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Success stories of eight super saleswomen
By Aimee Larrabee |

salesmanship: the ability to peddle a product like it’s going out of style, even though 15 other guys are offering the same product at a lower price.

Salesman: a talker; a hustler; a likable person; quick with a joke (always funny); ready to laugh at others’ jokes (even when not funny); a backslapper with a firm handshake; a good ol’ boy.

Saleswoman: Hmmm. Twenty years ago, she was the mother who could talk her children into eating liver and scrubbing behind their ears, or the wife who could “sell” her husband on the fact that they needed a new divan for the front room. If she wasn’t a mother, she might be a “salesgirl” for the local department store. Meek, giggly, cute.

For years we’ve been hearing of women making strides in medicine, education and law, but the stories of truly successful saleswomen have been slow in coming. Sure, the Ebby Hallidays and Mary Kay Ashes have been female pioneers in the male-dominated world of sales, but for the most part, men have been considered the deal-makers and commission-grabbers. In order to compete, many women have tried to become “one of the guys.”

A female executive for a large Dallas-based corporation describes the first day of a typical sales-training seminar for new employees: Ten men and 10 women-most of whom are fresh out of college-are seated in a large conference room. The men are joking among themselves; punch lines are whispered to avoid offending their female counterparts. The men are wearing an assortment of business clothes-some gray suits, some blue, some pin stripes; a variety of colors of ties and shirts. A few men are wearing sport coats, but each man is distinctive. In contrast, all 10 women are wearing navy-blue suits, white blouses and crisp maroon bow ties. Each woman’s hair is either cropped short or pulled back from her face. They’re male-females. Good ol’ boy-girls. They have the brains of their male associates as well as the education and the drive, but when it comes to being a salesman-to closing a deal and getting the commission- they often believe that their femininity weakens them.

We’ve talked to eight living testaments who prove that theory is a fallacy. Since selling is mainly the art of distinguishing oneself and one’s product from umpteen other people and their products, the female trainees mentioned above are starting out right behind the eight ball.

These women were born to sell. They’ve entered the business world with finesse and have retained and refined their own sales techniques. None of them are good ol’ girls, but guess what? They’re beating the pants off some pretty tough male competitors.

The Car Saleswoman


Back in the Sixties, when it was fashionable for women to look like Twiggy and to act as if they couldn’t care less about “manly” things like baseball and cars, Kay Watson was unfashionable. She cared a lot about cars and did everything she could to prove it. After all, they were-and are-her bread and butter.

Kay Watson doesn’t puff on stinky cigars or tell nasty jokes, but she does almost everything else car sales “men” are thought to do. In fact, she knows her product, Cadillacs, better than many of her male counterparts. She is the leading Cadillac saleswoman in the country and is one of the top salespersons-male or female. Last year at Sewell Village Cadillac, she sold 249-about $4.5 million worth-of the luxury cars.

Watson says she got into the car business by accident. She had a job in data processing and met someone who persuaded her to work in sales and distribution for Lincoln-Mer-cury’s district office. After four years of wholesale work, she was offered a job in retail sales for a Buick dealer. Here, the security of wholesale work was gone; it was simply Watson and her product in a showroom.

Watson was the only woman working in the showroom, but she says she never allowed herself any time to think about it. She quickly caught on to the retail car business and moved up to Cadillac sales. She says the only way to succeed in such a “manly” sales job is to “keep your nose clean” and do your share of the work. She says she used to get surprised looks from customers when they realized that she was a car saleswoman, but not anymore.

She’s learned not to look for surprises. “The reactions that you get are what you’re asking for.”

She says she considers herself to be a reliable, knowledgeable salesperson who knows a lot about cars, not simply a woman who would be better-suited to sell perfume.

The Public Re

lations Women


Although Cherri Oakley graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and received her master’s degree in liberal arts from SMU, perhaps the most significant aspects of her education were her high school days in Texas City, where she “learned” to be a cheerleader. It is her cheer-leading prowess, combined with her creativity and business skills, that got her where she is today.

This year, the Cherri Oakley Co. celebrates 10 years in public relations, making Oakley an old-timer in this new world of women P.R. magnates. She started her career working in public relations departments for some large Dallas corporations, then broke out on her own, doing free-lance work out of the back room of a friend’s small agency. One of her first clients was an internationally known hair designer who was trying to make his name known to the public in Dallas: Vidal Sas-soon. When he asked for an appointment, she sold her textbooks, gathered up her savings and rented a small real office.

