Pam Nelson was destined to become a dealer, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t have to fight for it.
“It’s in my blood,” says Nelson, owner of Foothills Toyota in Burlington, Washington.
Almost 100 years ago, Nelson’s grandfather opened a Chevrolet dealership in Seattle. In 1938, her father also became a dealer, followed by her uncle after World War II.
It only seemed natural that Nelson would continue the family legacy. But there were roadblocks as she entered an industry dominated by men.
“Well, there were several, actually,” she says with a laugh.
Her first roadblock?
“My father,” she says.
(From left to right) Stan Nelson, Pam Nelson’s father; Fred Nelson; Pam Nelson’s uncle and Pam Nelson.
In the summer of 1974, Nelson got a job at her father’s dealership as a switchboard operator handling calls. Nelson quickly discovered working at a dealership was a people business. She was surprised how much she enjoyed talking with customers and learning how employees were communicating.
“I told my father I liked it and wanted to learn more,” she says. “He said, ‘You’re just going to get married and be taken care of.’ I never forgot that, and it just made me all the more determined.”
In the late 1970s, Nelson enrolled in what was then called the “Dealer’s Son School,” now the equivalent of the National Automobile Dealers Association Academy. She was one of just two women to graduate in her class of 50.
As she continued to work with her father at his dealership and found herself in a more authoritative role, she encountered new roadblocks. Some employees would complain to her father that they didn’t want to take direction from a “young lady.” She also found herself in situations her male counterparts didn’t have to endure — such as frequent grilling of her knowledge of finances and the industry.
But she didn’t look at it as a negative. She took it as a challenge.
“I just had to pick myself up when I would be offended and just keep going,” Nelson says. “I had to earn respect more as a young woman than a man did and had to prove myself more than a man did. I had a different proving ground, but it never deterred me.”
“I thought I could bring a fresh approach for women and the automobile business,” she says of what made her decide to operate her own dealership.
In 1985, six years after she graduated from the academy and now a mother to a toddler and six-month-old baby, she became the first woman to own a Toyota dealership in the northwest sales region.
And while she admits her father initially discouraged her from entering the industry, she says his openness and support ultimately helped her succeed.
“If it wasn’t for my father’s belief in me and understanding that I was serious, I wouldn’t be here doing this,” she says. “In the end, he would say, ‘These young women, they get things done. No nonsense.’”
Nelson also found support in her mother, who had two other daughters and one son.
“She would always tell us girls, ‘You can do anything you want. Never give up,’” she says.
Since Nelson opened Toyota Foothills, it has grown from a five-person operation to a dealership with 90 employees. She’s won numerous sales and service awards. And in October, she was named 2020 Robert P. Mallon Dealer of the Year.
Dealer of the Year
Pam Nelson (center) celebrates her 2020 Robert P. Mallon Dealer of the Year award.
The list of her achievements is long. While she served as president of the Puget Sound Automobile Dealers Association, Nelson helped secure a $1.5 million grant from the United States Department of Labor to implement a general service technician curriculum at Shoreline Community College. She’s also a multi-year winner of the Toyota President’s Award and is known for giving back to the community.
But as Toyota Foothills celebrates its 35th anniversary, Nelson says she has begun stepping back her role at the dealership, where her son is now the general manager. These days, she says, she enjoys mentoring the younger generation, including her four granddaughters.
Her advice to them: “Have a good support system and use it. And never stop learning, changing and adapting. There will always be setbacks, but by believing in yourself and continuously moving forward, you can succeed.”