Women Inspiring Automotive: Evelyn Chatel
I met Evelyn Chatel last summer in humid Orlando. We escaped the heat by grabbing dinner and drinks with a handful of other amazing women who were all attending the Women in Automotive conference. I remember listening intently as they told stories of their careers and families and was inspired by their determination, intelligence and heart. The next day at the conference, a few of the women, including Evelyn, spoke to other attendees about their experiences in the dealership world. I remember Evelyn sharing how she worked her way up from practically nothing, a young girl fleeing on the last Freedom Flight from Cuba, to become a partner and General Manager at a dealership. So as I started to think about inspiring women I’ve met in the automotive industry for Women’s History Month, Evelyn immediately came to mind. I wanted to know more about this woman whose history — and also her mother’s history — defined her career, her values, and her life.
Evelyn is a woman defined by her past.
In 1967, three years after she was born in Cuba, the Castro regime took over. In the U.S., the Catholic Church organized “Freedom Flights” to help families leave Cuba for America, but the chance of being chosen as one of the families to take the flight was slim. In a string of lucky breaks, Evelyn’s family was chosen to take the last Freedom Flight to the U.S. However, when the family was notified that they only had a few hours until the flight left, her father was arrested at a local market after a riot broke out. Her mother, leaving everything she knew including her husband, took her two young children to Chicago to start a new life. Not long after she arrived, she found out she was pregnant with a third child. Their third child ended up being the key to their father’s freedom. Because she was a U.S. citizen, they were able to request the release of a political prisoner and bring him to the States. She vividly remembers the sacrifices her mother made for her. As a seamstress, she would take two buses into the city, pick up the clothing for the day and take two buses back home to begin work — all with her young children in tow. From a young age, Evelyn promised herself that her parent’s sacrifice would not be in vain. They fought for her to have a better life, and so she would. When she was 18, a friend offered her a job as a Service Greeter at a dealership. Feeling blessed by the opportunity, she worked her way up to Service Manager, Service Advisor and Service Director. She worked through every job in accounting before moving on to finance and sales, eventually landing as a General Manager of that same store. After 18 years at that dealership, AutoNation recruited her and put her through their training program. While at that store, Chrysler awarded her and 19 other dealers (all male) a trip to Rome. Her luggage was lost, and she recounts that one of the dealers approached her husband and said “wow, your wife is being so cool about this. Most dealer’s wives would not be as calm.” At that point, her husband corrected him and said, “actually, she’s the dealer.” The gentleman felt so bad about his assumption that he offered to take them to dinner. They became friends and colleagues and he eventually asked Evelyn to partner with him in opening a store in Pennsylvania.
Yet again, opportunity arose from a twist of fate that met a hard-working spirit.
As we spoke, it became apparent to me that Evelyn was grateful for the chance she’d been given at a new life. What continued to be clear is that she was not going to let that chance benefit just her own life. As we spoke, the concept of serving others continued to emerge. She mentioned that her greatest joy at work is being able to serve her customers, her employees and her community. She proudly talked about her dealership’s commitment to giving back. She acknowledged that the changing role of the internet in car buying has caused a shift in how her team treats sales. Gone are the days of the salesperson leading the customer to the right car. Now, she says, “consumers are more educated than our employees.” She goes on to say, “We don’t have special privileges anymore, because they’re able to do their research. We don’t know more than the consumer, so the only difference my dealership can have is how I treat people. And in our dealership, we approach a customer like you would a guest in your home.” She shared how the philosophy in her store flips the traditional model on its head: “Our employees and customers are the most important thing — not the leaders.” In fact, if you were to look at her business card, it doesn’t say General Manager or Dealer Principal; it says Servant Leader. This servant-mindedness shows in other ways too. At her dealership, the salespeople are not referred to as “sales.” Instead, they’re called “life-improvement specialists,” and they vow to treat every customer “how you would treat Nana.” Though she never explicitly mentioned it, it was obvious to me that Evelyn was intentional about a balanced life for herself and for her employees. On multiple occasions, she acknowledged the importance of family, discussed the challenges of being a mother, the importance of a strong partner and the joy of having her family involved in her business. She talked about the importance of providing the same opportunities for family and work to collide for her employees. As we discussed how women can be better supported in the industry, she recognized the importance of providing flexibility, especially in a dealership where long days are the norm. In fact, while we were speaking, her daughter called to ask her what size dress she was — a perfect example of how work and life can blend together. But she sees this as positive. For example, a few years ago, she became a certified spin instructor and decided to turn their old accounting office into a spin studio where her employees and families can come together and exercise a few times a week. Evelyn’s story is practically the definition of inspiring. She was motivated by the sacrifices her family made and seized the opportunities presented to her. Through hard work she forged a path for herself, but she never lost sight of the purpose of it all. She never sought pride or glory; instead, her story is defined by serving others. Every aspect of her life and her business is grounded in the desire to give others the same opportunity she was given. I’m thankful that I was able to get to know such an inspiring woman and am humbled to know there are many more like her in the industry.