The many trials and challenges of life can make you feel like you are losing control. Our guest, however, reminds us that you can take back your life and get it back on track. Retail automotive industry expert David Spisak joins Chris Webb in a conversation that answers the question: What do I do when I feel like losing control? David traces his life journey, from troubled teen to military service, to successful car dealer, family man, businessman, and CEO. Along the way, he shares insights on what he learned on this journey.
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When Losing Control, An Insight Conversation In The Life Of David Spisak
I appreciate you jumping on with us. We’ve briefed on a few different conversations before but I’m glad that we finally got you onto the show. I’ve seen some of your background and I’m quite impressed. I don’t know if you know this but I have previous automotive experience. I started out my career life in the automotive industry. It was interesting. I worked from a tech to a service advisor to a service manager and a district service manager.
I had the opportunity to be one of the first betas. As a matter of fact, I brought to General Motors the idea of the iPad, the service writer in the drive, the iPad out front in the counter. We had General Motors at our dealership at that time asking me why and what the reasoning was. Glen Campbell comes to mind. If I’m not mistaken, he was the General Motors rep that came out. It was quite an interesting journey in my life. I got out of the automotive industry and went into some other things as you know in consulting. That’s a quick brief on why I was excited to have you on the podcast. Tell us all about you.
I don’t want to put anybody into a coma. I’ll try to keep it as concise as I like. Suffice to say that I’m a native of San Francisco. I was born and raised there and then down in the suburbs outside of San Francisco subsequent to that. I went into the US Navy to put myself on more of a straight and narrow path. I was getting into a little bit of mischief as a teenager. Childhood was not particularly awesome on any level other than my mom who was a rock star but on my dad’s side, it was terrible. We ended up with my mom being a single mom with five kids to raise. I was the middle of five.
As oftentimes happens in those situations, my mom has to all of a sudden in the ’60s, didn’t have a job before, had to get two jobs and go to college at night. You leave a few teenagers to their own devices and I get a little bit of acting out, frustration as a kid. You go do some silly things but nothing horrible and nothing criminal. I got into partying and being a knucklehead. I recognized that by the time I was out of high school. I graduated at seventeen and I said, “I can either keep careening down this path and I’m probably going to end up in a ditch dead or something wildly unproductive.”
I decided without even blinking, I got in my car and drove across the Bay Bridge. I went to Oakland where there is an enlistment center. I walked in and I said, “I want to sign up.” I signed up on the spot in the military. I left there not just taking the normal APs, aptitude tests, which every enlisted person has to take to determine whether you should be a corpsman, payroll, engineer, electrician or whatever. Somehow, I absolutely nailed that test. If you’re in the top 5%, they give you the Navy Nuclear Power Test, physics, and math. Somehow, I nailed that one. That’s two-fold.
In one day, I went from being a civilian teenager knucklehead to being on my way to boot camp in San Diego and then to Chicago and Orlando for Nuclear Power Engineering School. Subsequently, once I figured out I was going to be underwater and try the nuclear sub for two months at a time with 100 other guys sharing the same bed as you rotate in and out of a job, I was like, “That’s probably not the thing for me.” I was able to get out of their Power program and went back to being a conventional engineer.
Long story boring, I got out of the service. They gave me one month to get off their payroll because Chris, they can’t stand the fact that you’re earning $747 a month. They gave me one month to find a job and I fell into a job in the car business. Most people in the car business don’t plan. We don’t sit on our dad’s or mom’s lap. Mom and dad said, “What do you want to be when you grow up, Chris? Tell me your dreams.” “I can nail my grades. If I can get some support and study hard, I’m hoping to sell cars.” Nobody says that. Like most people who fall into it, I fell in love with it. I was not the smartest guy. I will never profess to be the smartest guy in the room. I will profess to be the hardest working guy or woman in the room, oftentimes.
