Greg Nelson Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2007

Growing up, Greg Nelson always dreamed he would make his living surrounded by luxury cars. So after high school, he entered a sheet metal workers apprentice program but soon realized it wasn’t the right path for him. He graduated and then went on to college at Franklin University before taking a $15,000 loan from his father in 1981 to start Columbus Classic Cars. Today, he is president of the $68 million Nelson Auto Group, employing 100 people at Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Lamborghini dealerships in Marysville and Bellefontaine, with a Hyundai dealership opening in Heath this year. Smart Business spoke with Nelson about strong leadership and how he managed the toughest day of his career.

Lead by example. I work 70 to 80 hours a week, so my employees see me there all the time. I think they feel like, ‘Hell, if he’s here all the time and working hard, we ought to do the same thing.’

They’ll see me greet a customer or pick up a piece of trash off the lot. As insignificant as that sounds, it builds a foundation for the rest of the business in terms of respect.

Give back to the community. You can’t take, take, take from a community. People see through that; it’s superficial. I’m making my livelihood here and building my business here; I need to give back.

The community knows that. The customers see that and say, ‘We need to be doing business with this guy.’

Maintain a positive image. My name and reputation mean more than the money because if you don’t have a good reputation, what do you have? I’ve always felt that if you do a good job with your customers and your employees, the money will come.

Don’t be afraid to adapt. You have to be open to change. I’ve always made my guys wear shirts and ties selling cars. I looked at it as a sign of respect: If we’re taking anything from $5,000 to $400,000 from customers, I wanted my employees to be presentable.

We did a survey of customers, and 68 percent of the surveys said customers prefer the salespeople more casual in golf shirts. A lot of them felt like a guy in a shirt and tie had the upper hand.

If that’s what your customers want, that’s what you’ve got to do. Now we’re going to a golf shirt uniform. It’s hard because I’ve been doing it the other way for 26 years but I understand it, so I’ll make the change.

Be tenacious and strong-willed. So many guys start a business and things don’t go their way, and they just give up and quit. I’ve never done that, and believe me, there have been many times when it would have been a lot easier just to quit.

But I worked hard, and I made it through the difficult times. You need to be a person who is determined to win.

Create a flexible strategy. I have passed on some business opportunities because they didn’t fit into my plan. What do you want to accomplish? Where do you want to be?

If you don’t have a business plan, then you’re not going to get very far. You’ve got to have a plan and stick to it but you’ve got to be flexible inside that plan and make some modifications because business is changing all the time.

Manage with integrity. If you don’t have integrity, and if your work doesn’t mean anything, you might as well just hang it up and go home.

We had a situation where our service manager, service writer, mechanic and parts guy told Chrysler and a customer they put a part on the customer’s car. They really didn’t do that, and I heard about it.

As drastic an action as some people may have seen it, I pulled those employees in one by one, told them, ‘That’s not the way we operate,’ and terminated all of them the same day.

It hurt because I lost four good people who made a mistake, but I could not justify having the rest of my staff see that. I couldn’t condone it by letting them stay employed here. That sent a strong message throughout all my dealerships.

Sometimes you’ve got to make those tough decisions, but when you do, it sets the tone. Now these folks know what integrity’s all about: You’re going to do it by the book, the right way, or you’re not going to work here. That’s all there is to it.

It was probably the most difficult day of my career because I had never dealt with that before. We occasionally had to reprimand an employee or terminate someone but to have all those people in on it was very tough on me, because I thought I had done a better job. If I would have let them get away with it, then what was next?

I have a pretty high standard, but that’s the way I expect it to be, and it seems to work.

Nurture your staff. I’ve got people who have been with me for 15-plus years. I’ve watched these people grow and develop, and I’ve given them opportunities to go from salesperson to sales manager to general manager. That makes sense to me.

It’s interesting to see some young guys come in who think they know everything. I remember coming in and thinking, ‘He needs slapped around a little bit.’ But they learn from you, and they listen to you because they see you doing it.

Stay genuine. There are very few car dealers that come out on the floor and actually thank the customer. A lot of them think they’re beyond that; I guess I never forgot my roots. As long as I’m in touch, things are great.

When you forget your roots, arrogance sets in. When employees and customers see arrogance, they get turned off by it. It becomes like a big corporate structure where employees and customers think, ‘They don’t really care about me.’

We’ve always maintained a family feel, and I still find the time to visit all the dealerships.

HOW TO REACH: Nelson Auto Group, (614) 793-9000 or