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New AutoNation CEO Cheryl Miller joins select group of female

Cheryl Miller, who was named CEO of AutoNation on Monday, is the first female CEO of a publicly held automotive company and the only woman who is CEO a publicly held company in South Florida (Courtesy)

Cheryl Miller made history this week.

Appointed CEO of AutoNation, Miller is the first woman to lead a publicly held company in South Florida and one of few statewide.

Several women are chief financial officers — as was Miller, who has been with AutoNation since 2014. But no one had achieved the prestige and top-level compensation that can reach millions of dollars in cash and stock.

Miller’s annual base salary is being worked out, but it will be comparable to that of former CEO Carl Liebert, who earned $1 million, AutoNation spokesman Marc Cannon said.

Cindy Kushner, who founded Women Executive Leadership, a Fort Lauderdale-based advocate for gender equality in corporate leadership and on boards, has been working toward that goal since 1999.

“Cheryl’s extensive experience in the retail dealer business, along with strong finance background, seems a great fit,” Kushner said.

Brent Burns, president and CEO of JM Family Enterprises, a private auto-related company in Deerfield Beach, said he isn’t surprised at Miller’s appointment as CEO of AutoNation.

“I was impressed with her ambition, intelligence and strong work ethic. I knew then that her ability to lead would take her far,” said Burns, who worked with Miller directly when she was with JM Family from 2004 to 2009. When she left the company, Miller was vice president and treasurer.

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In Florida, there were only four women out of 109 who were CEOs of public companies in 2018, according to 2020 Women on Boards, a national organization and an affiliate of Women Executive Leadership.

Another woman — Patricia Stitzel, of Tupperware Brands in Orlando — has since been appointed CEO this year, and one CEO on the list has left her position since last year.

The other female CEOs oversee public companies in the southwestern, central and northern regions of the state.

The CEOs are:

  • Karen Zaderej, of healthcare company AxoGen in Alachua.
  • Bonnie Brooks, who just last week was named permanent CEO in June after serving as interim at Chico’s FAS, a women’s fashion brand in Fort Myers, following the departure of another female CEO.
  • Kathryn Marinello, president and CEO of Hertz, named in 2017 after the rental car company relocated its headquarters to Estero, Fla., from New Jersey in 2015.
  • Lesa France Kennedy, who has been CEO of International Speedway Corp. in Daytona Beach since 2009.
  • Caroline Beasley, of Beasley Media Group in Naples, appointed in 2017.

While Florida can’t be compared with metro areas such as New York or Chicago, Florida has been mirroring the progress in promoting more women to leadership positions, said Katherine Young, president of Women Executive Leadership.

“On a national level there has been significant progress with Fortune 500 companies naming women CEOs,” Young said. “We’ve made progress, but we still have a long way to go.”

Women don’t always have all the experience that leads to a CEO position, which usually includes having responsibility for another business or division, Young said.

“Hats off to Cheryl,” Young said of Miller’s appointment, saying she appears to have a long career in decision-making roles in the industry. “It’s not about putting a woman in the CEO role because she’s a woman. It’s who is the best leader. It is about having the right skill sets and talents.”

Young, who leads a Tampa-based recruiting firm Young Search Partners, said she is always asked to come up with a diverse group of candidates when searching for a CEO.

“Male, female, ethnicity, race: It’s always very diversified. For most of my clients that’s an absolute mandate,” she said.