If you outhustle, outwork, out-grind, out-prepare, outlearn, and surround yourself with people smarter than you, magic happens.
I’ve always said that when you’re the smartest man in the room, you bring the smartest people to the room. Bringing those smart people to the room is most impactful. Based on our conversations, you represent that kind of guy. Working as hard as you do, you find those areas of, “I don’t have the knowledge base to bring to this specific project but I do know somebody that would. I bring them in and this is what we’re going to work on.”
It’s reminiscent. I like reading autobiographies. I’m not much of fiction and I never happen. I like reading about real people, real times in history, and so forth. Henry Ford was married to the idea of hiring people that are smarter than him. When somebody took him to court at one point to question his aptitude and intelligence, they tried to get to him and rattle him by asking him a question because they were trying to prove he wasn’t worthy. He didn’t have the intelligence to run a company like Ford, the company he built.
His answer was, “Why do I need to be the smartest person in the room? You see, I have a desk that has buttons on it and I have hired people that are smarter than me that can answer every one of those questions. I simply push a button, they come in and they help me address that problem.” I subscribe to that because I knew early on that there was no Elon Musk in me. I wasn’t going to be like some genius out here. I wasn’t dumb and I wasn’t going to be top of my class but I did know this. I can outhustle, outwork, outgrind, outprepare, and outlearn.
If you do that and surround yourself with people smarter than you, magic happens. I did that and I was able to become a manager in my first year. I got to be in a dealer position in a much shorter period of time than most. I spent about 25-plus years on the dealership side as a dealer and then I went from there. I decided in 2008 at the beginning of the biggest recession, God knows how many decades, “What a great time to start a company.” I thought, “I’m going to start a technology company.” I started my first software company with no experience in software other than as a user and I was also a serious geek on all things computing. I just knew that there were solutions that were not available in the auto industry.
I looked at one of those. I was looking at the proliferation of data that was coming into the industry by the ’90s. I was looking at the fact that there was no system that made it easy. If you remember from your days as an advisor, you worked on a Data Management System, DMS, and they’re terrible. It doesn’t matter. They get incredibly difficult for us to extract and put the data in but it was a roach motel. You could get in but you couldn’t get it out. My partner and I who was also an ex-dealer decided, “Let’s build a platform. Let’s build the first business intelligence big data platform for retail auto that makes it that fast, simple and easy. Get anything you want to know out of your system. Even things you can’t get out of your data system, we’ll get it to you in three seconds or less from any mobile device.”
We built that and put it in the market with no sales team. I was the revenue producer and my partner did the operational side. In a short period of time, we had 1,000 clients. We worked with a magnificent company organization called NCM, the leading automotive consulting firm in the country and in Canada, the inventors of the 20 Group. We worked together and were able to sign over 1,000 dealerships in a short period of time. This is an important thing for anybody who’s not running a company. Do you know how much money it costs us to create a good amount of eight digits revenue? It’s less than $25,000 in marketing to capture that much revenue and 1,000 clients.
Because we are a category greater and we had virtually zero churn, all of a sudden, I was getting calls. Everybody was interested in buying us. We ultimately sold to Reynolds and Reynolds and since then, I’ve gone down that path a couple of more times. I’ve got about six different independent software platforms, different companies that I own, products that are in beta or I’m developing or will be released. I also have Disruptive Growth Solutions, a boutique consulting firm where I surround myself with the smartest people like Brian Benstock out there at Paragon who’s the central thought leader for dealers across the country.
Losing Control: If you want to do well in life, you’ve got to do two jobs – the job you were hired to do and learning as much as you can about the next highest job.
Brian, myself, Jennifer Moor and a number of other spectacularly talented people. You probably know who Jay Abraham is. He is joining as a strategic adviser and we’re now partnering with Jay. He’s the highest-paid market consultant in the world. What we’re doing is we’re helping Jay to reimagine and digitize the content which has never been done before. We’re going to reimagine it, repurpose it and make it so much easier to assimilate and digest for people. Whether they’re in auto or not in auto so that they can leverage the same principles that have enabled the companies he’s worked with to generate nearly $100 billion in extra revenue. We’re bringing that to mobility transportation dealers as well as non-dealers.
