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Paul Passarelli

AGE: 39

POSITION: General manager, Leader Auto Group, New York

Paul Passarelli

Paul Passarelli had just gotten a big break: In September 2008, he was named general manager of Garden City Mazda in Hempstead, N.Y., by a group of auto industry outsiders who had plans to build a dealership group from the ground up.

The same month, Lehman Brothers collapsed, setting off the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and delivering a gut punch to auto sales across the country.

"I'm sitting there thinking, 'OK, this is going to be a rough one. How do we give this one back?'" Passarelli recalls with a laugh. "But it doesn't work that way."

Despite the poor timing, the owners gave Passarelli the green light to implement his turnaround plan for the underperforming Mazda dealership, which had sold 200 new cars in 2007. Backed by the new owners, Passarelli pressed ahead, and sold 764 new Mazdas in 2009 before boosting new-vehicle sales to nearly 1,000 units in 2010.

He built the turnaround on an aggressive marketing plan that included the dealership's first TV spots, radio, print and direct mail and a heavy dose of online marketing. Passarelli encouraged customers to pen online reviews of the dealership, and bought key words on Google that made Garden City Mazda show up higher in local Google searches.

"I made sure that any key word you put in -- whether it's Mazda Long Island, Mazda Nassau County, Mazda New York -- that we popped up first," Passarelli says.

In the service drive, he cut prices of oil changes and tire rotations to better compete with independent garages and lube shops, and began direct-mail promotions for vehicle service. Even though the shop lost money on oil changes and tire rotations, the competitive prices and a ban on up-selling customers on unnecessary services drove repeat business, he says.

At the finance desk, Passarelli instituted a full-disclosure policy to improve customer satisfaction. "We love the finance guys, but they were the guys that made the most money and they were the CSI killers," he says. "This is a huge purchase and people need to know everything in black and white before they make their decision."

Under Passarelli's push for transparency, "if it was a finance deal, we gave the buy rate out to the customer," he says. "If the manufacturer was offering zero percent for 60 months with $500 bonus cash, that's what the customer was presented with. It was straightforward. Nothing was held back."

In March 2010, Passarelli was reassigned to Long Island City Hyundai in New York, where he had worked before being tapped to run Garden City Mazda. Using the same playbook, the Hyundai dealership hit new-vehicle sales of 916 units in 2010, 1,274 in 2011 and 1,796 last year.

Passarelli now oversees the operations of Leader Auto Group's three stores, which includes another Mazda dealership on Long Island.

-- Ryan Beene