American dream Featured

6:01am EDT January 24, 2005
Nearly three decades ago, Lou Sobh stood with his wife in the rain, clutching a ticket and waiting for his turn to tour the White House.

Flash forward to the present day: Sobh, owner of Lou Sobh Automotive, with dealerships in four states, was recently back at the White House. This time, however, it was at the personal request of President George W. Bush.

"It was an incredible thing," Sobh says. "When I came to this country, it took me 60 hours to get here on a Greyhound bus. When you think about someone migrating to this country, coming from the background that I came from, and being able to walk into the Oval Office and having President Bush call you by name, it is pretty awesome. It's definitely one of the highlights of my life."

Monir "Lou" Sobh's story reads like a Horatio Alger rags-to-riches tale. He was born in Torreon, Coahulia, Mexico, to a poor but hard-working family. In 1960, when he was 16 years old, his parents emigrated to the United States, taking him and his brothers to Gary, Ind.

With only the benefit of a high school education attained in Mexico, Sobh learned the business world from his father, who owned a grocery store, and through on-the-job training. Through a series of low-paying jobs and a stint in the Army National Guard, Sobh acquired the business and leadership skills he needed to build a nearly $500 million enterprise in Conyers -- Lou Sobh Automotive.

In 2003, Sobh's company posted $497 million in revenue, the most by any minority-owned business in Georgia. That's nearly twice what Sobh's enterprises generated in 2001, when the company posted $257 million in sales, and Sobh expects the books for 2004 to reflect numbers comparable to 2003's.

So how did a wide-eyed youth from Mexico become one of the top-ranked Hispanic business owners in America -- 10th on the 2003 Hispanic Business 500 -- and a Georgia success story?

By managing his opportunities the way he manages his business -- with an old-fashioned work ethic and a nose-to-the-grindstone attitude. And, Sobh refuses to forget about his humble roots.

Starting from the bottom

"I didn't know I was poor, really," Sobh says. "That is all I had ever been. It taught me the value of money. We migrated from Mexico. I started down at the bottom. To me, it was an improvement because I was making money. I wasn't making any money in Mexico. I almost felt like I was rich."

Sobh was once told to go to America and work his butt off. That advice came from his father and uncles, men who lived what they preached.

"My father had a great work ethic," Sobh say. "He had a grocery store. He used to work 16-hour days, seven days a week. We always knew that if you worked your butt off, the rewards were there.

"It's unlike so many other countries. If you have some merits, if you have some ability, you can progress here. In some of the other countries, you have to have some connections along the way in order to succeed. It's not easy."

Sobh's career as an American businessman began as a janitor in a Shoppers World department store, where he earned 90 cents an hour. His seven-member family lived in a two-bedroom apartment. Sobh taught himself English, and within six months was promoted to a department manager at Shoppers World.

"My father, even though he wasn't a wealthy man, never worked for anyone in his life," Sobh says. "He always taught me there was nothing like running your own business. He used to say, 'If you're going to sell pencils on a corner, make sure the cup is yours.'"

That simple but instrumental lesson stuck with Sobh. In 1967, he began selling automobiles for McAnary Ford in Gary. He was quickly promoted to general sales manager and later was made a partner.

"When I started selling automobiles, I said the day I started I was going to own my own car dealership one day," Sobh says. "All the guys laughed at me. They thought I was nuts. I could hardly speak English. They didn't know I was serious about it."

But Sobh was serious. And he also realized his future did not lie in Gary. Sobh wanted more from McAnary Ford, but he wasn't going to get it. So he sold his interest and planned on opening a store in Texas. That deal fell through, so Sobh made a difficult decision.

"I told my wife, 'While we're waiting, let's go to Mexico,'" he says. "Well, the wait turned into a five-year sabbatical. I did open up a furniture store in Mexico and did some business there."

Returning to Mexico wasn't as prosperous a move as Sobh had hoped it would be.

"We had some hard times there with the peso devaluation," he says. "I realized that wasn't the way I wanted to live the rest of my life. I got so used to growing up in the United States with the freedom and the guarantees ... that the last thing I ever expected in the world was a devaluation in Mexico, especially when we had a president that kept saying, 'It's not going to happen, it's not going to happen.'

"So, when it happened, I became very disheartened. My wife and I decided to come back to the United States."

Southern man

After a return to Indiana, where he re-entered the auto business and formed a relationship with a Buick and Mercedes dealership, Sobh began seeking better opportunities and wouldn't take no for an answer.

"I fought with General Motors," Sobh says. "They didn't want to open the point (of considering letting him open his own dealership). I thought it was a good, viable point, so I kept arguing with them. Finally, it took about eight months to put it together."

So with $200,000 of his own money and a $3.5 million loan from GM, Sobh packed up his family and moved south to open his own dealership in Conyers.

"My persistence and track record (paid off)," he says. "I had run GM stores and done a pretty good job. Once they met me, they thought, 'This guy might have something here.' There were a couple other stores in Conyers, and they were not failing, so I figured, if they can do it, why can't we? It turned out to be lucky for me. You've got to be in the right place at the right time."

Sobh rejects the notion that he is the Hispanic Jackie Robinson, clearing a path for future members of the community to follow in his business footsteps. But he has worked to provide others with opportunities and he founded the National Association of Hispanic Automobile Dealerships.

"We are the largest minority in this country," he says. "It's an upcoming force. I think there should be some opportunity for Hispanics to acquire some of the foreign franchises. I'd like to see a Hispanic own a Mercedes Benz store here one day or a Lexus store or a Toyota store or a Honda store, for that matter, here in Georgia. We don't have any of that.

"I'm trying to help facilitate for the people that want to get into the business because, as much as I have done and as good credentials that I have, it's very difficult for me to get my foot in the door. So the people behind me, the new and upcoming wannabe dealers, if I can't do it with my network and my savvy, how the heck are those guys going to do it?"

Sobh may be looking for the next generation of Hispanic entrepreneurs, but he has no intention of stepping aside just yet.

"Honestly, I think my best years are ahead of me," he says.

And Sobh is by no means limited to the auto business.

"I believe to have a full life, you've got to continue to work and improve," he says. "There's a difference between existing and living. One of my biggest hobbies is the automobile business or any business, for that matter. I get involved in a couple of other things. I'm a partner in a Hispanic-owned bank here in Atlanta, United America's Bank. We opened that up, and I'm a board member and one of the owners.

"We opened a Hispanic and Korean strip mall over in Chamblee. I'm also involved with a partner to bring Hispanic concerts. I just do stuff to keep busy. I went from one store to two, to three, to four, to five; I never thought I would get to 15. And we're still working."

Sobh was recently awarded the newest point in Jacksonville, Fla., and will be opening a Honda dealership there.

"We just want to continue to grow," he says. "If there are opportunities, we want to continue to look at them."

It's been quite a ride for the man who once stood in the rain to see the White House.

"Success is a journey, not a destination," Sobh says. "To me, life is a journey. You continue to live it. You continue to acquire new challenges. I get a kick out of being able to open something new. And in most of my stores, I get one of the managers and I give him the opportunity to become part owner of the store.

"I like to see them grow as I grow. It gives me satisfaction just to be able to do that. And I think life is about me being the best I can be. I don't know how good I can be or how much I can do. There will be a point where I say, 'Enough is enough. I can't do this anymore.' But as long as I enjoy it and I get a kick out of it, I'm going to try to continue to do as much of it as I can."

HOW TO REACH: Lou Sobh Automotive, or (770) 929-8777