That’s where I land now. I’m a private investor, advisor, a board member in a number of companies, and a partner in a number of companies like the four-star restaurant group called Michael Mina and a blockchain company in the entertainment space. We are also the seed investors in the first winery all started and owned by African-American women. These two amazing human beings have taken this concept and passion for wine and want to bring it out to everybody. Not just certain segments of the population but introduce it to everybody. In a few years, they’ve gone from 0 cases to nearly 350,000 cases. They’re absolute rockstars and we’re proud to work with them.
Last but not least, we represent or advise, or consult about twelve other technology solution companies. What we do with them, Chris, is we allow them to skip a lot of those hard lessons where you get your head caved in because you didn’t know right about certain things. You didn’t know how to negotiate for a capital raise or how to get the best terms on a capital raise. Also, what is the best way to grow your company out and scale it, what you need to know before you spend a bunch of money on the development or what you need to know about evolving your product? I’ll give you a short answer. I’m busy but I love what I’m doing. I love who I work with. I’m having to pick one. I love the car business. That’s my core. I’m hugely passionate about helping people to get from where they are to where they would like to be in whatever capacity I could do.
David, your growth is exponential. There are a lot of diversifications as you’re getting older. There’s so much wealth of knowledge behind you. When you tell your bird’s eye view of your growth, it’s large. You’ve diversified. Let’s get down to some of the details. First off, you talked about your dad being not the best and your mom being a single mom and then you developing into this partier. From partying, you got your diploma and then an immediate switched to going into the military. Through your military experience, you realized, “This tight niche quarter is not for me.”
You then dove into something that’s very controlled by you. What I’m getting at is these transitions in your life are interesting. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about it but it feels like you in your teens got to a point where you felt out of control. You needed to do something to get in control, which was your party. You then realize, “I’m possibly not going to go anywhere. I need to regain control. The military is a massive structure. I’m in.” When you realize again that you’re going to be put into this capsule, “I can’t control that. I’m controlled by everything they want me to do. I need out.”
You then went into the car industry, which is 100% up to you. Let’s dive deeper into this transition in your life to where now you have control of your surroundings. Were there times in these challenges where you came to these epiphanies of, “There’s some baggage here and it’s hard to make it to the next step? How do I get to the next step?” What I’m trying to get at is I want everybody reading to understand it. You’ve got a great success story. Where were the dark spots? What were you thinking? How did you come through them?
I failed myself in high school. I had a good brain and had the capacity to get As. That was not a problem but I also have the capacity to get B’s without trying and that was a revelation. Not necessarily a positive one but it was a revelation. That told me that I was smart enough to know that as I moved forward in my life in my 20s, 30s and 40s, nobody was going to pick up my science, English, and Math grades from my 2nd or 3rd-year high school and I go, “How come you were getting B’s back then? What happened to your grades? Why did you drop out?” Nobody digs. I thought, “I can start going out and having fun.”
When an opportunity comes along, you take the option out of their hand so that they have no other option but to give you that job.
You got to understand, I went from perennially being the smallest kid in the class every year. I was tiny. As I end my illustrious eighth-grade middle school career, I’m riding home on my bicycle. We had no money. We got whatever we got by whatever means we got but I did get this bike. I’m riding home. I don’t know if anybody out there is old enough to know when we didn’t have multi-speed bikes. We had a single-speed. When the chain came off, all of a sudden your pedals came off. You’d look down like, “What the?” I looked down to see what happened and when I looked up, there was a station wagon in front of me. I hit the back of the wagon and I had these sissy bars on my bike. I go flying through headfirst and into the back of that station wagon.
Right at the glass or the actual roofline?
