Author | Photo Evgeny Tchebotarev

What It’s Like Working in the Automotive Industry: Carol Deacon, COO at Pfaff Auto

Wielding a Bachelor of Commerce from Queen’s University, Carol Deacon’s first job involved sourcing car parts in Detroit. After earning her MBA, she turned her focus to retail and consumer strategy before joining Canadian Tire’s automotive division. After the birth of our third child, she decided to focus on her family for an extended leave, and went back to work part-time at a small, retail-focused investment firm.

Six months ago, Deacon came on board as the COO of Pfaff Auto, an auto group that deals in everything from an Audi to a Pagani (featuring a price tag of $5 million a car). “I’m excited to be gathering together a lot of strands from my career so far,” she says, “to apply retail best practices to automotive, to develop great teams and processes, and most importantly, to help build our digital capability to support our new way of selling.”

We asked her what it is like to work in this male-dominated sector, the challenges she’s faced, and if she has any advice for those who may want to work in this field. 

SDTC: What is your earliest memory of being interested in cars? What made you want to work in the automotive sector?

CD: I’ll admit that my interest in cars started with the men in my life—my dad, husband, and son. My dad was always into cars and always took pride in looking after them; our family car was a Pontiac Firebird for many years. My husband is a true car enthusiast and loves spending time at the track and researching and reviewing cars. And my son is a huge fan of the Cars movie series and has over 200 Hot Wheels, many passed down from my husband.

I started working in the automotive field right out of school. We were in a recession, and the North American car industry was in the midst of a major disruption. It wasn’t my dream job at the time, but it provided me with a real business and industry foundation, and it definitely forced me to be comfortable with change!

My career has since taken a few turns, but I’m glad to be back in the industry, as I feel it’s on the cusp of some major disruption and change. Customers’ expectations have evolved so quickly, and the automotive retail sector is still quite a traditional business. Pfaff’s commitment to creating a better, faster, and more transparent customer experience brings a lot of challenges, but it’s also exciting to be helping to lead that change.

Walk us through a typical workday in your life, from getting up until going to bed.

My day starts early. I wake up at 5:00 a.m., run, and to work by 7:30. My workdays are quite variable at Pfaff, as we have over 20 businesses under our umbrella, plus a substantial head office operation. Most days will include one-on-one meetings with my team, project touchpoints, a visit to a dealership, and a budget review. I’m home in time to make dinner for my family, spend time with my kids, and shuttle them to any activities. I’m in bed by 9:00–9:30.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career, and how did you overcome it?

After I had my third child, I wanted extra time at home with my family. Deciding to leave Canadian Tire was one of the hardest career decisions I’ve made, as I loved both the company and my career path.

As life got more stable at home, I knew I wanted to refocus on my career and didn’t know how. My first step was re-engaging in a part-time capacity, working at a small investment firm.

The next step was making the decision to jump back in with both feet. It was the first time in years that I decided to embark on a full job search and re-explore what my next career passion would be.

The road ultimately led to Pfaff, and I couldn’t be happier. The company really wants to disrupt how cars are sold and improve the customer experience, and both sides saw a great fit between Pfaff’s needs and my own skill set.

How have you seen the automotive industry shift in the last few years? What would you like to see change?

While automotive technology moves at a fast pace, the retail side of the business has traditionally been slow to adapt to change. However, we know new business models and technologies that customers have embraced in other industries will make their way into automotive, and Pfaff wants to be at the forefront of that change.

In partnership with Environics Research, we conducted focus groups with a wide variety of vehicle purchasers and intenders, and the top frustrations were always the same: the time it took to complete the purchase, the tedious negotiation process, and a lack of transparency in pricing, trade appraisal, and financing.

Our “Future Retail Model,” as we’re calling it internally, is designed to address those pain points and deliver a vehicle purchase experience that is faster, easier, and more transparent. It does so by providing our best price up-front, which eliminates the negotiation; we don’t charge any additional fees; we provide customers a written offer to buy their car for fair market value, even if they choose not to buy from us. And we have a money-back guarantee and exchange policy, so it’s impossible to buy the wrong car.

What’s your motto these days?

Embrace change. It’s the new normal.

Any advice to other women thinking about working in this field?

Go for it! Although automotive retail has been a male-dominated industry, there is an increasing number of female role models across the industry and at Pfaff: technicians, service advisors, brand specialists, sales managers and general managers. I think women bring an added level of empathy and practicality that support a better customer experience and work environment.

What do you love most about your career?

It is fun and dynamic! Every day, as we continue to roll out and refine our new selling model, we’re confronted with challenges and learnings we didn’t anticipate, but at the end of the day, we do everything in the spirit of making it faster, easier and more transparent for our customers to buy a car. I love getting feedback that it’s working. And I love working with great people and being surrounded by cool cars!

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