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How This CEO is Shifting Gears in Canada’s Automotive Industry

CEO of Mississauga Toyota, Co-Founder of Women Driven, and business customer of TD Auto Finance, Susan Gubasta, challenges industry norms, proving that the road to success is open to all.

By Sarah Walker

Susan Gubasta’s career trajectory is as unexpected as it is inspiring. Despite an early career in fashion retail, she has emerged as a prominent leader in Canada’s automotive industry.

“My father was always in the car business — Joe has been a dealer for over 50 years,” she says. “I never thought I’d go into that world. I was in fashion, and I was working on the retail side. I always thought — like many people still do — that there were only two jobs you could have when it came to cars: to sell them and to repair them.”

She admits she was wrong.

Now, Susan is the president and CEO of Mississauga Toyota and has made many influential contributions to the industry, including being the first woman president of both the Trillium Automobile Dealers Association (now called MVRO) and Canadian International AutoShow. She’s also the co-founder of Women Driven, a community that helps women receive the support and education they need to thrive in automotive careers.

“Automotive is without a doubt the place to lay your career hat these days,” Susan says. “There are so many opportunities that people aren’t aware of. I want to challenge the notion that women don’t belong in this industry.”

Resilience Rooted in Family History

Susan was born and raised in Etobicoke, Ontario, as a first-generation Canadian with deep roots in the automotive community in the area.

“My parents arrived in Canada separately after World War II, having fled occupied Germany and Austria with nothing,” she says. “My mother lived in a concentration camp for a time. My dad landed in Québec City and was given a train ticket to Toronto. He eventually met my mom, who was a hairdresser, and he got his foot in the door as an apprentice mechanic.”

By the time the ‘90s rolled around, her father had purchased several dealerships, and two of his four kids spent time helping around the showrooms — “doing things like working at reception or cleaning.”

Susan, the youngest of her family, gave up her role in retail after Sunday shopping was introduced (“I wanted Sunday to be a day I had off doing whatever I wanted, including seeing friends and family and not working”) and joined the family business.

She took on various roles within the dealership and eventually attended NADA, the National Auto Dealers Association School in the U.S. (“I wanted and needed to challenge myself”). She later took over the family’s Ford store and became “the only woman in the room, dealing with a lot of older men with a lot of assumptions.” By 2004, she knew it was time for a change.

“My family had just sold the Ford store I was running, and I started to wonder what my next move would be and if managing a dealership was what I wanted to do with my life,” says Susan. “I wasn’t sure, so I decided to give my notice and take some time off. Then my brother, Paul, who was running our Toyota location, was killed in an accident.”

“Our family came together to decide the future of the store,” she recalls. “I don’t know what it was, but something told me I had to step up. So, I raised my hand and said, ‘I’ll try’ to take over. Six weeks later, I was back in the family business.”

And she’s never looked back.

Breaking Barriers and Fostering Innovation

Today, you’re just as likely to find Susan chatting with members of her car dealership’s community (making them laugh with her whip-smart sense of humour or putting them at ease with her “heart on her sleeve” demeanour) as you are shutting down stereotypes of the automotive industry at events.

“Why can’t people, regardless of what they’re doing, be looked at as someone doing a job instead of by their gender?” she asks.

“In my world, there is so much opportunity and people don’t know it because they still think this is a man’s industry,” she says. “That’s wrong. You don’t have to work in dealerships. You could work for a vendor or bank or a manufacturer or at a parts company. There are sales roles, management roles, HR roles, marketing roles. We need people with higher education for executive strategy positions. People don’t understand the dynamics that go into working with anything automotive; we don’t think twice about our vehicles as they are an extension of ourselves getting us from point A to B. But to get a car on the road and into the hands of a family is a lot of work.”

What’s more, because of technology, the sector is innovating at an incredible speed, opening doors for those interested in computer science and coding.

“Technicians today aren’t the mechanics that rolled underneath cars way back when,” Susan says. “Today, they’re problem solvers who use computers to analyze the health of a vehicle. It’s very different.”

This passion to educate and inform is what compelled Susan to start Women Driven.

“I wanted to call attention to the industry, so we did this event where someone who was already working in automotive had to bring a woman from outside our world as their guest,” she explains. “That was their ticket in. We planned the event in three months, and it was a huge success. Today, we’re exploring how to better understand what women are looking for in their careers so we can more effectively promote the roles available to them. Things are changing. It’s an exciting time.”

Overcoming Obstacles and Leaning into the Positive

Though Susan is overflowing with optimism and energy about what’s next for the automotive industry, she says she wants to make it clear that all of her success hasn’t come without adversity.

“Don’t think there haven’t been times I’ve wanted to quit or throw in the towel,” she says. “There have been moments where I’m the most senior person in the room and a man has disrespected me in front of my colleagues. But I’ve learned there’s power in breathing through adversity, then pushing through it, to come out the other side.”

She adds that for every door that has been shut in her face, there have been many more opened by men who say, “How can I help you? What do I need to do to help you get to your next goal?”

It’s those people that women should focus their energy on remembering and connecting with, not the negative and insecure ones.

“It’s not worth your time,” she advises. “Don’t let them get you down. Remember, all industries are having the exact same conversations. Change is happening. When you’re challenged, go beyond your personal capacity and push through that fear and doubt. Challenge the status quo and other peoples’ standards. That will help you go so far.”