Ken Banks, 35
Director of variable operations, Mike Shaw Automotive
Achievement: Set sales records at two dealerships before becoming director of variable operations for Mike Shaw Automotive Group
Ken Banks counts three highly influential people in his life: a cousin, a colleague and a homeless man.
Before Banks, 35, became the director of variable operations for Denver's Mike Shaw Automotive, which includes four stores in Texas, he grew up poor. He was the son of a crack-addicted father and an alcoholic mother.
"My dad went on a crack bender when I was 8 and left me alone for four days. I ate lemon meringue pie to survive," Banks said. "Before age 11, I'd sold crack, broken into cars and seen people get shot. My brother went to prison when I was 11, and he was my role model at that point."
But his 14-year-old cousin asked Banks, then 11, "What are you doing with your life?"
"He wasn't talking about drugs or gangs like I was used to hearing about, so I didn't know how to answer him," Banks said.
That cousin became a role model. "He turned it for me by saying, 'Hey, man, you have to go to school.'"
Banks dropped the gang he had started and focused on school. He graduated and, in 1999, joined the Army Reserve. A year later, while on leave, he was sitting on a bus bench in Houston when a new Lincoln Navigator SUV pulled up.
"I was drooling. I'd never seen anything like it," Banks said. "The homeless man sitting beside me, he is the most influential man in my life to this date because he said, 'If you work for a car dealership, they give you that to drive.'"
Banks spent the next few hours walking to about a dozen dealerships applying for jobs. They all said no. Finally, Fred Haas Toyota World accepted him into a new-car sales training program. He started selling new cars there in 2000, he said.
Over the next seven years, he sold cars and was promoted to finance jobs at various dealerships. In 2007, he joined Lexus of Clear Lake, a Group 1 Automotive Inc. store. There, he said, he met his mentor. Joey Dupuis molded him into a manager and brought Banks over to Group 1's Sterling McCall Lexus store, where Banks set records in sales and finance and insurance, he said.
At Sterling McCall Lexus, he led an effort that "smashed" a new-car sales record.
"I get emotional about it because it was the first time where I made a plan, we executed it, and we did it," Banks said. "That's the most proud of myself that I had ever been."
By age 31, he was general manager of Group 1's Nissan of Mobile (Ala.), where he met dealer Mike Shaw. Shaw was applying for a new Lexus point near that market and wanted Banks to run it. Lexus did not award Shaw the point, but Shaw hired Banks.
"I was so impressed," Shaw said. "He's one of the best process guys I've ever seen. His attitude, enthusiasm and energy reminds me of myself at his age. He just gets it done."
Banks said his rough start in life helps him work well with people because he gives others a chance.
His success enables him to positively influence and financially support his family, too. He helped his older brother start a business upon his release from prison and funded his younger brother's college education, despite never completing college himself, he said.
"All these people who were poor with me, I have been able to provide for them," said Banks. "My brother's kids won't have to survive on lemon meringue pie."