Safeguarding the Streets

How Kia Canada's Drive Change program finds ways to better communities and help fellow citizens

A subsidiary of Kia Motors Corporation, Kia Canada Inc. operates 183 dealer locations coast to coast. The company sells new vehicles, parts, and accessories. Maria Soklis, vice president and chief operating officer, manages 160 staff members in four offices. Additionally, she is the dynamic force behind the company’s social initiatives, including Drive Change, an annual program designed “to make a profound difference in Canada with acts of kindness.”

Kia Canada Inc.’s vice president and COO, Maria Soklis, manages 160 automotive employees. She handles day-to-day operations, leads strategic planning, and coordinates a nationwide dealer network. And though Soklis now has 16 years of international auto industry experience, she was formally trained in social development and once worked as a social worker. Her top-level position at an emerging Canadian company has allowed her to share her passion for outreach and community development, and partly because of her efforts, Kia Canada as a company is now looking to give back in significant ways as its place in the business world grows.

After 14 years in the Canadian market, Kia now outpaces competitors such as Nissan and Mazda with double-digit increases year after year. Interbrand, the world’s largest brand-consulting agency, listed Kia at 87 on its 2012 Top 100 Best Global Brands list after the automaker doubled its estimated brand value to $4.1 billion—even though average growth for automotive brands is just 11 percent. And, the company is breaking sales records, unloading nearly 8,000 autos per month from its Canadian dealerships. Such success has motivated the company to invest further in the nation on the local level. “We are a global automaker who has chosen to support the communities that have contributed to our success,” Soklis says.

It was in 2010 that she and other Kia executives identified the potential the company had to help community development, so they leveraged Soklis’s talents, passion, and ability to empower Kia’s staff and dealers to make positive local changes. The staff launched Drive Change, an initiative created to improve local communities while inspiring other Canadians to join the effort.

Through the annual event, Kia encourages people to make a difference—or drive change—in their own backyards by sponsoring blood drives, cleaning parks, offering rides to medical clinics, or committing other acts of charity. “Drive Change embraces Kia’s values of customers, people, and collaboration,” Soklis says. “We want to be out there engaging others and building relationships.”

While some corporations simply feel an obligation to participate in charitable activities, Soklis says her coworkers actually look forward to Drive Change. In fact, each of Kia’s 183 dealers across Canada (and many extended partners) participate in the celebration.

By the Numbers

Increase in participation at DriveChangeWith­­ in the past two years

Number of dealerships Kia has across Canada, all of which participate in Drive Change

Number of Kia cars sold in Canada in June 2013

Number of Drive Change nominations in 2013

In 2013, Kia’s Drive Change event underscored road safety. Soklis partnered with York Regional Police and MADD to encourage safe, sober driving without texting or other distractions. Participants performed 1,000 vehicle spot checks to distribute literature and remind motorists just how important safe driving is.

After just a few short years, Kia is already seeing the fruit of its efforts. Entries have more than doubled since 2011 for an online contest at that annually awards four cars with two-year leases to four separate charities. “We keep increasing participation in our contest, but the true measure is that all of our dealers and many of our partners, employees, and Canadians continue to engage,” Soklis says. “What we’re doing to support our communities is resonating and infectious.”

The initiative has brought Kia a sense of pride. The company’s executives know they would sell cars without the help of Drive Change, but Soklis says that her colleagues have a real desire to give back, that dealerships and employees are more motivated and engaged. Soklis recently discovered a thank-you note posted on a company website after a Kia employee bought coffee for everyone in line at a local drive-through. “We see our employees wanting to do something bigger than what they do on a daily basis,” Soklis says. “They are inspired.”

Drive Change isn’t Kia Canada’s only community imitative, either. The company also provides vehicles and funding for MADD’s high school assembly program, which further educates young people on the dangers of impaired driving. MADD’s survey data shows that the program is working, and Soklis is happy to help find more ways Kia can make Canada a better place to live and work.

“We lead,” she says. “Because if we don’t lead, no one will follow.