Michelle Primm, 59
Managing Partner, Cascade Auto Group
What attracted you to the auto industry? Our family was in it. But making forays into a few other things, like working in the food industry, bartender in college, retail clerk, financial controller at a security firm, the car business was more exciting. In retail automotive, it doesn't matter if you're man or woman, gay, straight, purple, green, black, if you can perform, you're rewarded.
It wasn't [ever expected that I would go into the business]. It was always going to be my brothers, and they were the ones when we were younger that were interested.
First automotive job: I was 12, and my dad was angry at the service department because their files were a mess. He said, "My 12-year-old knows her alphabet better than you people." Several years later, I got promoted to scrubbing the bathrooms and showroom floor. Then, when I learned how to drive, I got to drive the parts trucks.
Big break: When my dad said, "There's this thing called F&I. Why don't you come back to the store and try that?" That's what got me back to the dealership and really got me excited and engaged.
That was in the career. When you say my big break, where I felt needed and where I was really helping people was when I went on the NADA board. It was right when the world was crashing around our head (2008). We were tasked with meeting with Congress and taking dealers that had lost their stores and holding their hands when we took them into Congress.
What is the major challenge you've faced in your career? Working together with my brothers as a team. I might have the title of managing partner, but we're a team. Getting to the point where the three of us can recognize each other's strengths and weaknesses and we can defer to those strengths and weaknesses. And then the three of us making the store our store and not my dad's store.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career? My dad. He was a pioneer in owning an import store in northeast Ohio. Next to Detroit, the toughest place to own an import store was northern Ohio.
As a mentor, helping me go from a small store to where we are today, it's Tim Doran (president of the Ohio Automobile Dealers Association). He's somebody I could bounce things off of. I can call him and say, "What do you think, and what are other dealers doing, and is this a dumb idea?" And he'll be straightforward and honest with me. We had an embezzlement, and it was really personally painful for us. It was the church lady. She had worked for us for 13 years. She made everybody cookies and never took a vacation. We took it really hard. It was a violation. And Tim said, "Get over it. She's not the first person that's stolen from you. She won't be the last. You're not the first dealer to get robbed. Just get over it." And he was right. Sometimes, you need somebody in your life to make some common sense and put you back on the right path.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? We need girls to be pushed for math and science, and we need to talk about what a great industry it is.
But I'm going to make it a bigger statement: We need to encourage students, boys and girls, to get into the car business. You can succeed in retail automotive without a very expensive four-year degree, whether it's getting into sales, being a technician, whatever. The education industry has to stop pushing every kid to college. College is not the right path for everybody. It's definitely not the right path if you end up with $50,000 worth of debt or more. That's wrong. It's costing the industries where we will train you; it's costing us good people.
Tell us about your family. We're pretty tightknit. Me and my brothers, we're always at the store. Until my parents were retired, they were here a lot. We eat lunch together almost every day. Sunday, that's our day apart from everybody.
[My partner] Eric worked here for a short while, and we decided if the relationship was going to last, we shouldn't work together. That was a good decision.
My dad still wants to know what's going on in the store. He cooks dinner, and anyone who wants to go over goes over. Not every family can do what we do. We have one vacation house up on Lake Erie and another in Florida, and a lot of times we all go. We travel in a pack. Sometimes, my brother or I will fight about something. You're going to have that. Usually when siblings fight, they might be fighting about something that happened 40 years ago, not what's on the table today. And you've got to recognize that. We always, at the end of the day, agree on the important stuff. That's made us a really strong family. It's helped us a through a couple of health crises with my parents.
Pat, Mike and I, none of us have children, but we've had exchange students. There's been a couple who have become like our own children. It's really gratifying, and it kind of gives you a global family.
Family isn't just about biology. Family is about those people you bring into your circle and really mean something to you. Those meaningful relationships can stretch across generations and borders and continents, but that's still family.
What's your favorite weekend activity? Being at home, having a weekend with no plan. Just being spontaneous. I love my house, I love my yard, I love my dogs, I love Eric. We live in the Cuyahoga Valley right on the edge of the national park. We enjoy the corner of the world where we live, being outdoors, building a bonfire, an old movie. I love TCM and the old classic movies. Calling up a friend I haven't talked to in a long time or meeting a neighbor for dinner.
What's your guilty pleasure? I'm a chocoholic.
If I had it to do all over again, I'd ... Probably take better take care of myself. Exercise more and eat right more. I'm not unusual. I'm a yo-yo. My weight goes up and down. I smoked for about 15 years. I wish I would have never done that. I'm looking at longevity, so I've made some changes.
Best advice you've ever gotten? I'm going to go back to that thing that Tim Doran told me: "Get over it." Sometimes as women, we have a tendency to lock on to something and not let it go.