NEWARK, Calif. -- His real name is Coung Nguyen. But when Americans couldn't pronounce the first name, the Vietnamese immigrant, who recalls watching "so many darn cowboy movies," changed his first name to John, from John Wayne. And when he opened his first dealership, in California's Silicon Valley, he named it Winn Volkswagen, since Nguyen is pronounced "win."
It was fitting that this self-made man created his own name. Nguyen was 12 when, after shuttling from one refugee camp to another, he arrived in the U.S. The rest, as they say, is his story.
Nguyen, 51, spoke with Automotive News TV Anchor Jennifer Vuong. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Q: How did you get into the car business?
A: I started in November 1984. I was a young kid, didn't know what to do. Looking at a classified, I saw they were hiring at a Volkswagen dealership [in Southern California], so I went down. The first week I sold a couple cars. This is easy. And back then they go, "Here's a key. Go pick yourself a demo." Demo? They give you a car to drive? Being poor and the whole bit -- wow. I had found heaven.
So I started selling cars. Fell in love with the brand and stuck with it, the whole way. I was a salesman, sales manager, general manager and then I went to work for a Volks-wagen store that was closed down. I was blessed enough to turn that store around.
After seven years, I had a baby. I was driving an hour and a half to work every day. So I took a job close to home. That store was in a little trouble. And I managed to turn that store around. Then in 2006, Volkswagen came around: "Hey, you want a shot at being your own man?"
I sold everything I had. I'm talking about my house, my car, everything. Put it in the store. I figured, if I don't make it here, I can always create it again. And God bless, things just happened real well for me here.
What did you do to turn around the stores?
I just got blessed. Used-car sales was my specialty. That, and dealing with people. Treat people right and stand behind what you do. Repeat customer, repeat customer. It wasn't a giant store -- 70 to 80 cars would've made a profit. My first year, I turned it into a positive.
Now you have this VW store and a Hyundai store?
Yes. I opened a Hyundai franchise two years ago in Santa Maria [Winn Hyundai]. And God bless, first month we did real well and we never looked back.
The [previous] guy was selling eight or nine a month. We got up to as high as 40-something and usually do about 20 to 30. It's a small market. In used cars, I think he was doing under 10. Now we average about 30 to 40 a month.
What are the customers here in Newark, Calif., like?
Tough customers. Very educated. In this market, we have a lot of diversity. We have Indians, we have Chinese, we have Afghanis.
Tesla's factory is near your store.
It's about 4 miles [away]. Great car. No issue. But pricewise, I think it's a niche car. We have the same darn car for a fourth, a third of the price. But Silicon Valley's got a lot of money.
We sell a lot of cars to Tesla employees. We have four or five that buy our cars.
What were your new-car sales last year?
We did 600-plus. New-car Volks-wagen dealers struggle because, you know, they are coming out with a lot of stuff -- next year. It's supposed to be next year, but for the past three years we've been struggling with the same product. And with all these other manufacturers coming out with new this, new that -- it's a challenge.
But people are loyal to this brand. They love that logo. You can put that logo on anything, it looks good. I also own another franchise. But I still love this logo.
And used-car sales?
We do a little better than one-to-one [used to new]. But that's what's paying the bills right now. And Volkswagen customers, they're loyal and they take care of their vehicle. So service and parts helps.
How did you navigate through VW's U.S. sales slump?
We're blessed because we're not -- the bigger you are, the harder your drop will be. With us, we've always been that 60-70 car range. So it didn't affect us that much. We dropped 22 percent. Some guys out there dropped 30 to 40 [percent].
In the last three years?
Yeah. But we're having a bunch of new things. The Golf, the [North American] Car of the Year. We are one of the top dealers for the electric Golf. The only bad part is you don't get that much maintenance out of it. We got a seven-passenger SUV [coming]. We got cars made in Tennessee coming. The Passat, it's the best car that Volkswagen ever made. I really don't know why VW kept that name, because Passat had issues previously and it's not the same car.
What are you going to do until those new products come out?
We're going to survive like we always have.
How do you keep employees motivated?
I have good leaders in the group. The key is hiring people that are as smart as you or smarter. And I think I got blessed with that. I have a guy that came up here with me, Michael Gonzalez. He worked with me down south. You know that's a show of loyalty. And all these people here, from porter to salesman, I go to lunch with any one of them at any time. It's that open communication. I think they see that and they like it.
Money is not everything.
Do you have a set of core values you preach to them?
It's pretty much, is the customer happy? When they're unhappy is when you have a problem, because of the Internet, Facebook, Yelp. You spend so much money trying to buy these advertisements. Buying happiness -- just get it right up front.
Do you mind talking about your background?
No issue. I was adopted when I was a kid. And I got adopted into a family that had a lot of kids already. So kind of abusive. And my mom that adopted me there, God bless her, she passed away, but she loved me so much, she took me out of that hell hole. Can I say, "hell hole"? And she put me in an orphanage where the half-American kids and the Catholics were abandoned. I stayed there for almost three years.
I was on a boat for a long time. We were one of the first groups of refugees. We went to the Philippines, to Singapore, to Thailand, then we went to Guam and stayed there in the refugee camp. From Guam we went to Camp Pendleton [north of San Diego].
So you got to California?
Well, whichever church sponsors you, that's where you end up. They put you in housing, and then you grow up on your own.
How old were you?
When I got here, I was 12.
So you came to America with nothing?
They gave me a free jacket when I got off the boat. So yeah, we had nothing.
And then I was blessed enough to come to this country. And this country, I tell you, people could say whatever they want, it's the only country you can make anything of yourself. In most other countries, you have to be somebody, from [the right] family. If you're a peasant, you're a peasant. Here, we lived on government help for only five or six months and we all went to work. I was working at a gas station; lied about my age when I was 14 years old.
Anything you want in this country you can get. Just give it a shot.
You must've had something inside of you that motivated you to be successful. Or did you have outside influences?
I think it's within me. You know, even in sports I always want to do better than everybody. Competitive -- I've always been like that with everything I do. Selling cars, I want to be that guy.
And I'm not done yet. I'm going to keep working. I'm still young. In America you live a long time.
Is there a motto you live by?
Live life right. That's the key.
You know, I don't look back. Because if I look back, there's a lot of bad things. So don't look back, just go forward. If you think a bad thing happened, it happened for a reason; you move on. So live life right. Don't hurt nobody, don't do anything bad. That was my original belief in God -- before I really found God. God worked a miracle for me. Live right and believe in God, you'll be fine.