Automotive News 40 Under 40

Aki Henderson

AGE: 36

POSITION: Business development director, Henderson Ford, Webster, N.Y.

Aki Henderson

Aki Henderson decided not to go to work at the family's two dealerships until she was 30, opting to go to college and start a family.

In 2007, when Henderson hit the big three-oh, she was more than ready. She asked her father, Randy, if she could learn the business.

"The timing was right, my kids were older and I had time to put both feet into the game," she said.

Her dad put her to work at Webster Chrysler-Jeep in Webster, N.Y., as a lot girl.

"I moved cars, washed cars, got them ready for delivery, cleaned the area and picked up litter around the lot," Aki says. "He made me do that first before I could do anything else."

For 10 months, Henderson worked in various departments -- parts, the title office, as a receptionist and selling new cars. She was promoted to finance manager in late 2007 and shortly afterward went to the family's Henderson Ford store when the finance manager left.

In 2008, the family lost the Chrysler-Jeep store when Chrysler went into bankruptcy and shed hundreds of U.S. dealerships.

Henderson was head of finance at Henderson Ford for 18 months, took over as the new-car sales manager for a year and then moved into the business development office. Henderson says it's there that she made her mark.

"I built that from the ground up," she said. "I saw everything was moving over to the Internet."

Today, about 40 percent of the dealership's business comes from Internet marketing and leads. The store is active in social media, including Twitter and Facebook. Henderson also is working with a public relations firm and Ford Direct to set up an online review site that should be active in six months.

Henderson said she's charging into online activities to prepare the dealership for a wave of Generation Y buyers.

In the coming years, "they will be our primary buyers," she said. "We are giving them information and being very transparent. That is the key to catering to that generation -- explaining why we are selling the car for this amount. You cannot hide things anymore."

Among the achievements Henderson is most proud of is setting up a special finance department for subprime customers, who now account for about 30 percent of the dealership's customers.

"It is a risk, but it has worked well for us -- being able to help someone when no one else could," Henderson said. "I have customers cry when they work out finance deals, and we give them something they thought they could not get. Getting a car is like a dream come true for some -- I did not realize that, and it is awesome to me."

-- Diana T. Kurylko