Rhem, 52, spoke with Staff Reporter Larry P. Vellequette last month about how she came to Subaru after a career in finance as well as insurance, the responsibility she feels to broaden opportunities for fellow graduates of HBCUs, and her role as chief protector of the Subaru Love Promise. 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 were having some real success with the team. It was a weekend, and I got an email [from an executive recruiter] who said she wanted to talk to me about a great opportunity.
My husband was sitting next to me, and he encouraged me to respond. “Talk is cheap,” he said. “Can’t you give her five or 10 minutes?” So I responded, and I scheduled a 15-minute conversation that turned into a 45-minute conversation about what I would now call the opportunity of a lifetime.
Every single thing listed on the job description, I already had experience in. They listed three visionary leadership qualities they were looking for, and they all would have been in my top five if I were describing myself. I decided to go for it, and my interview with [Subaru of America President] Tom Doll was different than anything else in my career.
So I really feel like it was meant for me to know about this opportunity and meant for me to join the organization at this time.
How is working in the auto industry different from the other executive roles you’ve had?
The auto industry is not one I had any experience with prior to joining, so I had to learn all the technical stuff; I didn’t know what a head unit was or a CVT was. But what I do know, and what I am passionate about, is customers and their expectations, and those aren’t drastically different industry to industry. Now with that said, I will say that Subaru owners specifically have much higher expectations of the organization, and we take that very seriously. That is our Love Promise, and so that demands that we act like more than your regular customer service organization.
Does the Subaru Love Promise, which aims to provide exceptional customer service and build relationships, make it harder to say no to customers’ requests?
Not necessarily. The Love Promise drives everything we do. With that said, our goal is to make it easy, make it happen and show we care on every interaction. We set the bar extremely high as to how we want to be perceived by our customers. That’s tough sometimes because you want to do absolutely everything, and sometimes that just isn’t possible; sometimes expectations are just unrealistic from where you can actually deliver. So in those cases, we try to get customers to understand that we are here to help you resolve issues, and we do our best to do that.
Do you feel added responsibility as an HBCU graduate to help those coming up behind you to achieve the same levels of success?
I feel a responsibility across the board. I want to make sure that there’s a generation of leaders behind me that are positioned to take the reins when I eventually get ready to retire, which won’t be anytime soon. However, I think there is a tremendous amount of untapped talent that comes out of HBCUs. And I don’t know that they always get the credit for delivering the kind of talent that they do. One of the things I’ve championed in the last year is the creation of an HBCU strategy to grow those relationships and recruit top talent from HBCUs. Our whole organization benefits from those partnerships that contribute to both sides of the equation: We contribute to the schools on several levels, and they help us recognize and recruit top talent to join our organization as well.