Karen Ford, 31
Commercial and fleet director, Sutton Ford-Lincoln
Karen Ford is the heir apparent to the dealership her mother and father have owned since 1989. But her ascension to head of the family business has been anything but automatic.
“I said from a young age I wanted to get into the business, but my parents are firm believers in getting experience,” she said. “They told me to go figure it out.”
So she did.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in finance from Hampton University in 2010, Ford went to work for IBM. But after a few years in corporate America, she knew her true calling was in the auto industry.
“You have to sell what you’re passionate about,” she said. “With vehicles, I know I’m fulfilling a need and helping people get from point A to point B.”
She asked to stand in for her father in meetings at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention, and from there she made the contacts to get a job with Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. in 2012. By 2015, she came back home to work at Sutton Ford-Lincoln in Matteson, Ill., about 30 miles south of Chicago.
“I like that it’s always something new,” she said of the dealership. “The product’s always new, your customers are always new and the business is always changing. I really like the hustle and bustle.”
Ford is following a detailed plan to become general manager and dealer principal in 2023. As part of that plan, she’s making the rounds in each department to learn various aspects of the business.
As director of the commercial and fleet business, she has improved cash flow by collecting more than $1 million in incentives in her first six months and has been keeping receivables under 60 days. She started the commercial department in 2017 and increased gross profit by $200,000 year over year.
She said her key to success has been patience.
“It’s a baby,” she said of the business. “There will be a lot of hiccups. Be patient and give it time to grow. Be willing to make that investment, whether it’s people or inventory.”
Sutton said she faces internal pressure to keep the family business running strong. She eventually wants to expand it and open a luxury point. And she’s already thinking about succession.
“I have a 10-month-old,” she said. “I’d love to see it continued on to the third generation.”
— Michael Martinez