That was a finder. Underneath there was a big metal thing that you used to roll down the window back then.
The hand crank.
The big metal piece was imprinted on my head like a Bugs Bunny cartoon in the back instantly. I was like, “I’m out here.” I’m knocked silly and I looked down and my bike was all jacked up. I walked home. I ended up having to go to the hospital. It ended up jarring a muscle loose in my eye and I ended up with double vision. That was my summer in between middle school and high school. Can you imagine what a hot commodity I was walking in as a freshman in high school? Also, the icing on the cake, I’m a member of the chess club. I’m less than 5’0” tall, 93 pounds with a pirate eyepatch in the chess club.
You were just looking to learn how to have tough skin. That’s what you were doing. That’s your journey in life.
There’s no, “Hello, ladies.” In my world, it was about survival. My childhood taught me to be resilient and tough because my dad was an incredibly dynamic, big personality, almost a farm boy football player build. He was incredibly menacing, the king of all narcissists, violent and not a nice man and not a good man. There is no shred of good. The best thing he ever did was leaving us. The way he left us is he called my brothers and sisters into the bedroom and he said, “Sit down.” We sit on the bed and he peers down at us. He says, “I want you to know that I’m leaving you because you’re cramping my style.” He walked out and that was that.
How old were you?
I was about ten years old. He had the indecency to do that and then somehow stand in our lives because he wanted to pick us up every other weekend. We got the benefit of waiting every other weekend to get picked up by this monster. He’s a bad man. He would call up during the week. We had one of those kitchens with the phone on the wall at that time with a long cord. There was no caller ID. It was just, “Surprise.” If it was him, the first thing you’d hear out of his mouth was a tear of expletives. “Where’s the bitch?”
Losing Control: When we got better information, better insight, and did a better job of sharing it across departmental lines, magic happened
My sister who was the oldest would do this thing, “Screw you.” I would take the phone and I’d go, “Alright.” It was him and then he would start ripping into me. He’d be calling my mom every name of the book. One time, by the grace of God, he did that. Without hesitation and without even thinking about it clearly, I said, “I’m not your messenger boy. Don’t you ever talk about my mom that way ever again.” His response was, “You are no longer my son. I’m disowning you.” From that point forward, every other weekend, he comes and he asks for four kids, not five. That’ll give you some resolve in life early on. That’ll teach you some resilience and some toughness.
For a little kid at that age with four brothers and sisters who were leaving and he would do his best as a master manipulator to take them, give them a great weekend and buy them things. I’d come home and I’d hear all about the ice cream and what they got and I didn’t. It forced me. You’d never know in life, Chris, why things happen necessarily at the moment. You don’t learn oftentimes or have it revealed to you what the purpose is until later. One of the purposes of that is it taught me resolve because I never wavered and I never coward. I never said, “Please take me back.”
I’m like, “That was the right thing to do. I’m not going to knock back my mom.” My brothers and sisters backed my mom, too. They were scared of the guy and should have been. That was an inflection point. The 5’0” tall, 93 pounds, eyepatch, a chess club was a bit of an inflection point. You walk into a huge school and you don’t know anybody or not a lot of people. Sure as hell I’m not the most popular kid in the world and less popular now. That little resolve, resiliency, and strength. I didn’t know it at the time. You don’t know it at that age. You just are trying to figure life out.
The next one was in my junior year in high school. One of the rites of passage for any high school kid is typically, they call you in and you get 1 hour or 0.5-hour with your guidance counselor who tries to steer towards the right university or the right path. Mine didn’t talk to me about which major. Mine didn’t say, “This is what your opportunities are.” Mine said, “I wouldn’t even bother if I was you. You’d be wasting your time. Don’t waste your time on college on trying to become something. You’d be better off getting a vocational job. In your senior year, enter ROTC and learn a skill like a copier repair person, air conditioning or something like that.”
