The story of KIA Canada's Maria Soklis, a woman who made a bold decision to move from social work to the automotive industry and, in so doing, kicked her career into high gear.
By Kelly Reid
Kia Motors wasn't always the multinational automotive giant that it is today. Once, it was a simple bicycle parts manufacturer on the outskirts of Seoul. Over the last sixty years, though, it has shown near-unstoppable growth, with dealerships now in more than 170 countries and boasting some 40,000 employees. Kia Canada alone has 187 dealers from coast to coast, four regional offices, and nearly 200 employees. Sitting at the helm of it all, alongside President and CEO M.K. Kim, is Maria Soklis, Vice-President and Chief Operations Officer for the last six years.
Without a business degree, Soklis makes for a somewhat unlikely candidate for the post. Further still, she's a woman in a male-dominated industry, a fact to which Soklis has resigned herself: "Let's face it, the industry isn't going to change for myself or any other individual based on their gender," she sighs. Yet with boundless ambition and a considerable amount of pluck, she rose through the ranks, becoming the first woman ever to join the circle of senior executives.
Soklis, a Kitchener native from a tight-knit family, had spent virtually her entire life in the city of just over 100,000 people when she graduated from University of Waterloo with a degree in social development in 1992. After spending a few years doing social work in Canada, Soklis set her sights on Europe. "I was like every young person that dreams of seeing more and being more," she explains. "When you're in your mid-twenties, it all sounds very exciting, especially to someone who was born and raised and always lived in the same place. But the world doesn't always prove to be what you think it is." Indeed, Soklis found that she was unable to continue social work while living in Switzerland, because she lacked fluency in the language. Always the pragmatist, Soklis was quick to reassess and move on. She decided to apply to a posting at General Motors Europe, where she started out in a "quite junior" role. A number of different assignments increasing in responsibility followed before she was transferred back to Canada in 1999. "Studying social development sure isn't the most common path to the automotive industry," Soklis admits, "but at times I really felt that it provided me a competitive advantage. I was able to look at situations a little differently—more holistically—than a typical executive might."
Seven more years passed successfully. Soklis married her husband, York Regional police Seargeant Tim Kuttschrutter, in 2003. Soklis gave birth to two sons soon after, one in 2004 and one in 2005. Soon, she was feeling the pressure of balancing a demanding full-time career with raising a family. Just in time, Kia Canada came calling in 2006, looking to recruit Soklis. She transferred companies and joined Kia's sales department. "They were able to give me a position that I thought would be more comfortable and manageable with two small children," she explains. "I would say that Kia, out of all the companies I've worked for, has been extremely flexible and supportive. It may sound almost unbelievable in the industry, but they have allowed me to balance my need to excel and still be an active part of my children's lives."
And excel, she did. Within three years of switching companies, Soklis was the Vice President and COO of Kia Canada. In addition to her executive duties, she has also shown tremendous success leading the company's Drive Change campaign. An annual event launched in 2011, Drive Change involves a wide range of charitable activities across the country. "I believe that most people have an innate sense that they'd like to do something meaningful," says Soklis. "At some point, if you are doing a good job professionally and you're happy in your home life, you look to offer up more. We wanted to give back to those Canadian communities that had supported us." Some of Drive Change's events include blood drives, building basketball courts in disadvantaged areas, cleaning up graffiti, and visiting with cancer patients. "It's never been a marketing gimmick," says Soklis. "It just helps you to connect with people for a greater good, and I don't ever want it to be associated with an ROI!—I can't even tell you the employee satisfaction it has driven." Near and dear to Soklis' heart especially is MADD, which is a partner of Drive Change. "As an automotive organization, I believe we have a level of obligation to Canada to educate them on what some of these statistics are," she goes on. "Every day an average of four Canadians are killed from impaired driving crashes. Those are startling statistics. Professionally, as a mother, as a woman, as a person, it's a cause I hold very dear."
Whether it's her charitable work or her executive work, she attributes most of her success to staying true to her core values: humility and integrity. She says, "Complacency can really cause a leader to lose sight of what's going on. It's very easy to become complacent when things are going well, but I think a heightened sense of urgency can prevent this—and integrity, no matter what industry you're in." Soklis believes even as a woman in a field dominated by men, the key to success is gender-neutral: "If you keep your head down and work hard, focus on what the task at hand is, you're going to move ahead. It doesn't matter if you're male or female. The industry has been fair to me." With that in mind, Soklis still has a few goals she'd like to accomplish, including taking Kia to a top-5 spot for Canadian automotive companies (currently Kia sits at 9th). "On a personal level, though, I never spend too much time thinking about where I want to go," she admits. "When you're happy in your personal life, and you're happy in your professional life, you worry a little less and plan a little less about tomorrow." Instead, she enjoys downtime with her family, watching her children play sports and hiking nearby trails with her husband. Although she admits that she probably won't be in the auto industry forever, for now this would-be social worker turned exec rests easy, confident that each day is another chance to defy the odds
*Maria Soklis has since left her position as VP and COO of KIA Canada and is now President of Cox Automotive Inc. We wish her the greatest of success!