In March, when Mary Jo Wheeler-Schueller traveled to the NADA Show in Las Vegas, she took her 21-year-old son Zach, a student at Northwood University.

Invariably, when the pair approached a booth, says Zach, “They’d reach out first to me, to shake my hand and ask me a question. I’d have to stop them and say, ‘Actually, my mom runs the store.’”

Mom Mary Jo is president and co-owner of Wheelers Family Auto Group and its four General Motors dealerships in central Wisconsin. From her perspective, the NADA experience is a sign that although the industry has made progress in its opportunities for and support of women, there’s still work to be done. “It’s changing, but slowly. It’s still a very male-dominated field,” she says.

Wheeler-Schueller is not only a dealer principal, but chairs the General Motors Women’s Dealer Advisory Council and is vice chair of the first all-women’s NADA 20 group. She also is president of both the Chevrolet and Buick marketing associations in the Wausau-Rhinelander market, and is a former board member of the Wisconsin Automobile & Truck Dealers Association.

For Wheeler-Schueller, being a female dealer never felt unusual. Her role model growing up was her mother, Ann, who worked at the dealership alongside her husband, Dan, and took over after he passed away. “Dad and Mom were a pioneering couple. They tried to solve problems together. After Dad was gone, Mom was one of the first women dealers; I think GM didn’t know how to handle her,” says Wheeler-Schueller. “She did the books and payroll until the day she died in 2017.”

But although her mom was involved in the business for years, Wheeler-Schueller says her dad wasn’t keen on his daughter joining. “I always wanted to be part of it, but Dad didn’t want me to be part of it. He had more of a traditional mindset,” she says.

So instead, Wheeler-Schueller built a career in retail management, running a cosmetics department for a large Midwestern department store chain. But she remained interested in the family business. “I knew I could sell; I had been working for Younkers and Estée Lauder, and was a top seller for them. One day Dad threw down a sales manual, and said, ‘Come down here and sell cars.’ I immediately found I loved the sales and marketing part of the business.”

That made for a perfect partnership with her brother, co-owner Daniel Wheeler, who she says has complementary skills. “What great partners we became — he’s great at acquiring inventory, I love sales and marketing,” she says.  

Wheeler-Schueller depends on her NADA 20 group for support, and on the relationships built in that group over the years. “We have kids about the same age, so when we get together yes, we dive into our financial statements but we also talk about our families and our challenges. We give each other a shoulder to lean on and to cry on,” she says. “They are the only ones who get me.”

She says she also appreciates her fellow dealers in the GM Women’s Retail Network. “GM has done a great job with that group. It’s a great sounding board. We laugh all the time about the dumb stuff we have to deal with. For instance, we find that employees — both men and women — have a tendency to cry in front of us because we’re women. Maybe they look at us as mothers, or maybe we seem more sympathetic. So we know when they come into the office, we need to grab a box of Kleenex.”

Despite the progress she’s seen for women over the years, she says, “The industry needs to be doing a better job. There are still strides to be made. Working hours at dealerships, for instance, are still an issue for women.”

She says when she raised her hand and was awarded her first GM dealership, she hired a female detailer — “not because she was a woman, but because she was the most qualified. Then my manager said, ‘Where is she going to go to the bathroom? We’ve never had a woman in here before,’” she says. “We had to put a lock on the bathroom door, and throw away a garbage can full of Playboy magazines that were in the break room — and tell our guys to keep those at home.”

Wheeler-Schueller says she enjoys being an ambassador for the industry and speaks to high school students about apprenticeships and career opportunities at dealerships. “I think it’s important to get in front of these kids at a younger age, and particularly girls, so that we can promote jobs in the industry—across the board, whether that’s wholesale, technicians, accountants,” she says. 

“We’re moving in the right direction, but we’re not there yet.”