Sassoon has come a long way since then; so has Oakley. Today she’s out of the back room and into lavish quarters on Carlisle Street, with a staff of 12 full-time employees. She says the key to her success is her enthusiasm. “I’m in the image business,” she says. “I have to start with my own.” Her client list includes Chaparral Steel Co., Tyler Cup, Uncle Tai’s restaurant, Wyatt Cafeterias Inc., Rust Properties, The Manufacturers Hanover Corporate Challenge and Alliance Bank.


Julia Sweeney has had an interesting view of the public relations world: She’s seen it from both sides. She was a society columnist for the Dallas Times Herald for five years, during which time she got to know some very important Dallasites. Before writing for the Herald, she worked for Neiman-Marcus, first as a secretary in charge of shareholder relations, then in public relations. Stanley Marcus was a very visible, active force with the store at that point, and Sweeney says she learned many valuable selling techniques from him.

After five years at the Herald, Sweeney tired of newspaper work and became the third partner in a Houston public relations firm, now Callas, Foster & Sweeney. She opened the Dallas office by herself with two accounts. Today, she handles the Mansion on Turtle Creek, Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club, Paula Stringer Real Estate, and les must de Cartier, to name a few. “P.R. is selling,” she says.

After graduation, she split her time between working in her sister’s tearoom in Milwaukee and performing in New York summer stock. She says her brief theater background helps her to be expressive with her enthusiasm.

Her background lends another dimension to her story. She apparently has always had gumption. She was raised in Breckenridge, and when she was 17 years old convinced her family to let her move to New York City and attend the American Academy of Art. That in itself was a real selling job, she says.


The words “baptism by fire” mean a lot to Dedie Leahy. It was by fire that she made her way into the public relations world. As a college graduate fresh out of the University of Texas at Austin, Leahy moved to New York City to work at Germaine Monteil Cosmetics Corp. as an associate director in the public relations department. As she walked into the office on her first day of work, she was informed that the head of the department had resigned the day before and she was to be the acting corporate director of public affairs.

Her experience with the corporation taught her the most valuable lesson that she thinks a salesperson can learn: how to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll sure find out for you.”

After a couple of years with the cosmetic company, she moved back to her hometown of Fort Worth because of an illness in the family. After working in public affairs at two department stores, a magazine and a children’s home, she says she believed she had enough experience to start her own full-service public relations firm. As is typical Leahy style, she left her position at the children’s home on a Friday at 8 p.m. and opened her public relations firm the next Monday morning.

Leahy’s client list includes Hall Real Estate Group, Vac-caro Restaurants (Mario’s, Arthur’s, Old Warsaw, Les Saisons, Seascape Inn and Harper’s Corner), Willow Distributors (Coors beer), KVIL radio, the Marriott Quorum, Home Sports Entertainment and James Hirsch Furs.


One year ago, Martha Tiller gave up her search for her “dream position” as a vice president in charge of public relations for a large corporation. Taking matters into her own hands, she decided to start her own one-woman P.R. firm. She says she started with an IBM Selectric typewriter and two clients (one of whom was her husband’s company). These days, after a swift acceleration in business, she thanks all those corporate executives who didn’t give her that dream position; she says they made her what she is today.

Tiller now has three other full-time employees in her growing firm. She’s been involved in the public relations field in one way or another for more than 20 years. She landed her first job immediately after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism. She moved to New York City and with great ease became assistant to the producer for CBS-TV. She worked there for three years and says her career has been a “patchwork quilt of experience” since then. After a few other producing stints, she moved back to Texas and began working as press and social secretary to Lady Bird Johnson. When she and her husband moved to Dallas after four years in Austin, Tiller began agency work in public relations before starting her own company.

Her client list includes such companies as Georgette Klinger, Crate & Barrel, The Westin Hotel, Bloomingdale’s, Mark Shale and Valley View Center.

The Stockbroker


When Karen Putty attended Texas Tech University with a major in art history, the stock market was an unfamiliar, faraway garble of “Buy low; sell high.” Art was her interest, but that interest was overshadowed by a need to make money, so she took a job with Schneider Bernet & Hickman Inc. as an administrative assistant in investment advising.

Putty worked for the corporation for four years and fell in love with finance. After her stint with Schneider Bernet, she stayed home with her children for two and a half years. Then, divorce thrust her back into the marketplace, and this time, she landed at Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner & Smith Inc., a national brokerage firm, where she was first an administrative assistant, then a sales assistant to three brokers.

