Damian Mills, 39
President, Mills Automotive
Damian Mills was 29 and general manager of a Dodge dealership owned by Asbury Automotive Group when he had the opportunity to buy a dealership under Ford Motor Co.'s dealer development program.
The deal required a sizable equity investment and the pay was 65 percent less than the married father of three's salary. The uncertainty was nerve-wracking, but he took the plunge.
In December 2004, Mills purchased Classic Ford in Smithfield, N.C. He paid off Ford's investment in the store two years ahead of the seven-year schedule and is now president of the seven-dealership Mills Automotive Group in Fort Mill, S.C.
"My wife and I talked about it. We prayed over it. I agonized about it," recalls Mills, 39, about buying his first dealership. "But I wanted to try my hand at it. I figured if I failed, I could always go back and do what I did because I was good at it."
Mills opened dealership No. 7, Classic Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Ram in Goldsboro, N.C., in January.
His first brush with retail automotive was as a teenager cleaning vehicles at a Chrysler dealership one summer in his hometown of Garyville, La. But his career path was defined the summer after his freshman year at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, N.C.
Mills couldn't afford to go home so he applied for sales jobs at one dealership after another on a dealership row near his apartment. He got a break when Crown Dodge, then owned by Crown Automotive Group and the fifth dealership he visited, hired him. Crown is now owned by Asbury.
He took classes in the mornings and sold new and used vehicles in the afternoons. He left school three classes shy of a bachelor's degree in business economics and boarded the management fast track to become finance and insurance manager at Crown Dodge. He later became general manager of the store.
Today, Mills, who is African-American, mentors several people inside and outside his organization. He says they have drive and ambition and he wants to help them realize their dreams.
"The next generation of diversity candidates is not going to come from a program," he says. "They are going to come from within the industry, identified by individuals who are willing to assist them. That's the real important part."
-- Arlena Sawyers