When Adam Fitzpatrick was 12, he started sweeping floors and cleaning gutters in the service department of the dealership in Storm Lake, Iowa, founded by his grandfather. Fitzpatrick was thrilled to be promoted two years later to the less grimy task of washing cars. By 17, he was selling Chevys, Buicks and GMC trucks after school and on weekends.
After high school, he was intent on staying at the dealership, but his parents insisted on college. Even so, Fitzpatrick worked every free moment at a Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep dealership in Midland, Mich., near Northwood University, where he was pursuing a bachelor's degree in automotive marketing and management.
At Northwood, Fitzpatrick hit it off with a guest instructor, Jason Brickl, who became a member of Automotive News' 40 Under 40 class in 2012. Brickl and his wife, Darlene Ballweg, co-own Ballweg Automotive Family, a chain of dealerships in the upper Midwest. That rapport led to a job offer after Fitzpatrick's graduation in 2003 to be new-car sales manager at the group's small Chevrolet dealership in Black Earth, Wis.
Fitzpatrick had planned to be the third generation to work at the family store in Iowa, but Brickl's offer was too tempting. He figured a few years in Wisconsin would be valuable experience for when he returned home. "But one thing led to another," he says, including a fast rise on the career ladder at Ballweg, a couple of store transfers and marriage to a woman with Wisconsin roots.
In 2010, Brickl moved his young up-and-comer back to Ballweg's flagship Chevy store, which had been relocated to a larger facility in Middleton, Wis., as general manager. Fitzpatrick also oversaw Toyota and Mercedes franchises farther north in Wausau.
Over the next four years, he boosted the Chevy dealership's revenue 45 percent to $65 million. After 15 months, he bought an equity stake and became the store's managing partner. The dealership became one of the top-selling Chevy franchises in Wisconsin as sales nearly doubled from 2010 levels, hitting 175 to 200 vehicles per month by 2014.
That's when Fitzpatrick was promoted to vice president of operations for the three Ballweg dealerships that sold domestic brands.
Last August, he became COO for all five of the group's stores. That job, which involved him in Ballweg's acquisition last year of an Audi franchise in St. Louis, has given him a taste for acquisitions, which he hopes to do more of in the future.
Fitzpatrick's management philosophy: Hire good people, help them set a plan "and get out of the way."
Fitzpatrick hopes autonomy will encourage entrepreneurship among his general managers, some of whom could become managing partners. The group also prides itself on promoting from within. Former receptionists, detailers and sales reps now hold jobs with greater responsibilities, he says.
He now guest lectures at his alma mater and keeps an eye out for new talent. Maybe he'll spot a future 40 Under 40 honoree.