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Rising Stars: Network to fill the gap

Consider the job opportunities available in the automotive industry: finance, design, engineering, sales, human resources, public relations.

There’s barely any discipline that isn’t an option to aspirational young managers – so why is the industry having such a hard time attracting new blood?

Sarah Sillars, chief executive of the Institute of the Motor Industry, blames a lack of communication between the car industry and other areas of business.

“We are very good at feeding people in as youngsters, but we need to be cleverer about the gap between 25-45 where we don’t have people coming in as second or third jobbers,” she says. “We are not networking with people from other industries and as a result we tend not to get generic managers transferring across.”

And Sillars should know. Having gained 12 years’ of retail experience working at Marks & Spencer, she entered the automotive industry after training agency Anne Gray Associates called with a job offer. The agency was recruiting people with retail experience in customer-facing environments for a contract with Ford on its dealer management training. Of the 100 new recruits, 98 were women.

So how did retailers react to women and, in particular, women with no motor industry experience, telling them how to run their businesses? “We did it subtly. We cottoned on to the fact that being female actually worked to our advantage,” says Sillars. “We were all business women, we weren’t flaky and we hadn’t done the traditional female roles within the car industry of administration or reception.

“Also, a lot of the dealer principals felt quite isolated because they were expected to come up with future plans but they didn’t want to show any weakness by asking for help. So an awful lot of them confided in us and we were able to help them in a non-threatening and non-macho way.

“We talked about strategies for growing the business, their weaknesses and deficiencies, where there were gaps in staff development and we worked on interpersonal skills and time management. I think it’s about finding the right niche where you are adding something rather than just telling them what they are doing wrong.”

Sillars found her M&S retailing background a major help. “I didn’t realise that at that time – around 12 years ago – auto retailing was so far behind the high street. So instead of feeling vulnerable that I wasn’t going to be up to the challenge, it was quite the reverse – the high street was way ahead in its retailing concepts.”

Three years ago she got a tap on the shoulder from the IMI’s interim chief executive Peter Creasey, which led to her current role. “It’s been a sensational three years because the industry has moved more to be about people in that time than over the previous 20 years,” Sillars says.

“The fact that so many dealer groups are now taking on HR managers – and the fact that AM is doing the Rising Stars – shows that people management is moving higher up the business agenda.

“When I first started, my phone didn’t ring a lot; it was almost soul destroying. Now it never stops because managers want to talk about recognising people status, qualifications and awards – it’s like having three Christmases and three birthdays all at the same time.”

Sillars has ruffled quite a few feathers since joining the IMI, not least for her outspoken views on the industry’s skills shortage and her support for technician accreditation. “I’ve had my hands slapped, but some of those people are now admitting there is a skills crisis.

And we’ve had fantastic support for our accreditation programme from some of the good achievers like Ford, BMW and Toyota because they want to raise the bar instead of being pulled down by the lowest common denominators.”

And there’s no doubting Sillars’ enthusiasm for the industry or determination to succeed – even her fiercest critics acknowledge she has a passion for her work, and that is borne out by the number of industry functions she attends: on average three or four nights a week (“eating for England”, is how she puts it).

“You can’t expect to come in as the new girl and expect to have an easy ride,” Sillars says. “But some of the strongest detractors have actually become our strongest supporters because they see there is a logic to what we are trying to do.”

CV

1977-81: Management trainee, M&S
1982-89: Store personnel manager/ commercial manager, Marks & Spencer
1990-95: Consultant, Anne Gray Assoc.
1996-2001: Ops director, Anne Gray
2002 +: Chief executive, IMI

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