Driving Bottom Line Profits While Maintaining Integrity

Driving Bottom Line

Victoria Rusnak has set her sights on growing her family’s business while maintaining the level of integrity her father instilled in the company. BY CAROL WHITE

When Victoria Rusnak joined her father, Paul Rusnak, in business, she knew she would have some pretty big shoes to fill. After all, he had built one of the largest and most successful dealership groups in Southern California. It was important for her to bring her business know-how to the Rusnak Auto Group to help grow the company’s profits. At the same time, she wanted to be sure her plans for growth maintained the level of integrity that clients have come to expect for the dealerships.

Victoria was brought on in 2006 as the chief operating office. In 2013, she was tapped to succeed her father as the president and CEO, and today she is poised to take the company to a new level.

Mr. Rusnak, who remains as chairman of the company, got his start in the auto business in 1960 with the purchase of a Triumph dealership in Los Angeles, Calif. Through the years, he bought and sold a number of dealerships that included both non-luxury and luxury brands. But his fascination with European sports cars is what led the group to being an almost exclusive dealer of high-end automobiles, which includes Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Maserati, Audi, BMW, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Volvo. The only non-luxury brand currently represented is Hyundai. Today, the group is ranked among the country’s top 100 dealership groups with 10,592 new units sold in 2014.

Victoria RusnakUnlike a lot of dealers’ kids, Victoria did not grow up in the car business. Prior to joining her father in the business, she sold cars at his Chrysler store in Pasadena and helped with inventory during summer breaks, but a career in auto wasn’t on her radar. After obtaining her law degree from Gonzaga University School of Law and a Masters in environmental law from George Washington Law, she opened a small law firm in Seattle, Wash., where she specialized in business and real estate law.

It was during this time that Victoria began working with her father on some of the company’s real estate issues and came to realize the magnitude of the Rusnak Auto Group. “I had this awakening that this company had grown so big and there really wasn’t a plan of who was going to take it over and help my dad run it,” she said. “I planned to have a legal and business career, but I was afforded the opportunity to join the dealership, and it sort of came to pass. I offered to come help and he appreciated it.” Victoria has two sisters, one who is not involved in the auto business and the other, Elizabeth Rusnak Arizmendi, who is vice president of public relations for the company.

Victoria admits that “not much prepares you to run a family-owned major dealership group” but her business education and experience with her own law practice did help her to see the business with a new set of eyes. “It gave me the ability to look at the organization from a professional point of view, rather than just the old-time, family-run operation. That helped me tremendously and ultimately helped the organization because I was able to implement a lot of economies of scale and put together a professional corporate team.”

When Victoria joined her father in 2009 as the COO, she brought some new ideas that involved restructuring the company from an entrepreneurial mindset to a corporate model. Although she and her father had “philosophical differences” in opinion about how that corporate model should look, he was open to her ideas and understood that some of them made sense in the long run.

As for the employees, most of them had a wait-and-see attitude about the reorganization. “I wouldn’t say they weren’t receptive, but I think they were a little bit afraid of the changes,” said Victoria. “I would say the biggest obstacle I had to overcome is I had to prove to them that it was going to be OK. I just had to forge the path and hope that people were going to come with me. And for the most part, they did.”

Victoria says that filling her father’s shoes is an impossible task, but over time she believes she has earned the respect of her employees. “It takes time. You make mistakes, but that’s part of the process of gaining experience, and that’s part of the process of upping your game.”

Introducing new technology to the dealerships, scaling down the number of vendors across the board, implementing a more structured marketing department and ramping up the human resource efforts are paying off. In 2013, the Rusnak Auto Group became one of the top 100 dealership groups in the country and moved up in the rankings in 2014, according to Automotive News.

Victoria was not naïve in thinking that relying on her business acumen alone was all she needed to run a successful auto group. She enrolled in NADA’s Dealer Candidate Academy, and to further understand all the workings of a dealership, she implemented what she called “walk in your shoes,” where she spent a half day to a day in every major position in the company. That included donning a service vest and performing oil changes in the service drive. “It was really fun! I got to know the technicians.”

Today, Victoria still makes a point to stay connected with her service employees by participating in “tech talks” where she gets together with the technicians to discuss the business, how things are going in the shop, what their needs are, etc. “I can’t speak for other people, but I think a lot of bigger companies just don’t spend the time doing that.”

Recruiting and retaining quality talent, like with many other dealers, is a priority for Rusnak Auto Group. Even though the company looks first for professional-minded candidates, as a female dealer, Victoria feels she’s positioned to help open the door for more women to enter the car business. She believes that working in a male-dominated industry is a non-issue for female millennials because they’re already accustomed to working with and being around their male counterparts. The solution to attracting more women is education.

Victoria Rusnak“I think that they just need to see the path. I think sometimes they don’t see the opportunity of earning the kind of money that you can earn in this business. The way that I’m trying to attract more women into the business is to talk about it – a lot.” She was recently invited to speak to a group of students at the University of Southern California about how to buy a car, but grabbed the opportunity to speak to them about the rewards and perks of the car business. “I told them that our industry is like the ultimate retail. You can sell Chanel purses and make money. But you can sell Porsches and make a lot of money.”

While it has long been suspected that women are better suited for consultative positions, a recent study by a team from Cambridge University found that the parts of the brain linked to emotions, calculating risks and the ability to listen were more prominent in women than in men. And no one will dispute that having the ability to listen to a customer’s wants and needs is crucial in the sales process. Which is why Victoria believes women and car sales is a perfect fit. Today’s consumers want to be helped in buying a car – not sold to, she said.

Paul Rusnak also knows the value of listening. “One of the best pieces of advice my father has given me is to listen more than talk, and then form your own opinion. It’s pretty good life advice,” said Victoria.

With women emerging as the dominant decision-makers in car purchases, Rusnak Auto Group has incorporated training for its sales associates on best practices in working with women shoppers – all in an effort to enhance growth in the marketplace.

Speaking of growth, the group is actively looking to acquire more dealerships, but not just for the sake of adding stores. “It has to be the right brand and the right market. That’s what it’s really about,” said Victoria. Being a private, family-owned corporation “affords you the opportunity to be nimble to make decisions at a pace that is comfortable for your organization.” And if things go as she plans, Victoria will double her company’s profits while maintaining the level of integrity and profitability – and the reputation – of the auto group her father founded more than a half century ago.

By the Numbers:

Number of Stores: 15

Number of Brands: 11

Number of Employees:

Number of New Units Sold in 2014: 10,592

Number of Used Units Sold in 2014: 4,004