Some say the economic recovery is sluggish but at least in one sector, the auto industry, it’s in full swing. Last year, every major automaker reported improved sales, beginning with GM. Domestically, sales reached 15.6 million units for the year, up 7.6 percent from 2012. But things looked bleak just a few years ago, and only the savviest auto dealers thrived. Lou Gonzales, owner of Antelope Valley Chevrolet in Lancaster, CA, was one of them.
“Cars are an item people need, but when times are tough, like in 2008-2011, we saw car sales drop nationally to nearly half from $17 million to under $10 million,” he remembers. “We got through it with good service, a strong used car department and by adjusting budgets and scaling back personnel. That was the hardest thing. I cut everything before I cut employees, I even stopped taking a salary. I had 54 employees but that dropped down to 38. It was brutal because I knew that they weren’t going to find another job.”
To make matters worse, the GM dealership he was trying to hold onto sold the ill-fated Saturn models that were discontinued. But Gonzales had saved that dealership, the first he ever owned, going from unprofitable to very profitable. His efforts were not only noticed, they were rewarded. GM offered him a Chevrolet dealership and allowed him to transition from one store to the next.
“Today, 30 of the last Saturn employees are still with me. I’m indebted to them, not just for sticking with me but for having the confidence that I would pull this off,” he says.
Perhaps they simply found his confidence contagious. The adopted child of Juan and Josephine Gonzales, he grew up in the farming community of Arbuckle, CA. His father worked for Southern Pacific Railroad, and Gonzales spent his childhood by the railroad tracks in a house built by his uncle, Ben Martinez. He credits his Uncle Ben, “the brains of the family,” for instilling in him an entrepreneurial spirit and a love of baseball.
“Uncle Ben eventually bought multiple homes, like Monopoly, and became quite the land baron. He’d take me to baseball games too. He loved baseball, but he rooted for the Giants. I was Dodgers fan,” he shares.
Gonzales enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school. Upon his return home, he took his first step toward a career in the auto industry—he got a job in the parts department at a Honda dealership in North Hollywood. During his fifteen-year tenure there, he would work almost all aspects of the dealership and was eventually promoted to general sales manager.
Many car dealers advise prospective owners to learn all parts of the business by working from the ground up. Gonzales concurs: “My experience helped tremendously—the only job I didn’t do was clerical. I understand the challenges of my employees and have a lot more patience. I know that some of these jobs are very difficult.”
The leap from salesman to owner, however, involved a bit of confidence as well as luck. While working in the front yard of his new home in Palmdale, he was stopped by a neighbor who asked him: “Can’t you pay someone to do that for you?” Knowing the neighbor to be David Dow, owner of the nearby Buick/Oldsmobile dealership, he responded by saying he preferred to do his own landscaping and if Dow would like to be a bigger car dealer, he should hire him.
Surprisingly, Dow called him a few days later and admitted that he was burnt out and was looking for a younger partner. He offered Gonzales 25 percent of the business. Gonzalez discussed it with his wife, Joyce; the couple cashed out their 401ks, refinanced the house, and maxed out their credit cards to raise the funds. A year later, GM announced they were terminating the Oldsmobile brand.
“’Holy smokes,’ I thought, ‘what have I done?’” Gonzales admits. Two weeks later, he heard that the local Saturn dealership had been taken over by GM due to poor performance. He approached his partner, who informed him they couldn’t buy it because GM wanted it to remain minority-owned.
“I walked out of the office and then turned around and said, ‘Hey, I’m Mexican,’” he laughs. They applied to GM and received a packet, introducing them to the company’s Minority Dealership Development Program.
According to the company website, GM was the first to initiate a structured minority dealership program in 1972 to help grow diversity among the company’s dealership group. The program “focuses on candidate development and training, the selection of a dealership opportunity for a minority candidate and the retention of minority dealerships.” Today 106 GM dealerships are Latino-owned, approximately 2.4 percent of the total, according to Automotive News.
In his case, Gonzales and Dow were asked to provide 10 percent of the purchase price for the Saturn dealership. GM covered the rest with the caveat that Gonzales and Dow would repay the investment within seven years. “I estimated that it would take six and a half years but we paid them back in sixteen months,” he asserts.
