practices by doing away with sales commissions and adopting a fixed price model.
In fact, she does not even refer to her Freedom Auto Group as a dealership. She uses the phrase “life improvement company” to describe the successful automotive retailer, and her business card refers to herself as a servant leader. At the June 2018 Women in Automotive Conference, she received WIA’S Inspiration and Innovation Award, and deservedly so. She is also the 2017 National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers Woman of the Year and Urban Wheel Dealer of the Year, among many other accolades.
In the following interview with Cars.com, she shares her story. Prepare to be inspired!
As a child you escaped Communist Cuba with your family. How did that experience shape you growing up?
That experience made me. I made it out of Cuba in March 1967 with my mother and family literally on the next-to-last Freedom Flight, which were air flights out of Cuba organized by the Catholic Church. Our family was given two minutes notice to leave. We had to leave Cuba without my dad, who had been arrested for political dissent because he happened to be standing in a bakery line next to someone complaining about the government. If my mom had not made the decision to get us out of Cuba even – if she did not understand the value of freedom – we would still be there. My life would be completely different.
We arrived in Chicago in the dead of winter with nothing but the clothes on our backs. We were on our own. My mom, who was pregnant, had to care for everyone in our family. Eventually my dad was permitted to leave Cuba and reunited with us in 1969, and from there both my parents worked in factories all their lives. We lived from week to week.
Every time I think about not being able to do something, I think of my parents’ struggle. Here is my mom, pregnant, struggling for her family’s freedom, living apart from my dad, trying to make ends meet. What kind of day could I possibly have that’s worse than that? In the automotive business, you experience many challenges, and to this day, when I’m faced with one, I still think, “If my mom could get through that, I can get through anything.”
I don’t take anything for granted. If we have an exceptionally good month, I am not going to celebrate. I keep asking, How can I do better? When you grow up with scarcity, that feeling of never taking anything for granted is always in you. It never leaves you.
How did you get your start in automotive?
I was 18. I was in college. I needed the money. Our household was depending on me to contribute. Someone at a Honda dealership in Florida asked me to become a customer greeter, and I said “Yes.”
The experience was exciting. I got to meet new people every day. I greeted a lot of people who were coming in for service. And believe me, there is not one person driving into the service lane who is happy. I saw an opportunity to make a difference and make their lives better.
Becoming pregnant with my son was a turning point. I could no longer work the service lane outside. So I moved inside and began taking on new roles that taught me more about the business. One day I became secretary to the head of the dealerships, which gave me the opportunity to sit in on meetings and learn more about the business.
I started speaking up with ideas. And each time I did, my boss replied, “Great. Go do it.” It became my motto: “Great. Go do it.”
When did you know automotive retail was your passion?
Automotive retail is not my passion. People are my passion. Automotive retail has given me a vehicle to live out my passion. I love people. I love developing them. I love working with a customer who may not believe they can afford something and finding a way to help them.
I was just recently hosting a quarterly dinner with my team. I looked around the room at everyone on the team and thought, “This is what I love.” I love that we can use this business to really change lives.
You quickly worked your way up as service manager, service advisor, and service director. What was it like advancing in a male-dominated field?
People always want to know how difficult it has been to be a woman in this industry. I’ve never looked at automotive that way. I have always walked into work thinking I can learn from anyone regardless of the circumstances. Yes, every woman has stories they can tell. I once had a dealer executive meet me and my husband at an industry event. He assumed my husband was the dealer and that I was attending the event to be with my husband. My husband replied, “She’s the dealer. I am the wife.” The man who made that mistake was embarrassed. He insisted on taking us to dinner. We became great friends and then business partners.
Yes, I could tell you 100 stories about people assuming I was a secretary. But each story ended with me having an opportunity to get a chance to talk with someone and tell them about who I am. Otherwise I might not have had that opportunity to tell people about myself and learn more about them, too. Those experiences have broken the ice for me to meet exciting, wonderful people and make a difference in my life.
Let’s talk about Freedom Auto Group. Your business card says you are in the Life Improvement Business. How does that philosophy shape what you do?
Freedom Auto Group is all about improving lives, not selling cars. Our salespeople are not sales people. They are servants. My card refers to myself as a servant leader. Our people are not paid commission. They are paid salary. I don’t want them to push what they need to sell to hit a number. I want them to worry about taking care of people, not their pocketbook. We don’t close a customer. We provide value. You don’t lock up a deal. There is no locking anything up. We give value. If we can help the customer in any way shape or form, that’s our job.
Here’s an example of what it means to be in the life improvement business: one day a customer came into one of our stores and said to one of our life improvement specialists, “Doug, I want to turn in my RAV lease and get a Honda Pilot.” But as it turns out, we didn’t have the Honda Pilot that the customer wanted. Doug simply said, “No problem” and found another Honda dealer. He sat on the phone for two hours and negotiated a deal for the customer. He even offered to go to the dealer with her to pick up the car. Mind you, he did all this knowing he would get no financial compensation. After the customer got the car, she said, “Doug, you are getting my next RAV.”
If Doug cared only about selling, the customer would not have gotten the same experience. When a customer comes into your store, it’s about serving the customer whether they buy from us or not. And when you do the right things, great things happen to you.
How has digital changed how you do business?
Digital has changed the business completely. The internet has exposed all our pricing. The old style of negotiation does not work when customers can get price transparency.
We are now embracing one price at our dealership. We don’t negotiate. We retooled our entire operations around offering one price. We are now in our fourth month, sales have not been affected. But we did lose some employees who like to negotiate, which is what has happened to every dealer I know who has adopted one price. But if people cannot adapt, they should not be here in the first place.
But digital has also made it possible for me to learn more about customers. Everything we do is based on data. What is selling? What brand? How long is it in inventory? I have someone who does analytics all the time – analyzing inventory and pricing accordingly depending on factors such as how hot it is or not. If the data tells us a vehicle is not moving, we’ll be more aggressive with the price.
Succeeding is not about offering the lowest price anymore but digging into data to understanding your business. Digital makes you know your business better. Before digital came along, you just negotiated with customers who walked in until you hit the price. We have really learned to adapt. Some dealers complain that the internet has killed their business. We say the opposite. The internet has given us more exposure to people and helped us understand them. Think of all the people who visit our website. Their online behavior give us more to learn than the smaller group of customers on your lot do.
We analyze everything about customers ranging from how long they have been searching to the time between when someone visits our site and submits a lead. We know how people are searching and buying down to the trim level, day of week, and whether it was sunny or rainy when the customer visited.
What advice do you have for women who want to succeed in automotive?
When I attend automotive conferences, I still hear women say things like “I can’t do this in a male industry. I can’t do that.” The word can’t is not in my vocabulary. When I was growing up, we were not given the luxury to say we can’t. There was no choice. It was only “You better do it.”
There is nothing that says a woman cannot run this business better. There’s nothing we can’t do. I feel I can do anything I put my mind to do.