The Meaning of Freedom
Evelyn Chatel freely admits she knows nothing about cars, although she’s been in the automobile sales industry for 34 years.
“They all look kind of the same to me,” she said. “So I let the people who know about cars do their job. For me, it’s always been about the people. I just love people.”
Chatel, general manager and co-owner of Freedom Toyota Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Harrisburg, was born in Cuba and she, along with her mother and brother, were able to leave on the second-to-last freedom flight ever to get out of Cuba.
“My mother and brother and I were at home, and my dad had gone out to the store,” she recalls. “While he was at the store, a riot broke out, and even though he wasn’t involved, he was taken away to work in the sugarcane fields as punishment.
At the same time, a knock came at our door at home telling us that if we wanted to leave, we had to go right at that moment. My mother had to make the really difficult decision to leave without my father, praying that he could follow us to the United States later. If we hadn’t left right then, we might have never gotten the chance.”
So Chatel, age 3 at the time, along with her mother and her brother, age 1, boarded the plane and landed in Miami. Her mother worked long hours as a seamstress in a factory, and also brought work home with her to support her family.
“There she was with two babies, she didn’t speak any English, and she knew no one in this country,” Chatel said. “When I think things are tough for me, I think about that and realize again what a strong woman she was.”
As luck would have it, she was also a pregnant woman, which turned out to be a very good thing.
“It was the best thing that could have happened because once my sister was born, she was able to request that my father be brought to the United States. Only U.S.-born citizens could do that, and since my sister was born here, she was eligible. It took two years, but finally he joined us, and we were all together in Miami.”
When Chatel turned 18, she stumbled across a job opportunity at a car dealership and moved her way through the ranks, doing “every job possible and learning the business inside and out,” she said. “I am so grateful to my many wonderful mentors along the way.”
Eventually, she ended up running a large store in Florida. She recalls how excited she was to win a trip that only 20 dealers in the United States got the privilege of winning. It turned out to be another fortunate turn of events for her because on that trip, she met her current business partner.
“His dad actually won the trip because he owned the stores, but he couldn’t go so his son went. The only luggage lost on the trip was mine, and I remember my now business partner saying to my husband how impressed he was that a dealer’s wife wasn’t freaked out about it. My husband told him actually he was the dealer’s wife, and I was the dealer.
“My partner felt bad about assuming it was the other way around, but honestly, this is a man’s business. There are very few women in it, but that’s never been an issue for me.”
Chatel is the only female Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram dealer in Central Pennsylvania and also the first female Toyota dealer in Harrisburg.
After the trip, Chatel and her now business partner kept in touch, calling each other for advice and just to talk shop. One day, he called and told her he was going to buy his father’s stores, and he asked her to be his business partner. Chatel and her husband decided to take the chance and moved their family to Pennsylvania.
“However, we didn’t sell our place in Miami because I wasn’t sure how things would work out. Now it’s been over 10 years, [and] it’s worked out just great—but we still haven’t sold our place in Miami! Actually my family is still in Miami so we do go and visit.”
Chatel recalls how she felt when her partner suggested that the business include the word freedom in the name.
“That word freedom meant so much to me, having come here as a child and finding the wonderful opportunities I found. I was thrilled and thought it was the perfect name for a store that I had ownership in.”
What makes Freedom Auto Group different, Chatel explained, is that for them, selling cars is what they do, but it is not who they are.
“Our focus is on people, and I think it’s so awesome that I get to live that every day,” she said.
The dealership sponsors and participates in many community events and is proud to be an integral part of that community. Freedom Auto Group has a program called Holiday Helpers at Christmas, and last year, they fed more than 900 people, gave away clothing to those who needed it, and had stations inside the dealership with crafts and games for the kids.
“It connected our staff to those in the community that we serve, and that’s what we’re really all about,” Chatel said. “I give because I believe, and it comes back to me in so many wonderful ways.”
That people-focused philosophy is one that Chatel encourages the entire staff to embrace.
“I don’t work every deal, but we get our staff to see and believe in this sense of a family community,” Chatel proudly stated. “When I see a customer in the grocery store, I can look them in the eye and know I did the right thing by them. I don’t want to live two lives.”
The staff of Freedom Auto Group are also recipients of the people-first philosophy embraced by Chatel and her partner. There are regular potluck dinners, parties, and outings in which the staff is invited to participate.
Chatel has also been instrumental in installing a gym for the staff to help them get healthy right there on the property, saving them time and money.
“I teach spinning classes here too, which at first I wasn’t sure if anyone would want to participate in, but so many people want to go, I have a waiting list!” she said.
Her principle, and one that the entire staff embraces, focuses on giving versus getting. And the results speak for themselves.
“It’s true, some days we fail, but there are many more days when we succeed,” Chatel said. “We have a family community here that catches each other, and that’s a big reason why this is such a great place to be.” BW