Andrea Baker planned to be a science major in college. But she soon concluded that her high-school job at a Honda dealership as a nighttime receptionist had put her on a more lucrative and enjoyable career path than the degree would, so she left school after a year.
"They did it 'Jerry Maguire'-style and showed me the money," Baker says. "It was kind of a no-brainer. They just kept hounding me -- 'You have a great personality, you would be really good at this.' They showed me credit apps and said, 'Look, you would make more money than these people.'"
Today, Baker, 38, is general manager of First Texas Honda in Austin. She feels positive she made the right choice for herself and says she has found educational background matters little when hiring dealership employees.
"I don't really care, because I have myself and a lot of other people who work for me who don't" have degrees, she says. "But they're hard workers, they're hustlers, they have great personalities, and they're willing to put in the time."
In an era when many desirable career paths appear closed to anyone without the bare minimum of a college diploma, auto dealerships stand out for still giving ambitious young go-getters an opportunity to work their way into high-paying positions.
Fifteen of this year's Automotive News "40 Under 40" honorees have no college degree. Two others have two-year degrees.
Many, like Baker, started working at a dealership as teenagers and now either run the store or oversee much of its operations. Some found their way into car sales later in life, when their lack of a degree meant other options were closed to them.
"That's one of the reasons I picked it back then," said Patrick Duffy, president of Faulkner Buick-GMC in Trevose, Pa. "It's a professional setting you could go into without a four-year degree and without business experience."
Duffy, 39, was looking for a career change after five years in the Navy and two years working in restaurants. So at age 26 he reached out to a friend with connections in auto retailing and tried his hand at it.
Duffy had taken some community college courses and gone to culinary school, but that didn't factor into his job hunt. He knew he would have to prove himself on the sales floor -- and he did, gradually moving up the management ladder.
Now that he's at the top, Duffy says he does pay attention to job candidates' college records. It's not a leading factor in his hiring decisions, but he likes to ask someone who didn't finish college to explain why.
Their answers provide good insight as to whether they have the type of personality that "doesn't see things through," he says.
Dealers often send rising stars in their organizations to intensive educational programs such as the National Automobile Dealers Association's Dealer Academy, whether or not they have a college degree. AutoNation Inc. runs its own General Manager University, with classes that last nine months.
"We've got a lot of general managers who don't have college degrees who have come up through the ranks who have played a major role in their dealership," AutoNation spokesman Marc Cannon says. "We're looking for talented people with a degree or without a degree -- people we think have that retail knack, that retail sense."
Massad Saeed, now general sales manager at Elk Grove Dodge in California, says he was afraid to tell his mother that he had chosen to sell cars rather than attend college, only admitting it to her after becoming well established in his job. But when his biweekly paycheck jumped from about $80 when he was promoting department-store credit cards to more than $2,000 at the dealership, he never looked back.
"I thought, 'This is heaven -- who wants to go to school?'" recalls Saeed, 30, who describes himself as graduating from the "school of hard knocks."
Saeed credits his rise to a mentor he gained early in his career simply by walking into a manager's office and asking for help.
"Mind you, I'm 17 so I don't know any better," Saeed says. "I said, 'Teach me how to do your job.' Anybody else would have thrown me out. We developed a great friendship, and he would teach me."
Steve VanGorder began selling Fords to pay for classes at Park University in Mountain Home, Idaho, where his father was stationed for the Air Force. He says it was a tough job at first, but the money he made became so good that he quit college after three years.
"I enjoy school and hope I can go back, but it got in the way of making money," says VanGorder, 38, now vice president and general manager with the Jeff Schmitt Auto Group in Fairborn, Ohio. "In the course of paying for college I found my passion."
While in college, VanGorder majored in business management.
"I may go back to it, but now I own two dealerships," he says. "I love to read and study, but this place takes so much of my time I just can't right now."
Amy Wilson and Jamie LaReau contributed to this report