President, National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers
Damon Lester became president of the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers in 2006, not long before the economy faltered and caused the number of minority-owned stores to plummet.
Minorities owned 1,805 dealerships in 2005, but the Great Recession took hold soon after and sent this tally spiraling to 875 by 2011.
It has been an uphill battle ever since, but Lester continued advocating for minority ownership through the tough times and has seen his efforts pay off. A lot of work remains to get back to the pre-recession level, but progress has been made.
The industry saw the biggest gain last year in minority-owned dealerships since 2012, when automakers added 109 rooftops, bringing the total to 1,366, the highest number in 16 years.
Lester has focused on making sure automakers follow through on their diversity commitments.
Over the years, he has expressed the importance of succession planning for minority dealers and building up the next generation of ethnic retailers. The NAMAD NextGen group has served as a training ground for rising dealers, sharpening their industry knowledge and preparing them for ownership opportunities.
Lester joined NAMAD in 2002 as its vice president of operations.
"When I became president, it was a huge load, a weight that was placed on me," he said. "We started to see the recession kick in in 2006, and dealers were beginning to hemorrhage. The time that I came in was just the beginning of when dealers, particularly minority dealers, started to feel the cash crunch and banks started to tighten up.
"I felt a huge responsibility to try to advocate for our dealer body and that's when I started to really place a lot of emphasis on our advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill, with folks in the Congress and Senate."
Now, after years of fighting for dealers, Lester is a dealer himself. He bought Nissan of Bowie in Maryland in April 2021 and has a new perspective on the business. Being a dealer is "extremely humbling," he said, "something that I definitely don't take for granted."
Lester has joined an industry that's undergoing an important transition to electric vehicles, and dealerships need to be ready to adapt to the changes EVs could bring to the traditional sales model, he said.
After two decades with NAMAD, Lester will soon step down from his post as he focuses on his retail career.
"It's a different level of responsibility, sitting on that side of the table," he said, of being a dealer. "The responsibility of having employees, the responsibility of looking after their families. I'm very excited and blessed to have the opportunity to be a part of the Nissan family. We try our best to be No. 1, and that's our goal at the store."
— Vince Bond Jr.