President, TommyCar Auto Group
She’s a Driving Force in Business and Efforts to Promote Gender Equity
By now, Carla Cosenzi says, the automobile-sales industry should be … well, more welcoming to women, more accepting of women, more … inviting to women.
But, in most respects, and she would certainly know about this, it isn’t.
Overall, this is still a man’s world, said Cosenzi, who notes that, when attending regional or national conferences or dealer meetings, she is the among the few women in the room, and the expectation is for her not to be the owner. Indeed, many of those who don’t know her believe she is the spokesperson for TommyCar Auto Group, or that she works for her father or her husband.
“I get that all the time … people think my husband is involved,” she told BusinessWest, adding that he isn’t, and never has been. (Her husband, Nick Zayac, owns a construction company.)
“It’s still really a difficult industry for a female, especially in this type of position or role,” she went on, adding that this extends to her own company — although certainly not for long after someone joins the team. “Many still don’t fully understand how involved I am in the business and how much I know and how much I have worked through all the different departments here, and how hands-on I am. And there’s always a different dynamic between a male and female in business, versus a male and a male.”
Cosenzi not only perseveres in this man’s world, she works hard to bring women into the business, mentor them, and inspire and empower them to advance. TommyCar Auto boasts many women in roles traditionally held by men — everything from mechanic to parts manager. Overall, roughly one-third of the company’s 150 employees are women, far exceeding what Cosenzi believes is the industry average.
“It’s still really a difficult industry for a female, especially in this type of position or role.”
“I’m obviously proud to have so many women working under the TommyCar umbrella,” she said, “but what I’m most proud of is that so many of those women are working in non-traditional roles, such as service advisor, service manager, technician, body-shop technician, or general sales manager; we have at least one woman in a manager or leadership role at every one of our dealerships.”
This strong desire to inspire, mentor, and empower women to succeed, in their lives and careers — a recurring theme among this year’s Women of Impact honorees — is just one of the reasons why Cosenzi is a member of the class of 2023.
Her success in business is another. She has greatly expanded the family enterprise started by her grandfather to now include Nissan, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Genesis, Volvo, a collision center, and a towing business. And she is constantly looking for opportunities to expand the portfolio.
She is also credited with creating and nurturing a culture of giving back, a continuation of a strong family tradition. Indeed, with Cosenzi taking the lead, the company is now involved with organizations and philanthropic programs ranging from Cooley Dickinson Hospital and Junior Achievement to Christina’s House and Safe Passage’s annual Hot Chocolate Run.
Then there’s the Tom Cosenzi Drive for the Cure Charity Golf Tournament. Named for Cosenzi’s father, and mentor, who lost his battle to brain cancer in 2009, the tournament has raised more than $1.4 million for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
This impressive résumé of business success, community involvement, philanthropy, and efforts to promote gender equity in the workplace — in the auto industry and well beyond — has earned Cosenzi many awards and accolades over the years, including a handful from BusinessWest. Judges have chosen her to be a 40 Under Forty honoree, an Alumni Achievement Award winner (given to the 40 Under Forty winner who has most impressively built upon their record of accomplishment), and a Difference Maker.
And now, she needs to make room for one more plaque — one that reads ‘Woman of Impact.’
To a Higher Gear
As she talked with BusinessWest at the Nissan store on Route 9 in Hadley, Cosenzi referenced upcoming renovations to the dealership, a project that has been several years in the making, with considerable back-and-forth between the company, the town, and the manufacturer, with firm plans now in place.
They call for redoing the façade, the service lounge, the showroom setup, and more, she said, adding that “we’re way overdue — for our employees, our customers, and the brand.”
Orchestrating this renovation project, as well as the building of a new home for Volvo Cars Pioneer Valley in Northampton, an endeavor still in the planning stage, are among the myriad matters Cosenzi is contending with at any given time.
At this particular moment, she was also attending to specific details of the 2023 edition of the golf tournament, HR matters, hiring (she said she’s “constantly interviewing” for high-level positions), the still-challenging used-car market … and making it home in time for dinner with the family.
“I’m obviously proud to have so many women working under the TommyCar umbrella, but what I’m most proud of is that so many of those women are working in non-traditional roles.”