At about the time that Putty started secretly toying with the idea of becoming a broker her-self, representatives from Montgomery Ward & Co. approached her with an offer to work on a program to develop a charm school for the department store chain. For eight months, she worked on the program and saw the project grow from an idea to a tangible service. She says her experience at Montgomery Ward was the turning point in her career; it gave her a huge injection of confidence.

After the project was completed, she returned to Merrill Lynch, this time determined to become a broker. She went through months of training, and in April 1980, she passed her financial exam.

Then, she says, came the real task: picking up the phone and selling herself. “I just did it; I just hit the phone,” she says. Putty says she armed herself with the best commodity she could find (a tax-free investment) and went to work. Today, she is one of Merrill Lynch’s most successful local sellers, with $107,000-worth of business her first year; $275,000 this year.

A large percentage of Putty’s customers are women, which she thinks is no mere coincidence. “A lot of women are making more money now,” she says, “and they’re not used to dealing with investing. I think they feel more comfortable talking to another woman about it. Women will open up to me.”

The Banker


When the editors of Fortune magazine set out to find “star” female executives a couple of years back, they were drawn to Connie Beck. At that point, she was a vice president of In-terFirst Bank, Dallas. She was one of few women in such a high position at the bank-or in any of the other large Dallas banks. She was-and is- known in the business community for her savvy business sense and her ability to “sell” her bank in regions of the country that had been dubbed “conservative” and “for men only.” She described her first territory as “all the states that had not ratified the equal rights amendment,” but her experience there was rewarding. In a short period of time, she gained respect in her market and also gained some hefty accounts.

Beck is now a senior vice president for InterFirst (again, a female pioneer) and is heading up its liability marketing group, a new division of the bank that seeks out corporations that will lend money to the bank through certificates of deposit and through other investments.

When Beck began working for InterFirst eight years ago, she and another female co-worker were the first women to enter the 35-person credit training program. She says there were obstacles in the early days and notes that it was sometimes tempting to become a salesman who just happened to be female. Her first months of trying to break the male corporate mold helped her understand why many young saleswomen lose their femininity. But she claims it’s not necessary. Beck says she enjoys her femininity and doesn’t scoff at soft colors, dresses or a few ruffles here and there. She is confident and energetic. She says that’s what counts.

As a beginning lending officer, she says she always verified appointments herself so there would be no question that the person making the call would be female, and she worked a lot of extra hours in order to know her customers’ needs so well that there would be no room to question her ability. “Sometimes, women just have characteristics that are responsive, outgoing and creative, which are conducive to good relationships,” she says.

The Realtor


“Anything the mind can believe, it can achieve. Success is 85 percent attitude, 15 percent aptitude. Your attitude, not your aptitude, determines your altitude.”

If you hang around Ellen Terry very long, you’re bound to hear those words of wisdom over and over again. Pick apart the elements of the equation, though, and you’ll know why she lives by that motto.

When she graduated from college, Terry taught physical-education classes. Then she married, had two children and quit work. She says she always thought she would be “taken care of.” That is, until the day her husband’s comfortable financial situation fell apart, and shortly thereafter, so did their marriage. In one swoop, Terry and her two small children were forced from their comfortable Highland Park home to homelessness.

Terry found a job with Cold-well Banker and convinced her employer to hire her on a draw basis rather than on commission for at least a few months. Her financial worries were unwarranted. In a little more than a month, she sold more than a half million dollars worth of real estate.

She says that a number of businessmen offered to set her up in her own business once she began making tracks for Coldwell Banker, which prompted her to wonder, “If they think I can do it, why don’t I?” So she and two associates started a small real estate firm. In March 1981, she started her own firm, Ellen Terry Realtors. During the company’s first year, she and her staff of five sold $42 million worth of property.

Today, the firm has 27 associates (only two are men) who deal mostly in Highland Park and exclusive North Dallas neighborhoods.

To be a super saleswoman in Terry’s book means, above all, to set goals and to be a positive thinker. Terry says that her associates attend motivational seminars at least once a month; twice a year, she takes the entire company on a motivational retreat. She has just begun giving such presentations herself. She says she selects her staff members very carefully and is constantly pushing them toward what some people consider unrealistic goals. She says that many people thought the goal she set last year for this June was unrealistic. She raises her eyebrows and says, “See?”

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