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Ignoring the glass slipper, looking beyond the glass ceiling

RIT grad helps make the auto industry more user friendly

Nancy McKee Fein Women may have come a long way, baby, but Corporate America's glass ceiling still bruises more than a few feminine craniums.

The automotive industry, one of the largest manufacturing activities in the world, is also one of the most male-dominated. Female employment figures in that sector are staggeringly low: women make up slightly more than 5 percent of the national car sales force, for example, yet they buy 60 percent of all cars and trucks, according to the organization U.S. Demographics.

Enter Nancy McKee Fein, corporate manager for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., and 1976 RIT College of Science graduate. With 17 years' experience navigating the old boys' network, she is hiking her way up the Toyota corporate ladder. Fein's latest role in the organization is as member of a think tank -- called New Era Business Sales Process -- that is redesigning Toyota retail sales for the future. (Not that Toyota couldn't rest on its laurels: Toyota Motor Sales announced its third record-breaking sales year at the end of 1998.)

"No one wants to buy cars the way they used to," Fein says, squeezing in a telephone interview early in the morning, West Coast time, so as not to interfere with her hectic work day. Fein and her husband, Len, an automotive engineer, live in Ranchos Palos Verdes, California.

"Consumers want choice -- they're used to it," she explains. Brand loyalty, one of the hallmarks of car buying in the 1950s and '60s, is virtually nonexistent now. Families were once defined by their car make -- Olds, Cadillac or Dodge -- in the same way that they were labeled by their political party. Now car buyers shop around in the same way that they roam the mall, looking for exactly what they want at the most affordable price.

Toyota, the fourth-largest auto maker in the country, needs to find ways to not only entice the new buyer, but to continue to please current owners, to keep them coming back, Fein says. "We want to develop an ongoing relationship with the customer," she says. "We want the quality of the customer's experience to match the quality of the product."

Other businesses have been marketing more directly to customers' needs, based on what they know about them, Fein says. (Amazon.com, for example, sends individual e-mail notes to customers to let them know of book titles that might interest them. The food trades send coupons to certain ZIP codes to encourage buying in those demographic regions.)

One of the new projects the think tank is working on is developing a database of customer profiles, Fein says, using what data they have already accumulated through sales and mailing lists and then surveying others to find out more.

"Some want more personal service and enjoy being taken care of," she says. "Some are more technically savvy and want to have all information about the product on line, so that they can shop on the Internet. Some people enjoy the wheeling and dealing involved in a bargaining process -- they even haggle at Nordstrom's! Others simply want to know the price and then pay it.

"We want to make them all happy," she says with a chuckle.

Nancy presenting in RIT
An active RIT alumna, Fein, attends the dedication of the College of Science's Center for Excellence in Mathematics, Science and Technology on the Henrietta campus in 1998. She visits Rochester several times a year and also keeps in touch with other volunteer alumni by e-mail, she says.
What's a Toyota think tank like? "Well, first of all, we don't really work in a tank," Fein says, laughing. "We do plenty of thinking, but we also talk a lot."

The group pulls together members from different departments in the organization who might not normally meet, but who also rely on each other. (Sales, Service Distribution and Communication are some of the departments included in the group that interfaces with all Toyota divisions including Toyota, Lexus, Toyota Motor Insurances, and Toyota Motor Credit Corporation.) "We meet and talk about processes," she says, "especially intra-departmental processes." The group might consider such questions as how to get cars to dealers more quickly or supply information to sales representatives more effectively. Each member goes back to his or her department to encourage participation in a more functional process. If all goes well, the brainstorming results in changes in the ways the departments interact with each other and, thus, the retail operation becomes more productive and efficient.

One of the most difficult parts of this kind of cross-departmental project is getting co-workers to support the revision of existing systems. "Some employees like change, others don't," she says. Most see the need to adapt, but would prefer not to. Some don't see any need for change at all. "They say, 'We're selling more, we're making money, don't touch anything,'" Fein explains. "What we clarify for them is that you've got to make change in order to bring the corporation into the next generation.

"We can't rely on everything remaining the same."

Never Cinderella waiting for the glass slipper, Fein has been in control of her career since opting to major in mathematics at RIT. She joined Toyota in 1982 after six years as a systems analyst, then supervisor of a crew of analysts, for Eastman Kodak Company. When her parents left Rochester for California, despite her job satisfaction, she also felt the pull of the Pacific and opted for a cross-country move.

"It was a great time to be a woman with a degree," she says of the early 1980s."I applied to five California companies and received five offers." (Kodak also offered to relocate her to California when they heard of her desire to move west.) Since joining Toyota, Fein has held various positions, including national retail development manager, national parts supply manager, national service planning and operations manager, warranty manager and service administrator. She also earned a master's degree in business administration from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), along the way. Currently, as part of her think-tank work, she oversees the integration of all advertising, incentive, recognition, and training/certification programs to make sure that all promote the same marketing messages.

"Intellectual growth is important to me," she says "At Toyota I have the chance to try all kinds of things."

Despite the masculinity of the industry, Fein's gender hasn't caused her much trouble at Toyota, she says. "There will always be difficult cultural clashes in the work place," she says. "Those can be male/female or between ethnic groups. To survive in the global corporate culture, we learn to get along with all kinds of people and adapt to the evolving work environment."

In general, the automotive industry now employs more women at higher levels, she says. Two of the Canadian branches of U.S. car companies have women at the helm, for example, and Saturn recently appointed a female operations chief. Car designers are also creating cars that appeal to women as well as men, she says. "We women buy 60 percent of the cars, we have some effect on 80 percent of car-sale decisions -- we have a tremendous impact on the industry."

California is Fein's ideal environment: "I fly airplanes, ride dirt bikes and scuba dive," she says. "The weather here means I get to do those things more often than I could in Rochester." She volunteers in Rochester also, serving on the RIT Alumni Network Board of Directors. She serves on the Ranchos Palos Verdes Parks and Recreation Board and volunteers with the local school system. She is also a member of Leadership California, an executive women's group.

Working with her Ranchos Palos Verdes neighbors is simply an extension of her life and career, Fein says, improving systems inside Toyota and outside in the greater California community.

According to Robert Clark, dean of the College of Science, "Nancy embodies our primary mission at RIT: training students for outstanding careers. She achieved her quality education here, ran with it, and keeps moving forward with great success."

Nancy in meeting
Fein meets with her think-tank colleagues at Toyota's California headquarters.