Most of this was not in Cosenzi’s long-term plans when she was focusing on clinical psychology while earning degrees at Northeastern University and Columbia; while she took odd jobs at her father’s dealership growing up, she had no intention of making it her life’s work.
But her career path took what would have to be called some unexpected turns. Indeed, Cosenzi, as most know by now, started working at the family business after college, not thinking this would be anything but temporary. But she fell in love with the business and everything about it. She attended Dealer Academy (where, again, she was one of the few women enrolled), and immersed herself in every aspect of the business.
With her father’s illness and subsequent passing, in 2009, leadership of the company transitioned to Cosenzi and her brother, Tom.
In her role as president of the dealer group, Cosenzi is involved with all aspects of the business, as well its philanthropic initiatives and work within the community. And with each, the approach is decidedly hands-on, with a hard focus on “one-on-ones,” as she called them, and giving managers and employees at all levels the tools they need to succeed.
Meanwhile, she’s also focused on long-term strategic planning. The immediate goals are to complete plans to renovate the Nissan store and build a new Volvo dealership — and by that time, the Hyundai store will need renovating, and a separate home will be needed for Genesis — and then focus on adding to the portfolio.
“We’re not desperate to acquire more brands,” she said. “But if the right opportunity came up, we would take it; we’re not just looking to buy to grow our portfolio.”
A Road Less-traveled
Cosenzi joked that, unlike many dealership owners, general managers, and even salespeople, she doesn’t take many of the newer models for weeks or months at a time, as much as she would like to — especially some of the new Genesis offerings.
“I’d love to switch cars, but the problem is … I spend a lot of time in my car, between the dealerships and picking up my kids,” she explained, noting that she’s been driving a Volvo XC90 hybrid SUV for some time now. “If I get in a car that’s a new model, and someone wants to buy it, they have to track me down, get me out of it, and get it ready for the customer. So I try to make sure that if I’m taking a new model, I take it for the short term and don’t move into it.”
What she has moved into are leadership roles — in her own business, within the community, and in the broad fight for gender equality in the workplace. Focusing mostly on her own sector, Cosenzi, as noted earlier, has made it her mission to be a role model and mentor, and also bring more women into the auto sales and service industry and capitalize on opportunities they may have thought were restricted to men.
“If you’re good in business, if you’re a good leader, you’re always trying to better yourself, and you’re always trying to learn, and I’m always trying to learn from other people,” she explained. “So I try to be that same sort of resource that I look for, especially to the women who come into this business.
“I want to be a good mentor to anyone who comes into our company, but especially to women who want to be successful in our industry and just need someone to guide them and give them a path on how to do that,” she went on. “That’s really important to me.”
Equally important is that many of the women now employed at TommyCar are focused on careers in this industry, not jobs, she said, adding that her dealer group is ahead of the curve, if you will, in this realm.
“If you’re good in business, if you’re a good leader, you’re always trying to better yourself, and you’re always trying to learn, and I’m always trying to learn from other people.”
“I believe that, overall, you’re seeing more women getting into the industry, but not to the extent that you see here,” she continued. “We work really hard to attract women here and to support women’s success here; we make it a great place for women to work, and we’re a great support system for all the women working together.”
When asked what makes this or any other business a great place for women to work, Cosenzi said it comes to supporting them, mentoring them, providing opportunities to learn and grow (such as group attendance at Bay Path University’s Women’s Leadership Conference and similar programs), and, perhaps most importantly, recognizing them and their accomplishments.
“We do a lot to support women and to make them feel empowered here,” she said in conclusion. “And I think it’s immediately empowering when you work for a company that has a woman leader; I think it makes a huge difference because immediately, the perception of the company is different.”
The Ride Stuff
Getting back to her thoughts on the auto-sales business and how and why it’s still a man’s world, despite her best efforts, Cosenzi said there has been some progress — just not as much as she would have expected to see in 2023.
“It takes time, it takes conditioning, and it takes more women being involved,” she told BusinessWest. “The more women that we put in powerful roles in an industry, the more conditioned people get to seeing women in those roles.”
Suffice it to say she doing all she can — as an employer, as a role model, as a mentor, and as a leader within the community.
And that’s just one of the reasons why she’s added Woman of Impact to her list of awards and achievements. It’s a designation that drives home all she has done and continues to do — literally and figuratively.