Alumni Spotlight: Sheila York

Auto industry finance pioneer

by Rachel Nieman

Sheila York, a 1979 finance graduate from Rockville, Md., has been in the automotive industry for 28 years. She's served in leadership positions including Director of Group Operations at Performance Inc. at ADP Dealer Services and Chief Operating Officer at March/Hodge Auto Group.

In 2005, she was honored as one of the Top 100 Women in Automotive News, North America's leading automotive industry publication. She even went into business for herself, establishing a successful aftermarket company that grew for eight years.

In short, York sounds like the automotive industry's poster child for success. But it turns out that the car business wasn't her first choice.

York, who attended WVU on a softball scholarship, wanted to be a stock broker upon graduation partly because of then-finance professor Joe Newhouse. "He always said that finance is using other people's money. I liked that idea," she said. She applied at a female-owned brokerage firm, determined to excel in the male-dominated industry. "But she wouldn't hire me. Because I was a woman, she said I couldn't do it," said York. "But that's okay. It made me better."

Unabashed by the rejection from her desire to succeed, she instead began her journey to success as a controller in the auto industry.

"I automated books. Back then we did everything by hand. When computers were introduced, I created accounts for everybody," York said. But because of her initiative, her responsibilities soon included more than just working with numbers.

York began developing training programs for auto manufacturers. As vice president of Performance Inc., she taught the manufacturers' field staff how to read, analyze and interpret financial statements so they could assess the financial state of their dealerships. York worked with a variety of dealers including GM, Ford, BMW, Mazda, Honda and the manufacturers of Sea Ray boats.

After several years of training field staff, York decided to go into business for herself. Her aftermarket company, the Automotive Trim Warehouse Distributor, grew to cover 16 states for three manufacturers. After selling her company, York became a moderator manager at ADP Dealer Services. She specifically worked with groups of multi-franchise car dealers, truck accessory retailers and Sea Ray boat dealers to improve operating efficiency through financial analysis.

In 2003, York's roles expanded again as she became COO of the March/Hodge Auto Group, a franchise that owned 19 dealerships. She was responsible for not only financial review, but also operating efficiencies, vendor relations and development.

"I learned so much more when I went over to the COO position because I was immersed in everything. Legal, marketing, advertising," she said. "Before then, (my job) was 'Here's the numbers. Let me give you some ideas how to improve them.'" But the nature of the position gave her a more holistic approach to improving the companies' bottom lines. During her time at March/Hodge, she was chosen by GM to be the keynote speaker at the GM Women's Retail Initiative Annual Conference.

In January 2011, Performance Inc., a part of ADP, wanted her back. She became the Director of Group Operations, where she works today with dealers of heavy equipment and power sports. Despite the fact that York was not hired as a stock broker, she has still been able to be a wildly successful figure in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

"There are more (women) every year because it's a really awesome industry. Women were few and far-between when I entered the business," she said.

York says one of her best memories at WVU was being an assistant to then-management professor Dr. Jay Coats. "Computers were getting big at that time. I did hands-on research for him — applied business. I would take information and put it in a way he wanted to look at it. I learned how to make numerical information valuable to my bosses. I learned that all those professors give you opportunities."

York has some advice to current business students heading out in today's volatile market. "Hedge your bets. You've got to have more than one finance source. You can have your best friend be your banker, but you better have some alternatives," she said, reminiscent of the 2008 market crash. "At some point, you're going to fail. That's all part of it. You're going to fail in business, you're going to make mistakes, give an opinion that's not correct. You're not always going to win," she said.

But York says the most important thing to do in business is to become an expert at something. "People have a lot of respect if you know what you're talking about," she said.

York proudly says that she has been instrumental in spreading WVU paraphernalia all over the Rockville, Md., area. Three of her four children attended the university: Stephen, a 2007 graduate; Colleen, a 2008 graduate; and Kelley, who is currently enrolled.

Although York has had an outstanding career, there is one aspect she dislikes.

"Traffic (in Rockville). The traffic has gotten really bad."

When you've been in the industry for 28 years and your biggest complaint is the traffic, you're doing alright.