Tatiana and Will Dyer had always wanted their own business. Their chance to learn the car business came in the form of a troubled Ford-Lincoln-Mercury store in rural Montpelier, Ohio, with four employees and only five cars in stock. So in 2006, Will, then 25, and Tatiana, then a 21-year-old graduate student, grabbed it.
"My husband always wanted to be an auto dealer and I had never thought about it," says Tatiana, who grew up working for her Colombia-born father in commercial real estate. "But I loved it immediately."
Two years later, the couple leveraged their newly acquired experience, some capital from their entrepreneurial parents, and receipts from selling the Ohio store to buy two adjacent single-point dealerships in their native Florida.
Dyer Chevrolet and Dyer Mazda opened in Vero Beach, Fla., in April 2008 -- just as U.S. auto sales tanked.
"We didn't have 20 years as a cushion," Tatiana says. "But we're surrounded by talent and had a great management team."
To survive the recession, the Dyers cut costs and added a Subaru franchise in 2009 to bolster the Mazda store's volume. Tatiana expanded service and parts operations to make up for lost new-car volume.
They are co-owners of both stores, but, practically, she runs the Chevy store and he runs the Mazda-Subaru one. On a profit-and-loss basis, Tatiana handles fixed operations, including service, parts and accounting, while Will oversees new and used sales.
Randy Caputo, a retired general sales manager, says Tatiana's intelligence helps her with the staff. "She has the respect of everyone who works there, including the mechanics," he says. "It's one of the most successful Chevy dealerships around."
Tatiana says at first employees hesitated about a 23-year-old boss.
"Some would say 'My daughter is older than you,'" she laughs. "I don't get that anymore. And with more experience now, being young is just an asset."
-- Jesse Snyder