Failure running a nightclub put Brian Kramer on a path to auto-retailing success.
At age 21, Kramer -- with some friends and pro baseball player Mo Vaughn -- invested in a Columbus, Ohio, nightclub. It soon went under, and Kramer was left with $90,000 in debt.
So he redoubled his efforts at his day job: selling cars at a Lexus store owned by Germain Motor Co. of Columbus. "My back was against the wall," Kramer recalls. "I had these banks to pay back, and selling cars was the only way."
Three years later, the loans were paid off. Impressed by Kramer's selling prowess -- he averaged 15 sales a month -- company leaders asked him to become new-car sales manager at another Lexus store.
By 2004, Kramer became general manager of a recently acquired Mercedes store. Within 12 months, monthly sales more than tripled, a surge Kramer credits to putting the right people in place and establishing defined processes. He set a new sales minimum of eight cars a month for each sales rep, up from three to four previously. He motivated staffers to mine customer lists constantly. "We said: 'If you haven't talked to them within 72 hours, it's not your customer anymore,'" Kramer says.
Kramer praises his years at Germain and his mentors there. But he realized his growth was limited by the fact that his last name wasn't Germain. He started checking out public dealership groups.
One of Kramer's mentors had moved to AutoNation Inc. In August 2011, Kramer moved to Florida to run Lexus of Clearwater - AutoNation, a move he calls "winning the lottery."
During the first five months of 2012, the store's new-car sales rose 32 percent. Recovery from earthquake-related vehicle shortages helped those gains, but the Clearwater store is outpacing its peers. Sales rose 131 percent in May, Kramer says, vs. 68 percent for the average Lexus store in the Southeast.
One reason: Using ZIP codes and registration data, Kramer has sniffed out geographic areas where a rival luxury brand may lead Lexus. The store mails a conquest incentive certificate to owners of the rival-brand vehicles.
Kramer is hiring all staff exclusively through LinkedIn, an approach AutoNation may adopt nationally. Long term, Kramer wants to move up the AutoNation ladder into a spot where he can cherry-pick the best ideas from the field.
"Anything is possible," Kramer says. "That's the cool thing about a publicly traded company. You're measured by your results. That's it. Not who you know, whose kids you grew up with, who you're related to."
-- Amy Wilson