Though women comprise half of the workforce, they constitute less than a quarter of auto dealers and staff. So, it makes sense that some of those female dealers are looking to increase that representation in order to better reflect their communities and customers.
Meet Ashlee Church, the general manager (GM) of Volkswagen of Marion in southern Illinois. Together with her mom, the dealer principal (DP) of Ike Family Dealerships, she makes up one of the few female DP/GM duos in the country. Now, Church is climbing onto the industry stage not only as a role model for other women in automotive but also as model dealer.
Car Dealer’s Daughter
Church was born into a family of dealers. Her grandfather, Edward “Ike” Eigenrauch, purchased his first dealership for Buick in 1974 in Vincennes, Indiana. That dealership had sold only 26 new Buicks the year before; Eigenrauch sold 26 new Buicks in his first month. He was so successful over the next couple years that he was able to purchase another Buick dealership in 1976 in Carbondale, Illinois, setting down roots in the southern end of the state that would grow into more dealerships for the family in the future.
Eigenrauch always hoped the business he opened would remain family-owned and operated. His dream became a reality when he retired in 2012 and his children took over the family’s Honda store. Then, in 2014, the dealer line continued when Church opened Volkswagen of Marion.
Though the conclusion seems inevitable in retrospect, for Church, joining the family business wasn’t always the goal. But it is where she started.
“When I was in high school, my mom said, ‘Pick a sport or you need to go to work,’ and I am one of the most uncoordinated people that you have ever met. So, I actually started when I was 14. I started filing service files in the service department,” Church recalls.
As she worked throughout her high school and college careers, Church moved through all the departments, working in the service department, reception, payroll, human resources (HR) and parts inventory. During that time, she earned her Bachelor of Science in management and later a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Southern Illinois University. When she graduated with her MBA, she was nine years and seven months into working at the dealership — and decided that was enough.
“Our family gives a 10-year award service plaque. And I always swore I would never get a 10-year plaque for my family’s company. So, at nine years and seven months, I left, went and worked for a great HR services company, an Inc. 5,000 company. So, got the opportunity to grow with a company and do a lot of expansion, open new offices.”
That role would provide her with critical experience for starting her own dealership, teaching her about hiring, culture building, creating standard operating procedures and training. Later, Church got the opportunity to teach for McKendree University but realized it wasn’t going to feasible with her current work schedule. So, she thought she’d go back to the dealership.
This Girl Is Made for Leadin’
While it seems like a no-brainer for most business owners to let their children come back to work, if they show interest, the response Church got this time around surprised her: Her mother actually tried to convince her not to go into automotive.
“I think my mom never really saw where I would fit in at the Honda store. I think she knew that I was destined to do something and be that leader and have complete control of something,” Church muses.
But all that changed as they started the process of pursuing Volkswagen. Being the first employee of the family’s open point was “the experience of a lifetime” for Church. From securing the open point through a competitive process with other dealers to building a team and a culture, it was an exciting journey, Church notes. And as much as she thought she knew about running a dealership, she found she was learning so much more.
“I thought I knew everything,” Church says of opening the dealership. “I thought, wow, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve worked in every department. I’ve seen how they all run, but it’s a different animal when you’re actually in the seat. And I have learned from the things I’ve gotten wrong than I will ever learn from the things I’ve gotten right. And sometimes some of those are expensive lessons. Sometimes you lose good people throughout that. But it’s always that having that inward reflection of, okay, this situation went wrong and maybe I couldn’t have controlled all the variables in it, but let me have a real conversation with myself here and saying, how could we have not gotten to this point? Or what could I have done differently to mitigate it so that we didn’t end up with this outcome?”
Another challenge Church faced actually stemmed from the fact that she comes from a dealership family. Many people assumed that she didn’t have to work for her job. Over the years, she’s had to prove that she is willing to work hard and to put in the late nights if things need to be done.
Of course, Church’s biggest test came just six months after she opened the dealership in the form of Volkswagen’s Turbocharged Direct Injection (TDI) crisis, also known as “Dieselgate.” The Environmental Protection Agency accused Volkswagen of equipping its diesel vehicles with software designed to manipulate emissions tests, and while litigation was pending, Volkswagen dealers had to issue a stop sale on all their TDI vehicles.
“One of the main reasons we had pursued [Volkswagen] was because of the TDI,” Church says. “We are in a rural market, so we had 47% TDI sales where the rest of the country was somewhere between 20 and 25%. And we lost that overnight.”
Church focused on retaining her staff during that time, going so far as to pay out unearned bonuses, simply because, while she was confident they could weather the storm, she was afraid she would end up on the other side of it alone. Under her leadership, Volkswagen of Marion overcame that crisis, and none have compared to it since. Now, with the dealership celebrating its 10-year anniversary in 2024, Church isn’t looking to rest on her laurels.
“I think 10 years in, the goal now becomes not to get complacent, not to get too comfortable, because we worked so hard for the first 10 years to set ourselves apart,” she proclaims. “So, we’ve got to continue to push the needle. And so for us, it’s about continuing to grow those people, bringing in new people and making sure we don’t get complacent.”
To do that, Church and her staff embrace her personal and professional motto: #NotLikeTheOtherGuys. Essentially, Church’s goal is to eradicate the negative stereotypes in the industry. She wants both her clients and employees to feel welcome in the dealership and to enjoy doing business or working there — and she’s instituted several practices to make sure that happens. Stay tuned to find out in our next video/article exactly how she does it.