And She Wants You to Crush It, Too.
Lisa Copeland was a college student majoring in fashion, and she had curated a regrettable habit of spending the money her parents had sent her for car insurance on new clothes. It was most unfortunate, she says, when she totaled her car in an accident.
Her father offered no sympathy for her plight.
“Figure it out, kid,” he told her.
Copeland’s boyfriend at the time had just graduated college and was working at a car dealership. He encouraged Copeland to apply because sales representatives get a demo car as part of the hiring process. She shrugged and set her sights on the largest auto dealership in Dallas. She was bold and confident and sure she could do the job.
If at First You Don’t Succeed
They didn’t hire her the first time she walked in the door. Or the second time. Or the third.
“The dealership didn’t want to hire me; they didn’t have any other females on the show floor,” Copeland says. “But I was young and naïve and tenacious. I needed a car and I wanted the job.”
They agreed, finally, to give her a try – and they challenged her to sell 10 cars in 30 days. She put her head down and did it; she didn’t know any better and could not afford to lose her car.
“I Wasn’t in the Car Business; I Was in the People Business”
When Copeland started, there were 90 salesmen at the dealership. The seasoned professionals, she says, had specific ideas about how buyers looked. If someone who walked through the front door didn’t have the typical “look” of success, the salesmen would ignore them, believing the interaction wouldn’t be worth their time.
Copeland saw an opening there, an opportunity to pick up business where the veterans were discarding the potential.
“They preferred to cherry pick customers, but I talked to every person,” Copeland says. “I think people liked me because I was young and female and not ‘slick.’ The experience taught me that I wasn’t in the car business; I was in the people business. I genuinely liked people and connected with those nobody else would help.”
The Customer Who Catapulted Her Career
Her favorite customer story is about a salon owner who walked into the dealership one day.
“I want to buy a Corvette,” he said when Copeland approached him. He told her that he wanted to test drive one, and that he had been to the dealership before, but no one would talk to him. Copeland got him into the car. He bought it--at full sticker price--and became one of Copeland’s biggest fans.
“Jeff taught me that being nice to everyone is critical,” Copeland says. “He told me the heinous stories of discrimination he had felt in Dallas; he was wealthy and a great guy, but because he was clearly gay, plenty of people would not do business with him.”
She estimates that salon owner sent her 30 or more clients over the years because he told them that Copeland would treat them with respect and care.
“Jeff told everyone he knew, everyone who sat in his chair to get their hair styled, that they had to buy a car from me,” she says. “He changed my career.”
By the time she finished her third month, Lisa was one of the top 10 sales people. She stayed with the dealership for almost five years.
Starting a New Business with Motherhood-Friendly Hours
When her two children were born, Copeland chose to leave the auto business.
“[The auto industry] loses a lot of moms because there is no flexibility,” Copeland says. “I didn’t come back until both of my kids were in college. The nature of retail is weekends and holidays, so that’s tough on moms.”
She started a mortgage business, Austin Mortgage Associates, and served as President and CEO for the company for several years before launching Lisa Copeland Insurance Agency.
Taking the Helm at Fiat Austin and a Power Bet
In 2010, the opportunity to manage – and then become a managing partner – a Fiat/Alfa Romeo dealership in Austin presented itself to her, and she set her sights on making it the #1 dealership in the country. As in most of her endeavors, she didn’t just try; she set audacious goals and knocked them out of the park.
In April 2012, Copeland made a bet with Tim Kuniskis, who was CEO of Fiat North America at the time. Her dealership had achieved her goal – it was the #1 Fiat dealership in the country, and Copeland asked Kuniskis, “What’s it going to take for me to meet [Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO] Sergio Marchionne?”
Copeland was inspired by Marchionne, the powerhouse executive behind Fiat’s dramatic turnaround, after she heard him speak at a conference in Florida. But Kuniskis was unmoved by her inspiration.
“It’s not going to happen,” he said. As an afterthought, he tossed Copeland a bone: “Break the world’s sales record and you can meet him.”
What that meant, ultimately, was that Copeland had to break 100 Fiat 500 sales in a month. It had never been done before, and the Fiat brand was new in Austin, Texas, which Copeland calls “the land of trucks.”
What? Lisa Turned Down the Chance to Meet George Clooney, with No Regrets
She sold 93 that month, impressing Kuniskis. He called Copeland to tell her that he was proud of her, and Copeland said, “I didn’t make it! I want to meet Sergio. Give me another month.” He told her that she didn’t have enough inventory to make her goal, and when she hung up the phone after their call, she immediately started buying cars from other dealers to stock up.
She knocked it out of the park with 109 cars in 30 days, breaking the record definitively.
Kuniskis offered the chance to meet George Clooney, who was the spokesperson for Fiat in Italy, instead of Machionne. Copeland turned him down flat; she didn’t want to meet Clooney, she wanted to meet the man who inspired her and led the company for which she had so much drive.
“So Marchionne came to Texas with a motorcade,” Copeland laughs. “I was sitting there in the dealership waiting and had my head down, and when I looked up, he was right in front of me.”
Marchionne insisted that she call him Sergio. He said, “I have to know if it’s true: you chose me over George Clooney?”
Copeland’s reply: “Damn straight.”
Marchionne presented her with a diamond Fiat watch and asked what else he could do for her. She didn’t hesitate: she went full out with a request for a hot pink Fiat Abarth. Today, that Copeland edition Abarth, VIN 001, is on loan at the Towbin dealership in Las Vegas.
Lisa Copeland’s Lesson: If You Never Ask, You Won’t Get It
Copeland says the lesson she learned from this experience is “You have to ask.” Later, she was appointed to Fiat Chrysler’s National Dealer Council (and served four terms); she says that wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t broken the world sales record. In 2015, she was named one of the top women in automotive next to GM CEO Mary Barra.
In March of 2016, Copeland sold her interest in the dealership to expand the work she was doing in the automotive industry as a speaker and consultant. And in June of that same year, she published her book with co-author René Banglesdorf, Crushing Mediocrity. Her message: people who are successful don’t settle for good enough, but good enough doesn’t equate to great.
She walks the walk, and when you meet Copeland in person, it’s easy to see that she is a powerful force in high heels. Her caring heart shines through, and she is passionate about helping other women.
“I came back to the auto industry because I wanted to revolutionize it. The industry isn’t diverse, and I wanted to get more women, millennials, and minority people in it,” she says.
And revolutionize it she did.
Lightning Round: Five Facts about Lisa Copeland
1) Her favorite car ever is the Maserati GranTurismo – she owned two of them.
2) The top three things she looks for in a car: getting the right deal, the condition of the car (she rarely buys new) and how it makes her feel driving it.
3) She just filmed a pilot for the History Channel for a show called Car Sharks.
4) Copeland believes any business that treats people unkindly or with prejudice doesn’t deserve success.
5) She was named a “Woman of Distinction” by the Girl Scouts of Central Texas in 2012.
What comes next for Lisa? She’s headlining the Women in Automotive Conference and can be heard speaking at events around the country throughout the year. Keep up with her at LisaCopeland.com and watch this space; we will be following her next moves too!