What I learned at that time that I didn’t know but I learned what happened at that moment was this person was unilaterally making the decision to assess my life and my life’s potential in an instant. For a lot of kids, if somebody does that of authority and credibility, you’ll ruin those kids. You’ll destroy their spirit, hope and feeling of their confidence or potential. I’ve been down this road before with a person I called my dad. I’ve been down this road before when I was in the chess club and everybody was getting harassed. When that happened, by the grace of God, I never sanctioned it. I didn’t think, “My life’s over. That’s that.”
I did realize college was not in the cards for me. We had no money. There was no option for that. Because I had learned that I could fly through class getting B’s, I took myself out of the running. “I wasn’t going to get an academic scholarship or an athletic scholarship so checkmate. What do you do?” “I’ll just major in partying.” I did that through the rest of my high school years. I went to junior college and started doing that but I still partied. One day I said, “I don’t think this is going to end up well. My mom was working two jobs and going to college at night.” That’s what caused me to get in that car and drive. Something told me that if you don’t take control of the situation, nobody else will.
I’m so thankful for that and make no mistake, I learned the lesson. By the time I did a boot camp two weeks in, I was sitting there going, “I’ve learned my lesson. I’m ready to get out now.” I play it worst. Get comfortable in those crackerjack uniforms and get comfortable in that white polyester uniform and your black patent leather shoes because you’re not going anywhere. Through that, I thought, “What am I going to do now?” What do you do? You try to be able to make the best of it. I learned. My DNA is not made to be in this highly structured, controlled environment. Clearly, I hadn’t evolved as a human. I didn’t have the maturity to progress and do great things in a non-structured environment.
What do you do now? The non-structured was not going well and the structure didn’t play well for me. I understood how to play the game but that was not a good time. I put in my time and I got an honorable discharge like, “Jeez.” What it taught me is when I came out of there, I came out with being so resolute, Chris. I wanted to prove that my high school counselor was wrong. I served my country. I was proud of that and I’m still proud but I felt more like I did my time for the mistakes I have made, for the knuckleheaded behavior and for not respecting myself enough to keep my grades up.
What I learned is when I didn’t do that, I eliminated my options. What I learned through there and through the military is the most valuable thing that I can do for myself is put myself in a position for the rest of my life to own the options. It wasn’t about, “I got to make a lot of money. I need status.” I needed to be able to own the options for my own life and not have them dictated to me. That’s what I did. I went out and looked for a job. I fell into this job. There’s a classified ad that said, “Income up to $45,000, company car and a T&E account.” I thought, “I don’t have any of those three. That sounds like a good deal for David.”
I jumped into a taxi cab from the military base. They put you in out-processing barracks. I went down for the interview and I nailed that interview so much that I drove out of the interview in that company car. There was no follow-up interview. There was no process. There was no HR or whatever. He said, “Here are the keys to the car. It’s a baby blue Olds Cutlass parked in our parking lot. It had the padded top with the crushed velour blue interior.”
You feel like a million bucks rolling out of there.
We don’t get what we want. We get what we expect.
That was my entrance into the car business. That was when F&I departments didn’t exist and this was a company that helped create F&I departments. I took a job and I drove 50,000 to 60,000 miles a year. Instead of listening to the radio, the next inflection point, Chris, I made a decision. “I’m not educated. I’m a high school education. I’m not dumb. How am I going to go face-to-face with people that are of higher status, have more experience or have higher education?”
What did I do? University was out. That wasn’t in the cards for me. What I did is I tracked down college courses on cassette tape. I got as many as I could. While I’m driving those 5,000 or 6,000 miles a month, I was listening to the radio. I was in college. Whether it was something like higher-level Mathematics courses, Analytics, Statistics, Psychology, Human Behavior, Behavioral Dynamics or anything that I could get my hands on, I put it in that car and I immersed myself in education.
