Evelyn Chatel has had a lot of mentors throughout her career in the automotive retail industry, but the person who really inspired her to succeed was her mother.

Chatel’s mother fled with her children on one of the last Freedom Flights out of Cuba in 1967 after her father was arrested for protesting. “She got on that plane with two babies and pregnant with a third. And she spoke no English and didn’t know anyone in the U.S.,” said Chatel, whose father would eventually be released from jail and reunited with his family. “But she wanted to get us exposed to the things that she knew would be available to us in the United States.”

Chatel’s upbringing was filled with hard work and determination – her parents worked in factories all their lives, and encouraged their children to get an education. “My grit comes from my parents,” said Chatel. “When I was growing up, it was not uncommon for us to have the electricity turned off. My parent’s struggled for us to get the education.”

Her Hispanic upbringing and her parent’s persistence has given her an advantage in the automotive business, said Chatel. “My household upbringing made gave me a different mindset as a consumer,” she noted. “I’m able to look at it from a much broader view. When I see a parent come into the dealership with tough credit, I can see my parents and myself. I can relate to that. Being Hispanic and the way we were brought up, our values are just a little different. We have a different way to look at things. It gives me a bigger perspective when it comes to addressing customers and family.”

From Greeter to Partner

After starting her career at 18-years-old as a service line greeter at a dealership in Miami, Chatel worked her way up to an administrative assistant position, which gave her a seat at the weekly management meetings. It was there that she began to get a feel for how the departments were run.

When an opportunity for a service manager became available, she jumped on it, and worked her way up to service director overseeing a fixed operations staff of 250. Then she tackled the other departments – finance, accounting and sales until reaching her position was general manager. “I’ve done every job in the dealership, including cleaning bathrooms,” she jokes.

After 17 years at her original dealership, which was sold to Group 1 Automotive, Chatel was recruited by AutoNation. It was while working for AutoNation that Chatel would meet her future business partner.

Chatel had been the only woman who earned a Mediterranean cruise with an elite group of 20 other dealers in the United States. When she landed in Europe, the only luggage that was lost was Chatel’s. She handled the setback with aplomb—“I was just happy to be there,” she said—so when a young man approached her husband to say how well she was handling the situation as a “dealer’s wife,” Chatel’s husband corrected him and said he was actually the “dealer’s wife.”

Embarrassed by his assumption, he insisted on taking the Chatels to dinner and they became fast friends. Little did he know, he would soon be Chatel’s business partner and together they purchased their first Toyota and Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram minority-owned stores in Pennsylvania – the Freedom Auto Group.

She grew the dealerships into a major success and became the first woman to serve on both Toyota and Chrysler Minority Dealer Boards, where she brought not only a female voice, but also a Hispanic one. “A lot of the benefits I brought to those two boards were the Hispanic perspective,” she said. “For example, when it came to advertising, they would show a car driving through the snow and I had to explain to them that’s not going to connect with certain markets and consumers. We needed to change the way we advertise and market.”

After 16 years as a partner, Chatel decided to move back to Miami and joined a female-led dealership, the Bean Automotive Group. “Lori Bean is dealer principal of Bean Automotive Group and also a Hispanic minority woman. She and I share many of the same values,” Chatel said. “Putting employees first and taking care of the customer as a relationship, and not a transaction. Our philosophy is: Give more than you expect back. With that philosophy, you always win. You always end up getting more if you’re giving more.”

As general manager of West Kendall Toyota, Chatel is focused on weaving diversity, equity and inclusion into the daily workings of the dealership. “We develop our own talent, providing opportunities for women and giving them a career path to grow. Right now, we have women leaders in every department: HR, service, finance, inventory and sales. The old paradigm of a male-centric dealer workforce is long gone. Diversity is here, and it’s here to stay. We show them the opportunities by living our lives by example and living our truth.”

In conjunction with Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 to October 15), this article is part of a series celebrating the Hispanic voices working in the auto retail industry.