Karmala Sutton, 34
Dealer manager, Honda of Kenosha
Karmala Sutton had spent about two years as a buyer at CarMax when her father called and asked her to come work at Sutton Auto Team instead.
Sutton, now 34, knew the business well. She had spent time in high school working with her father and was learning the ins and outs of buying at a major used-vehicle retailer.
But in between high school and her retailing roles, Sutton had decided to pursue a different path entirely: hotel management and hospitality. Graduating from Northwood University in Florida in 2010 — in the waning days of the Great Recession — was what led to her starting at CarMax.
"That was never really the path I wanted to take," Sutton told Automotive News. "At that time, I really didn't know if I was going to be in the business or not. This was the make-or-break for me.
"That's when I started falling in love with the used-car industry and with automotive," Sutton said.
That was in 2014. Things have changed.
A second-generation auto retailer, Sutton became dealer manager of the group's Honda of Kenosha in Bristol, Wis., last summer. The group has two other locations: Sutton Ford in Matteson, Ill., and Rapids Honda in Coon Rapids, Minn.
Sutton also is general manager of the Honda store and vice president and co-owner of Sutton Ford. The group had 2020 sales of 6,120 new and 2,868 used Ford and Honda vehicles.
Sutton can point to some major successes at the store under her management, notably turning its struggling service department around, bringing it from a loss to a profit, and reducing store expenses by $840,000 year over year. She did this by promoting her parts manager to service director and rebuilding the service team.
"My managers are experts in their field. They understand what they need to do and they execute," Sutton said. "I work with them and talk about future opportunities — what's something we need to do? What we can change, how we can be better, what we need to stop. That's the energy of my store."
She credits much of her management style to watching her dad.
"As a minority dealer, first of all, you're a very small percentage in the automotive world," Sutton said. "You have to fight through a lot of challenges that a lot of other dealers don't have to deal with. Growing up, seeing the work ethic, watching my father and seeing his triumphant moments and some of his failures and picking his brain a lot — he is my leadership idol."
— Alexa St. John