John Altman credits the family dealership business with keeping him out of jail.
By the time he was 14, Altman had gotten kicked out of three schools. He had been picked up by the police for smoking pot, trespassing and destruction of property.
Altman's grandfather, Don Beyer Sr., had a solution: Put that kid to work. Soon Altman was spending all his spare time working at Beyer's Volvo dealership in Falls Church, Va. Early on, his grandfather -- a onetime NASCAR driver and Korean war veteran called "The Colonel" by dealership employees -- handed Altman a small kitchen broom and told him to start sweeping the six-acre back lot. Altman tarred the dealership roof, washed cars and stocked parts.
"It turned everything around," Altman said. "My love of the car business brought me right back." His grades improved, and he stopped hanging out with local troublemakers.
Altman worked for minimum wage into his college years and often came to the store without being paid so he could shadow someone and learn his or her job.
In June, Altman, 35, became COO of Beyer Auto Group, a five-store group in northern Virginia now owned by his uncles. The promotion came after more than seven years running the group's Land Rover store in Alexandria, Va. It was losing money when Altman became general manager in 2004.
He turned it around by changing most of the store's staff and concentrating on the struggling fixed-ops business. He revamped sales processes, including enforcing better follow-up with customer leads. By 2006, the store was making money. Today, it's one of the two most profitable stores in the group.
Altman says he learned much about retailing in the year he lived with his grandfather after college. Beyer would stay up late waiting for Altman to come home from his dealership sales job. The two would discuss Altman's day, and Beyer would offer advice.
Altman, a competitive snowboarder until he injured his back in a qualifying competition for the X Games, still calls his grandfather for advice. Beyer, now 88, is basically retired and spends most of his time traveling the country in his RV.
Without his grandfather's guidance, Altman could be doing something else now. When college ended, he considered becoming a lawyer or psychiatrist. Back then, selling cars didn't feel like a real career, he said. That has changed.
"I feel like I do both of those jobs now," Altman said. "This has really been the best of both worlds, and I'm so glad I didn't leave. I see myself as a dealer for the rest of my life."
-- Amy Wilson