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Auto must reform its ranks and be more representative of a diverse customer base, experts say

Auto must reform its ranks and be more representative of a diverse customer base, experts say
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The Canadian automotive industry must reform its ranks to become more representative of the diverse set of customers it serves, industry experts say.

“It’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s a must-do,” said Steve Milette, president of Nissan Canada Inc., who was among four industry leaders to participate Feb. 24 in the Embracing Diversity a roundtable hosted by Accelerate Auto and Automotive News Canada.

“The more diversity you have at the leadership table, or at any table, the better your decisions will be,” Milette added.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives should start within the “four walls” of the organization and branch out to partners and the wider community from there, said Christopher Nabeta, founding member of Accelerate Auto, a not-for-profit coalition working to bring more Black people into Canada’s automotive industry, including within senior leadership.

At the fundamental level, Nabeta said, diversification efforts at automakers, suppliers and dealers should revolve around broadening the pool of candidates considered for new or open roles. With a wider set of employee experiences to draw on, businesses are better aligned with the needs of customers, he added, helping companies move into new markets and creating a compelling business case for focusing on DEI.

“We are an industry that runs on numbers, and our business plans, our strategies, all have KPIs [key performance indicators] attached to them, and there’s no reason why DEI should be any different.”

While auto remains a male-oriented industry with “very little” diversity at the leadership level, Milette said, companies are moving in the right direction. Nissan Canada, for instance, is in the process of appointing its first senior manager of DEI to focus exclusively on the file. It is also working on inclusivity in advertising, its dealer network and in its hiring and retention practices.

Yolanda Biswah, senior vice-president and general manager at Canadian Black Book, said consistency across the industry and follow-through from companies that have pledged to improve diversity over the past several years is now needed.

“I would like to see businesses who made those commitments, actually complete that commitment. And I think that we need a consistent change in the way we go about our business; it should not be a project-type change,” she said.

Biswah pointed to pay equity and creating clearer pathways for career advancement for people of color as two specific areas that need particular attention.

For large companies, simply identifying gaps like these is often a good first step, said John Hiscock, senior vice-president at Scotiabank Auto Finance. The bank regularly engages its workforce to find barriers to career growth and other obstacles for underrepresented groups, he said.

“One of our goals would be to create truly lasting structural changes that would foster a culture of allyship throughout the organization.”

While the bank and its auto lending arm have made considerable progress, Hiscock acknowledges there is more to do as it works to match its workforce with the customers it serves.

“Now we’ve got to get people behind, on the other side of the transaction to be looking like our customers and acting and being from the same background.”

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