In Male-Dominated Industry, A Woman Grabs the Wheel

Tamara Darvish is the first woman to be elected chair of the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association.
Tamara Darvish is the first woman to be elected chair of the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association. (Kevin Clark - The Washington Post)
By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 3, 2007

It was 1984 and Tamara C. Darvish had just completed her undergraduate studies in half the time it normally takes. Raring to go with a degree in automotive marketing and management, she returned home to the D.C. area to work in the family business.

"My father had three or four [auto] dealerships at the time, and I was just thinking about which one I was going to run," she recalled. Her father, John, who founded the Darcars auto group, quickly set her straight: She would work in no dealership. Rather, she would spend the next year in a management boot camp.

Meanwhile, Tammy's younger brother, John, suggested that a television commercial in the works for the auto group feature her. She ended up promoting the dealerships dressed in a white leather miniskirt, red high heels and a glitzy red- and white-striped blouse.

Those two moments impressed on her that some ways of doing things are better than others: It's important to earn your way to the top, but women don't need miniskirts to sell cars.

Now Darvish is vice president of Darcars Automotive Group of Silver Spring and has just been voted chairman of the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association -- a first for the 90-year-old group which until now has had only white men at the helm.

Her ascension may crack a glass ceiling locally, but Darvish remains an anomaly nationwide.

Though women make up more than half the U.S. population and buy nearly half the new vehicles purchased in this country, their representation in dealerships remains disproportionately small.

Several years ago General Motors launched a program to boost the number of female-owned dealerships. Currently, 267 are owned by women, which is slightly more than 8 percent. Among Ford brands, 358, or 7.4 percent, of dealerships are owned by women.

Female owners, however, tend to run more successful dealerships, industry officials say.

"Although just 8 percent of all U.S. car dealerships are owned by women, those stores average a higher rate of sales than those owned by men," Jim Press, president of Toyota Motor North America, said in a speech in Detroit last summer.

Gerald Murphy, president of Washington's dealership association, thinks that voting a female owner to a leadership position, "acts as an inspiration to the ranks of the up and coming."

Darvish, 44, is part-owner of the 26-dealer chain with her father and two brothers. In her first year of boot camp, she worked stints in the body shop, garage, customer and parts departments, as well as finance and sales, learning the business from the ground up. Some parts of the learning curve were tougher than others -- the first car she sold turned out to have been to a guy who stole his roommates' identification and credit information. And she gained an appreciation for the high-pressure sales environment, learning that "the first of the month, nobody cares who you are or what you did last month."

She said she understands the importance of mentorship from her own experience in college, where a professor helped her pull out of a first-semester slump and get her on track academically.

"Having someone who can see your potential and help you move in the right direction . . . that can make all the difference," she said as she walked through the repair shop of the Darcars Toyota dealership in Silver Spring. She stopped to say hello to a young woman from Southeast D.C. who is an apprentice auto mechanic. The woman first became interested in auto mechanics when Darvish hosted a job fair at her school.

The reputation of car dealerships "is not indicative of what we do in the community," Darvish said. She hopes to break the $1 million mark for a single event when she hosts the Washington Autoshow's black-tie gala in January.

Darvish, however, remembers the short-skirt days and bristles when she sees women relegated to the roles of "bodacious lures" at industry events.

As chairman and dealership owner, she points out, "I'm not a spokesperson -- I'm a partner. . . . It would be great to see more."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company