When Shep Nelson was 22 years old, his uncle, longtime Los Angeles BMW dealer Nick Alex-ander, approached him with a business proposition.
Would Nelson like to launch a Mini dealership on the property of Alexander's BMW store in L.A.'s Warehouse District, an industrial neighborhood just a stone's throw from rough-and-tumble South Central L.A.?
"It took me about five minutes to say, 'OK. I'll do it,'" Nelson recalls, adding that until then, he had never considered a career in the car business.
Under Nelson's leadership, Nick Alexander Mini has become a perennial contender for the country's highest-volume Mini dealership, taking the top spot three of the past four years. Sales have grown from 367 new cars in 2002 -- when the brand returned to the United States under BMW's ownership -- to 1,390 in 2011.
The Mini store started with a tiny, 900-square-foot showroom adjacent to the BMW store. Nelson was allowed to hire two salesmen. But in the early days, they had no desks or computers.
"'Not until you can prove you can make some money,'" Nelson recalls Alexander saying.
In 2010, Nelson built a 16,000-square-foot image facility for Mini. The two original salesmen are still there as managers on a staff that now totals 15. The 900-square-foot showroom is now used for used BMW sales.
Alexander retired in 2004, and in 2009 Nelson was named general sales manager for the BMW and Mini dealerships. Nelson said his uncle encouraged him to run the store as he saw fit.
Part of that approach has meant hiring young people, especially those with no automotive experience.
"I like new, fresh talent. I'd rather teach them what's right than correct something that's wrong," Nelson said. "I pretty much don't hire people that have been in the car business before."
Nelson said his goal is to grow the Nick Alexander BMW business as he did with Mini. He admits the goal is ambitious. But with new-vehicle sales up 50 percent through May, vs. a 14 percent gain for U.S. sales of the BMW brand, he's off to a good start.
-- Ryan Beene