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Australia's first female car company boss announces her departure

Veronica Johns - the first Australian woman to head a car company.

Veronica Johns oversaw record sales at the Fiat Chrysler Group, and took a unique approach to breaking down the gender barriers.

The first Australian woman to head a car company, Veronica Johns -- who earned notoriety for tearing down workshop posters of naked women, as well as record sales -- has announced her resignation as the boss of the Fiat Chrysler Group after almost two years in the role and 16 years with the corporation.
Her departure at the end of the year means there will no longer be a woman as the boss of any car brand in Australia.
Ms Johns earned the credibility of her industry colleagues after overseeing record sales growth, but she also quickly attracted attention from car dealers after she tore down posters of naked women in workshops during showroom visits.
“It does take a certain personality type to cope with men in the car industry,” said Ms Johns. “Thankfully we’ve eradicated any gender issues in our company.”
The transition didn’t come easily for some people. “When I started you could still walk into workshops with posters of naked women on the walls.
“I ripped them off and threw them in the bin. The (workers) didn’t say much, and I’m sure they probably got them out of the bin after I left.
“Women have to work in this environment and that’s what they’ve got to look at. Some people in the industry are blind to it. It’s just accepted as the norm and it shouldn’t be.”
Ms Johns, 43, said she’d taken down posters of naked women “about four times” over the past three years, but hasn’t had to do so lately.
“We’ve eradicated the gender issues from our business, but it’s still in other parts of the car industry,” said Ms Johns.
The Melbourne-based executive says women are in more prominent positions in the car industry globally, but Australia is still catching up.
In January 2014, Mary Barra became the first woman to become the global boss of a major car company, as the CEO of General Motors based in Detroit.
Only handful of foreign women have run car companies in Australia over the past 15 years.
American Judith Wheeler was the first, she ran Chrysler-Jeep in Australia from 2000 to 2003. Germans Jutta Dierks and Anke Koeckler successively ran Volkswagen’s Australian operations from 2007 to 2013.
But Ms Johns is understood to be the first Australian woman to have run a large car company in Australia. At the time of her appointment in May 2013, she edged out male rivals from North America who were keen to take up the prime posting.
Ms Johns said the car industry -- and car buyers -- would benefit from gender equality.
“With modern technology so many cars have so many similar features these days, the biggest difference is how you treat people,” said Ms Johns.
“Women are very competitive, and some can be brutal, but I believe we are still more inclined to treat people with kindness and respect. I think that, and the ability to relate to people, comes more easily to women than to men.”
Car industry consultant Tony Devers, the former boss of Honda and Suzuki motor vehicles in Australia -- who accurately predicted in 2010, three years before any announcements, that the local car manufacturing industry would close by the end of the decade -- says there should be more women in the car industry.
“There’s no excuse, women clearly have the skills and the drive and the passion for the business, but they typically tend to come into the car industry in marketing or human resources roles,” said Mr Devers.
“The executives who rise to the top in the car industry have earned their stripes in sales, finance and strategic planning,” he said.
Ms Johns will work with the her successor -- due to be announced in the coming days, and likely to come from Detroit -- until the end of the year, when she is expected to announce a new role the automotive industry.
Under Ms John’s leadership, the monthly sales of Chrysler, Jeep, Fiat and Alfa Romeo vehicles increased by 53 per cent as the rest of the industry grew by about 2 per cent.
So far this year, sales across all four brands are up 39 per cent in a market that is down 2 per cent compared with the same period last year.
When Ms Johns accepted the role to run Fiat Chrysler Group Australia in 2013, she said: “I don’t think it makes a difference if you’re male or female in this business anymore. Good people rise to the top. The car industry is not a man’s world anymore.”