Juanita Powell Baranco, 71
Co-owner, Mercedes-Benz of Buckhead in Georgia and Mercedes-Benz of Covington in Louisiana
Education: B.S., psychology, and J.D., Louisiana State University
What drew you to the auto industry? I’ve always been involved with the automobile industry. My father, a lawyer, decided that he wanted to get a service station. So, in the late ’50s, he got an Exxon, or Esso as it was called back in the day, service station. About 10 years after he got that franchise, the automobile industry was starting to heat up and they were figuring out what kind of distribution channels they wanted. So they would go to the service station owners and make them the first automobile dealers. Well, of course, my father was African-American and he was not offered that dealership. I was a tiny tot when all this was going on, but it stuck with me. My husband had a summer internship at the Ford Motor Co. stamping plant in Dearborn, Mich. So we decided just sitting there together, figuring out, well, Lord, we’re gonna have to put food on the table some kind of way. So, he was headed for either an engineering or medical degree. I knew that I wanted to go to law school. So lawyering, cars, engineering, it just kind of fell in place. And we got exposed to the retail automobile dealership and decided that was the path we wanted to pursue.
First automotive job: My first automotive job wasn’t really a job. My husband was working at a car dealership and was an F&I manager. I would go there and help with the paperwork, with the finance deals, and put them together. I was still in school and the only time I had to devote to this pursuit was on the weekends. We would sometimes take the kids with us. The dealership was empty and we’d just pull all the paperwork together and put those deals together. That’s my first job, even though I wasn’t getting paid.
NEWSLETTER: Sign up for Lead the Way, our monthly Leading Women Network newsletter highlighting ways to educate, mentor and empower women in automotive.
Big break: Our big break was the first dealership that we owned in East Point, Ga. Two elderly gentlemen had owned that Pontiac dealership for years. We had been actively looking for dealerships for about two years. And Mr. Johnson, one of the owners, said, “Look, we don’t want to get one of the large conglomerates in here because we love our employees; they have been with us for years. We’ve made all the money we need to make, so we’re not looking for a lot of money. We want to sell this dealership to someone who’s going to take care of our employees.”
It was sort of a match made in heaven. They didn’t want a lot of money, we didn’t have a lot of money. They wanted someone to take care of their employees, we didn’t have any employees. We were relocating from Baton Rouge, La., starting from scratch in East Point, Ga.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? We’ve gone through a lot of systemic racism, to be perfectly honest about it. It was our biggest challenge early on. When we first got our loan from General Motors to open our first dealership, the local bank would not accept the check. It was for a lot of money. So, the gentleman who was assisting us from Motors Holding took the check to the bank and they deposited it right away. Have things changed a lot now? Absolutely. But in terms of challenges early on, and basically throughout our career, we’ve had to beat down a few issues. And we did it without going to court and filing a lot of lawsuits. We just appealed to people and their ability and desire to do the right thing.
You’ve been in the industry 42 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? There’s been a sea change in two areas. One would be in the vehicles themselves and how dependent they are on technology. And now to see our delivery model. My daughter works in the dealership and she had already set up a digital marketing and sales team. When COVID-19 came on the scene, we went all-digital.
What work achievement are you most proud of? The way that we treat our team members. We have done a phenomenal job of creating a diverse employee work force. During the last Olympics, we decided to put in the employee lounge a flag from every country that was represented at the dealership that was participating in the Olympics. Well, this is not a small room, but we ran out of space. It showed that what I had set out to do, which was to have blind hiring processes, was working. We just hire based on skill, based on talent, based on ability.
— Urvaksh Karkaria