Through that, I was able to elevate myself above the other salespeople and I was able to focus. I learned through all of that, Chris, that if you want to do well in life, you’ve got to do two jobs. You got to do the job you were hired to do but you also need to learn as much as you can about the next highest job. When an opportunity comes along, you take the option out of their hand. There’s no other option but to give you that job. I worked as if I was getting paid a higher amount of money. I wasn’t one of those people that say, “If you pay me more, I’ll do more.”
I learned through learning and studying that if you’re making this and you want to make that, do this level of work and you’re going to force the issue so I did. I got to be a manager in under a year and that elevated my income. From there, I put my head down. By that time, I had two kids. I’m 27 years old and I have a brand new baby and a four-year-old. I’m working all the hours, six days a week. At 9:00 or 10:00 at night, I am outhustling, outrunning, outgunning, outlearning and outprepping everybody else. I put myself in that position.
I got restless and I thought, “Hmm.” It’s like those B grades. Not because I was brilliant but because the baseline was not that high. To be able to rise above the baseline is not as hard as people think. They get hung up on saying, “I got to be the star. I got to be in the top 1%.” No. Look at what the baseline is. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, go 10% to 25% above that and in the eyes of your employer, you’re a star. You’re a massive ROI because they’re paying for this ROI and they’re getting this. That’s what I did and I thought, “I was doing well.”
Losing Control: You elevate your culture, conviction as a team, and gross profit when you’re no longer selling price but selling value.
At that point, I’m making over $100,000. I’m 27 and I’m living in a farm town called Yuba City. I thought, “I got this.” What I learned is I love growing, managing, training, and elevating people. I thought, “I’m going to leave this nice job and this security and stability. I’m going to go out on my own and become a public speaker. That’s what I want to be.” By now, I started immersing myself in Denis Waitley, Brian Tracy, Zig Ziglar, Jim Rohn and all of the people. I thought, “I can do that,” so that’s what I did. I didn’t have enough money in the bank to pay three months of bills. I decided I’m going to do it so I did it. It was a poor decision, Chris, because I didn’t have enough money. I wasn’t well-capitalized enough. I put my family in harm’s way.
I was fortunate because I asked my family at the time. I was smart enough to do this. I said, “I’m not going into this to fail but if things don’t work out and we end up losing the house, going back to renting and having to downsize. Are we okay?” The answer I heard was yes and that’s all I needed to hear. What happened is I put ourselves in harm’s way because it took me longer to get to a point of income than I expected. The longer story was boring because of my vision, it availed me of the opportunities I would have never had.
I got the opportunity to get coached by Brian Tracy. I got the opportunity to work with Joe Verde when he was the biggest trainer on the planet and learn from him. I got the opportunity to get in front of different dealerships around the country. One of those stores is a Mercedes store in San Jose. They appreciated my approach, my work ethic, and the way I treated people. Out of the blue back in the day when we had pagers, I got a page one day, 911 to this area code, (408) 985-5200. That’s a Mercedes store.
I call them up and Michael Smith says, “I want you to come to work for me.” By that time, I’m a couple of years in. I’m traveling all over and I’ve got young kids at home. When you’re an entrepreneur, Chris, you’re the worst boss in the world. You can’t get time off. I was ready to get out of the road and I said, “Let’s talk.” I go down and long story boring, I ended up getting hired to be the sales manager. The inflection point, Chris, if I don’t take the risk on the public speaker, I never meet that person. I never get afforded that opportunity.
That store that I ended up becoming the president, general manager and dealer, I was able to take what I had learned about analytics and put it into a place where dealerships have never done it. Because I took that opportunity as a public speaker, I was able to put those things into place as well as leveraging some genius like Jay Abraham who I learned so much from. I learned how to go from being a manager to a leader because of the people that I worked for.
