Automotive News 40 Under 40

Johanna Ellis

AGE: 33

POSITION: Partner, Atlanta Classic Cars (Mercedes-Benz), Duluth, Ga.

Johanna Ellis

Johanna Ellis spent much of her childhood at the Mercedes-Benz dealership her mother runs in metropolitan Atlanta. She counted parts and helped with paperwork during summers in high school. Back then she wasn't sure she wanted to make it her life's work.

But after years outside the family dealership, including a stint running her own business, that had changed by 2010.

"I was ready to come back to my favorite place. I love Atlanta," Ellis said. "I'm so happy being back in the dealership."

Ellis owns 49 percent of Atlanta Classic Cars. Her mother and dealer principal, Cathy Ellis Hendrix, owns the rest. Early on, Hendrix wanted her daughter to get experience outside the family dealership.

So Ellis worked at Mercedes-Benz of Escondido, Calif., and interned at Mercedes-Benz USA, working on the Smart brand introduction and in the company-owned flagship store in Manhattan. In 2005, Ellis founded an airport parking business in Memphis, Tenn., on property her family owned.

Since returning to Atlanta, Ellis has focused on improving marketing, beefing up the dealership's Internet presence and overseeing charitable contributions and community involvement. The dealership donates more than $100,000 annually to the arts, animal rescue operations, breast cancer research and other causes.

Ellis worked with managers to track on the Internet which marketing practices worked best. The dealership has moved away from paying lead providers on a per-lead basis. It has improved the quality of Web site listings, particularly pictures and descriptions of used vehicles. Online chat was added 10 months ago. Since the changes, the store's lead numbers and closing ratio are up by more than 50 percent.

A big goal in 2013 is to reverse the service business slide of the past two years. Lower pricing on maintenance services began June 1, and the dealership boosted cross-training and outsourced its warranty claims processing function. Repair order counts are up.

As Ellis settles in to automotive retailing, she remembers her mother's key piece of advice: Don't be afraid to say what's on your mind.

"I've been very fortunate in my career to be able to work with my mother, who was one of the first female dealers," Ellis said. "While it is a male-dominated industry, there is real opportunity for women to succeed."

- Amy Wilson