Joe Girard says he can sell anything. But he soared into the record books selling Chevrolets -- 13,001 of them in just 15 years.
From 1966 through 1977, Girard won the annual title as the world's No. 1 car salesman, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Then, at age 49, he retired from selling cars and began selling himself, launching a career as a motivational speaker and writer.
Girard, a Detroit native who turns 83 on Nov. 1, boils his achievements down to spark -- spark to overcome his humble beginnings in the city's Depression-era slums, the words of an abusive father and the failure of a home construction business.
"This is what made Joe Girard," said Girard. "Every day was a challenge. The more people can use things that aren't good as an advantage toward their life, they will do better."
The bankruptcy of Girard's business in 1962 led to his automotive career. He got a foreclosure notice for his house, and he had no car, no groceries and no money. With a wife and two children to support, Girard got on a bus looking for work one day in January 1963. When the bus doors opened, he stepped off in front of a big Chevrolet dealership.
Girard begged the manager for a job. He spent that first day calling everyone he knew. At 8:30 that night, after most of the other salesmen had slipped out, a customer walked through the door. The only other salesman still working was busy. So Girard spent 90 minutes with the customer, did some more begging -- and sold his first car.
"I said, 'Look out world. I'm coming back,'" he said.
He borrowed $10 from his manager to buy groceries and sold 18 cars during his second month on the job. But the owner fired him after complaints from other salesmen. Girard went to Merollis Chevrolet in suburban Detroit and set sales records year after year.
But Girard never let go of being fired. Every year he mailed a copy of his W-2 to his old boss, with a note at the bottom telling him, "You fired the wrong guy." After his old boss died, Girard says he even took a W-2 to the cemetery and buried it atop the man's casket.
At Merollis, Girard set up his own retail empire within the dealership. He eventually took customers only by appointment and hired two people to manage the flood of customers. Girard paid those employees out of his own pocket. They found out what buyers wanted, whether they had a trade-in or would qualify for a loan. Then Girard did the selling.
One of his biggest secrets? Girard told his customers to come back to him directly if they ever had a problem with their cars. Then Girard treated the dealership's mechanics to a big dinner at an Italian restaurant on the third Wednesday of every month.
The mechanics loved him so much they'd drop other jobs and assign three people to one of his customers, recalled Girard, who often speaks of himself in the third person. He'd also pay for low-priced parts himself if the car was out of warranty.
"What made Joe Girard was service, service, service -- and I created the greatest advertising in the world, which was word of mouth," he said.
Girard, who often sold 160 cars a month and once sold 18 in a single day, employed other tricks:
He paid a lot in so-called bird-dog fees to people who would refer customers to him. Girard wined and dined supervisors at big companies who knew hundreds of people to send his way.
Other than "Good morning," he refused to talk to co-workers. He ate lunch at his desk so he could dedicate every minute to selling.
Instead of the flashy suits some salesmen wore, Girard wore casual clothes. He wanted to dress like his customers, who were largely blue-collar people.
But after Christmas of 1977, Girard called it quits. He had topped 13,000 in sales -- 13 is his lucky number -- and he no longer could take the stress of the job. He had been sweating and shaking at work; he went to a doctor, who told him to quit or die.
He started writing business-advice books and speaking at business events. IBM and the Harvard Business School are former clients.
Even in his 80s, he continues on, charging $18,000 a speech. He travels to China every year for several speaking gigs.
In 2001, Girard was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. Chevy's bow tie badge was on his product, but he chalks his success up to selling himself.
"I never sold a car in my life," Girard said. "I sold a Girard."