Getting to know Susan Schein is a study in contradictions. A research scientist turned car dealership owner. A woman thriving in a predominantly male-run industry. An employer with a head for numbers and a heart for people. Yet, she’s quite comfortable with the paradox she presents.
“I’m not a really formal person,” Schein said with a friendly smile. Her statement seems confirmed by the slew of papers across her desk and handwritten charts on the wall. As president of Susan Schein Automotive, her office is located in the best corner of the building with plenty of windows, but it’s not designed to be imposing. Rather, it’s filled with photos of her three sons, plenty of seating for guests, and a sturdy, if less-than-stylish, filing cabinet.
Though some might question the scenic route she took to arrive at the helm of one of Shelby County’s most respected automobile dealerships, Schein is the first to point out that her unconventional experience is a key ingredient to her success.
Getting Down to Business
After graduating from West Virginia University with a degree in psychology and a Master’s degree in orthopedic biomechanics, Schein began working in research in Boston and Chicago, idealistically looking for ways to cure disease and “to serve mankind.” She freely admits she had no taste for business whatsoever, preferring the scientific method to the pursuit of profit. After seven years though, Schein grew disillusioned about the nature of academics, realizing that advancement in her field would be impossible without further degrees.
Meanwhile, Schein’s father Bill Strickland had been passed over for a promotion at Alabama Power, so he had decided to strike out on his own selling cars in 1974. His dealership was soon thriving, but his health was not. Schein and her husband Lonnie decided to move to Birmingham in the early 1980s. “When it’s all said and done, it’s really about family. Our sons were the only grandchildren in the family. I wanted them to know their grandparents,” Schein said. Rather than make a lateral move to another research position, Schein decided instead to begin a new career by taking a job in the business office of her father’s Chevy dealership.
“I distinctly remember my father telling me he didn’t know what to pay me, because I didn’t know anything,” she laughed. “All the other ladies in the office were so much faster at entering numbers on the calculator.” Schein demonstrates with a rapid flourish of her fingers across the keypad. “I had to hunt and peck.”
Resolved not to stir up the resentment of her coworkers for being a stereotypical boss’s daughter, Schein was insistent on pulling her own weight. Often she’d schlep heavy ledgers home to catch up on journal entries after hours. Soon, she discovered that she had a real knack for numbers.
“I learned the business from the inside out,” she said, “something that most dealers never get to do because their background is in sales.” The experience taught Schein about how all the pieces of the business fit together and was invaluable on-the-job training for someone who had never taken a single accounting class.
You’ll Do Fine at Susan Schein
Shortly before his death in 1992, Schein bought the business from her father. She is quick to underscore the fact that she became the owner deliberately rather than passively inheriting the dealerships. “I took out a second mortgage on my home and my mother’s home to come up with the down payment,” she asserted. Taking the reins of leadership, she put her own name and reputation on the line with Susan Schein Chevrolet and Susan Schein Chrysler Dodge as well as Acclaim Auto Rentals.
Eventually Lonnie, who had a Ph.D. in pharmacology, left the world of research behind and joined his wife in the auto business. Together with a growing team of employees, they set about serving the transportation needs of Shelby County residents. “I think the defining characteristic of any successful organization is to focus 100% of your attention on the customer. We strive to provide outstanding service before and after the sale. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s true,” she said.
“I also think that depth of concern for our customers extends to my employees. It’s quite obvious that no one can successfully run a business for 25-35 years without recruiting and retaining quality people. I happen to think I have the best,” Schein stated proudly. Service Manager Gayton Lopresti confirmed, “She treats us like family—in a good way.” Having been with the company 19 years, Lopresti can speak with authority. “I came here when my daughter was a year old. Susan’s seen her grow up. I’ve seen her boys grow up.”
Having learned the ropes from her father, one might expect Schein to be grooming her own sons to run the family business some day. That’s simply not the case. “Everyone says, ‘you have three sons, and nobody wants to run the business.’ Well, I did not get into the business so my children would have a job. I see people who ‘follow in their father’s footsteps,’ and they hate it. I would not do that to my children,” she explained.
That doesn’t mean that she hasn’t helped them learn a thing or two about the car business along the way. Jason, Josh, and Jon David all worked in the company in some capacity when they were in high school. “They didn’t like when someone was goofing off, because they knew that I was paying [for wasted time].” The two eldest are now pursuing their own paths, one in paleontology, the other as a pilot. The youngest is soon to graduate college with a double-major in Spanish and pre-med.
Schein could not be prouder of her sons’ accomplishments, especially in light of the fact that their father passed away in 2000. “Lonnie was so involved with them, truly an exceptional dad. The toughest thing for me was to try to fill his shoes for our youngest who was only 11 when Lonnie died,” Schein said.
Though she was reeling from the loss of the man she described as her best friend and soulmate, her stoic nature would not let her succumb to self-pity. Fortunately, Schein had been investing heavily in her staff relationships for many years when she lost her husband to cancer, so the emotional reserve was high when she most needed to make a withdrawal. “The person I give the most credit for helping me through all that, and keeping the business going was Melba Kane, my comptroller. She’s been with me 25 years now. There were many times after Lonnie died that by the time I got to work, I was in tears, and I couldn’t get myself together. She would say, ‘Just go home. Don’t worry about anything,’” Schein recalled. “I can unequivocally say that I wouldn’t be here today in this business if it weren’t for her holding it all together.”
On Her Own Terms
Slowly but surely, Schein began to redefine normal as a single mother of three running multiple sales and rental operations on her own. Then the recent downturn in the economy sent General Motors and Chrysler into a tailspin. Without warning, Schein was given notice in May 2009 that her dealership agreements with both auto makers would be terminated.
“I have a quote from Elton B. Stephens that described his secret of success as ‘recognizing an open door with opportunity behind it and knowing when to pass through,’” Schein said. Choosing a positive reaction to a difficult situation, she opted to transition to become an independent used car dealer and consolidated to a single location.
“It was painful to tell my Chrysler employees that I would not be able to save that store. They were like family to me,” Schein said. However, she is relieved that she no longer has to operate under someone else’s business plan dictating inventory levels and warranty repair work. “Now I have exactly as many used cars as I need and think I can sell. If the economy goes to pot, gas is ten dollars a gallon, and nobody’s buying anything, I can put 50 cars out there. If things just kick off and rock and roll, then I can go to 150,” she explained.
Schein considers herself to be in a good position as a used car outlet, given the current trend toward keeping vehicles longer. Plus, she has implemented a strategy for keeping her service department profitable as well. “We partnered with NAPA for service, and we can do some of the same work we did before, but cheaper, because of their pricing. This is really a win-win,” Schein claimed.
The good news for consumers is that although some aspects of the business have changed, her commitment to keeping customers number one is rock-solid. “Susan earns respect by giving respect,” commented Sales Manager Eric Bowman. “She’s very particular about the after-sale experience,” he continued, proudly pointing out that they only sell the kind of cars he’d want to purchase for himself—no lemons allowed.
For those who know her best, it’s no surprise that Susan Schein has not only survived, but thrived in the face of the challenges that have arisen in her life. “Susan has an amazingly positive attitude. She is one of those multi-talented people who sets high goals for herself and inspires others to do the same,” shared long-time friend Debbie Ghigna. If her track record is any indication of her future performance, no matter what Schein does next, it’ll do just fine, giving Shelby County a genuine point of pride in its business community.