Ryan LaFontaine still remembers one of his first meetings with his General Motors zone manager after taking over operations at his family's Pontiac-Buick-GMC dealership not long after graduating college.
"Being young and aggressive, I asked him what I needed to do to become No. 1 in the nation" in sales, LaFontaine recalled of the conversation in late 1999. "When the guy finally stopped laughing at me, he said, "You'll need to set your sights a little lower.'"
It's easy to see why LaFontaine's ambition was met with ridicule. At the time, the store in sleepy Highland, Mich., was selling around 1,200 new and used vehicle sales a year -- respectable, but middle-of-the-pack for Michigan, let alone the entire country.
By 2008, the store became the nation's No. 1 Pontiac dealer by volume. The success continued even after Pontiac's demise -- LaFontaine's store has been the No. 1 Buick dealer several times in the last five years and has been in the top 10 for GMC and Cadillac sales. The group sold more than 7,500 new and used cars from that dealership in 2015.
More striking is the growth of the overall group, from just three stores in 1999 to 20 dealerships and 29 franchises employing 1,350 people across Southeast Michigan. LaFontaine and his sister and business partner, Kelley LaFontaine, have gradually taken over the group's day-to-day operations over that period from their parents, owners Michael and Maureen.
"The question for me has always been, "How can I take what my parents built for us and accelerate that?" he said.
Ryan LaFontaine credits the strength of his partnership with his sister and a focus on employee training and career development as core to the group's success. In 2015, the company converted an old Subaru store into a showroom dedicated solely to employee training for use by all 20 dealerships.
Ryan LaFontaine, a father of five, is also a cancer survivor. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in 2008 but overcame the disease. That experience led him to direct the company to donate more than $1.5 million to cancer-fighting causes in the last six years.