Fast-forward to the present. The now defunct Saturn dealership has been replaced by Antelope Valley Chevrolet, that Gonzales and Dow opened in 2010. Assisted by popular new models from Chevrolet like the Corvette Stingray, Volt, and Cruze, the thriving dealership now employs 70.
Gonzales advises potential dealers to remember that the cash investment in a dealership is substantial so save your money, dream big, believe it can happen, and make sure your family is onboard. “I remember the day they handed me the keys to the Saturn store and thinking, ‘This is on me now. I’m the boss.’ It was a reality check,” he admits. “Be sure it’s what you want to do because if you don’t make it, your money’s gone. It’s history.”
Today, the minimum investment is higher, according to Gonzales, and it’s harder for young dealers to come up with the cash needed. But he has mentored a young Latino at his dealership who he feels would make a worthy candidate. Paying it forward, Gonzales plans to provide the balance of the investment to make it happen. All it takes is confidence and a bit of luck.
Ask Hispanics who their hero is and I would venture to guess at least 90% will answer someone related to them, such as a father, mother or grandmother. There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with that (I am guilty of the exact same thing), but upon reflection it leaves our community short of national figures to aspire to, and more importantly, figures to rally around to help support causes that impact us directly.
Our cultural values of working hard, being humble, and keeping your head down (for most of us, anyway) is in need of a few changes. We must as a group begin to acknowledge and elevate those in our community making a difference. I realize most of the people reading this publication are leaders in their own right and have achieved success, but I ask what you have done to teach, motivate, and inspire young people around you. What Hispanic Heroes do you know of and have shared with others?
In fact, this struck me quite compellingly when I attended a sneak preview of the new movie about Cesar Chavez. As I sat in the audience, I was moved to tears more than once as this powerful story unfolded. As a Mexican American born in Michigan and attending schools that were predominately Anglo, I was never exposed to the Chavez story until I was much older and researched it on my own. I sat there and realized how this fight was not only important to Hispanics, but to anyone who has ever suffered an injustice. To watch this humble man move mountains (in spite of obstacles and little resources) because of his mission to right social wrongs, left me with the desire to want to share his story, as well of those of others who can help inspire greatness among our community.
That being said, I would ask you to gather your family, friends, and any other youth you can find and make sure you take them to see the movie. Use it as a launching pad to set the foundation for future discussions on how to acknowledge and appreciate the Hispanic Heroes we have had in the past and those we can still celebrate today. As leaders and influencers, make it your responsibility to share the successes and help create the stories that will leave a legacy for the Hispanic community.
Think of your social profile and what and who you stand for. Whether Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or any other social media site you are active in, make sure you spread the influence you have with the right message and right people.
People like astronaut Ellen Ochoa, NASA’s first female Hispanic astronaut and first Hispanic woman to go to space! A Mexican American born and raised in California who received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Physics from San Diego State University in 1980, and a Master of Science Degree and Doctorate in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University in 1981 and 1985, respectively. A woman who has logged more than 950 hours in space and was a co-inventor of three patents pertaining to optical systems.
People like Jose Ferrer, who was born in Puerto Rico in 1912 and was the first Latino to win an Academy Award for his role as “Cyrano” in the 1950 film. A Princeton University graduate, he acted on Broadway for the first time in the 1935 production of A Slight Case of Murder. And just this year, Alfonso Cuaron, who made history as the first Latino to win an Oscar for Best Director for his groundbreaking work in the movie Gravity starring Sandra Bullock.
People lke Miguel Alcubierre Moya, who was born in Mexico City in 1964, and is a theoretical physicist. He obtained a degree in physics, and a Master of Science in theoretical physics at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. In 1994, he developed a theoretical solution for faster-than-light travel which models the warp drive concept, called the Alcubierre Drive. His work has opened the doors to possibilities of humans exploring beyond our current solar system and potentially populating different planets! Imagine a Latino opening the doors for “Human Life on another Planet.”
And of course, as previously mentioned, Cesar Chavez (1927-1993), an American farm worker who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association and is the best known Latino civil rights activist, impacting thousands of lives with his work.
These are but a few of the people we need to promote within our circles of influence. Obvious heroes are not often known. It is time for Hispanic Heroes to be known, admired, and used to inspire. Please take the time to expand your knowledge and share our successes in the Hispanic community with the people you touch. ¡Adelante!
By Alma Guajardo-Crossley