Rhem, 52, spoke with staff reporter Larry Vellequette last month about how she came to Subaru after a career in finance and insurance, the responsibility she feels to expand opportunities for other HBCU graduates and her role as chief protector of the Subaru. Promise of love. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: How did you end up at Subaru of America?
A: I was at Prudential [Financial], and I was really happy with the work I was doing; we had real success with the team. It was a weekend and I received an email [from an executive recruiter] who said she wanted to tell me about a great opportunity.
My husband sat next to me and he encouraged me to answer. “Talking is cheap,” he said. “Can’t you give him five or 10 minutes?” So I answered, and scheduled a 15 minute conversation that turned into a 45 minute conversation about what I would now call the opportunity of a lifetime.
I already had experience in each thing listed in the job description. They listed three visionary leadership qualities they were looking for, and they would all have been in my top five if I was describing myself. I decided to go, and my interview with [Subaru of America President] Tom Doll was unlike anything else in my career.
So I really feel like it was for me to know about this opportunity and for me to join the organization at this time.
How is work in the automotive industry different other management positions you have held?
The automotive industry is not one I had experience with before joining, so I had to learn all the technical stuff; I didn’t know what a head unit or a CVT was. But what I do know, and what I’m passionate about, are customers and their expectations, and those aren’t drastically different from industry to industry. That said, I will say that Subaru owners specifically have much higher expectations of the organization, and we take that very seriously. It’s our promise of love, and so it requires us to do more than your usual customer service organization.
Does the Subaru Love Promise, which aims to provide exceptional customer service and build relationships, making it harder to say no to customer requests?
Not necessarily. The promise of love guides everything we do. That said, our goal is to make it easy, make it happen, and show that we care with every interaction. We set the bar extremely high for how we want to be perceived by our customers. Sometimes it’s hard because you absolutely want to do everything, and sometimes it’s just not possible; sometimes the expectations are just unrealistic from where you can actually deliver. So in these cases, we try to make it clear to customers that we’re here to help with the issues, and we do our best to do that.
Do you feel additional responsibility as an HBCU graduate to help those coming behind you achieve the same levels of success?
I feel a responsibility at all levels. I want to make sure there’s a generation of leaders behind me who are able to take the reins when I’m eventually ready to retire, which won’t be anytime soon. However, I think there’s a huge amount of untapped talent coming out of HBCUs. And I don’t know if they still get credit for delivering the kind of talent that they do. One of the things I’ve been championing for the past year is creating an HBCU strategy to grow those relationships and recruit top HBCU talent. Our entire organization benefits from these partnerships which contribute to both sides of the equation: we contribute to schools on many levels, and they also help us recognize and recruit top talent to join our organization.