I learned at that point, Chris, how important it is to not answer an ad and go get interviewed but how important it is to make sure that you do two things if you’re going to think about a job. Number one, do not be the only person being interviewed. You need to interview the interviewer. Number two, the reason you do that is you have to decide carefully. Be selective about who you work for. As Marcus Buckingham, the great author, said in his trio books, “People go to work for companies but they quit their boss and it’s because the bosses are bad managers. They’re not great leaders.” Through all that, I learned the difference between the two.
I went into the store and while everybody at that store was working, everybody was just making enough. It was a country club environment, low-key. Like Jim Collins says in his opening sentence of Good to Great, “Good is the enemy of great.” In that store, good was good enough, Chris. I’m sitting there from outside looking in going, “What are you doing? Why aren’t you going for great? You’re in Silicon Valley. We’re not even in the top 25 in the country for Mercedes. What are we doing?” The inflection point, I got an idea. “I’m going to take every one of these salespeople and I’m going to make them like me. That will do it. I want them to have my methodologies, processes, urgency, personality and everything.” Do you know what happened? That was an epic failure.
Not only did it not boost the numbers but now, everybody hated my guts like, “You’re intense. I’m not you.” That’s when I learned the lesson of the difference between a manager and a leader. That’s when I learned not to turn them into me but to lead them and coach them to become the best version of them. All of a sudden, we went from a store selling 130 cars a month to selling 250, having more fun, making more money and everybody was happy. That culture was great but then I was thinking, “No, there’s more here.” I knew it wasn’t about technology. I knew it was about the people. How do I get people better information and better insight? How do I give them a competitive advantage?
Real wisdom is learning what counts, what matters.
I figured out at that time that the data management systems were atrocious. You could put data in all day long but they were like the roach motel where you could go in but you can’t come back out. Getting the data back out is not so easy. It’s difficult, cumbersome, slow, ineffective, and inefficient. I started building some reports and analytics based on what I learned, what I taught myself and what I had learned from these courses. All of a sudden, we started seeing a positive impact. The managers that worked with me that I was fortunate enough to work alongside and work with. I never like to say people work for me. We work together for a common purpose and common esprit de corps. We started noticing things.
When we got better information, better insight and did a better job of sharing it across departmental lines, magic happened and I did something else. I got introduced to Jay Abraham and I spent a ton of money going into his course, $25,000 to go to his summit. I came back and said, “We’re not spending money on advertising anymore. We’re going to change everything.” We became the only dealership in the country to abandon advertising. Do you know what happened, Chris? By implementing the ideas and the brilliance of Jay Abraham, we went from making $1 million a year in just about five years to $25 million a year.
We went from being inconsequential to being the single most profitable dealership in the history of the United States out of 21,000 stores. How? We got out of our box. We were willing to be innovative and we were willing to fail fast. We made the decision that we’re all in this together and we executed as flawlessly as we could. I provided the managers with a different approach and we shared information openly. We didn’t redact all the lines of the financial statement. Everybody from the technician on up had all the information. It’s completely open. We continue to elevate that phenomenal culture that was built by the patriarchs, Bill Smythe and Michael Smythe.
That’s how we grew. We just didn’t grow profitability. Our employee turnover was less than 3%. In an industry from 89% turnover to less than 3%. Our turnover, Chris, was lower than the companies in Silicon Valley that we’re handing out stock options like they were sticky gum. I learned. We didn’t spend our money on advertising. Instead, we redeployed it and gave it to nonprofits in the nineteen ZIP codes we serve. By doing that, we elevated our culture, our conviction as a team and our gross profit because we were no longer selling price. We were selling value. We were selling something we called, “Why Smythe?” Why do you want to buy from us instead of somebody else? We were moving away from being commoditized.
Through that lesson, it taught me, “If we could do it there, why can’t we replicate that?” We decided to sell the store to AutoNation, the biggest auto dealer in the world. Overnight, I go from being a car guy to a corporate guy because they pulled me out of the store and said, “Could you do this over here? We want to give you this entire region, 35 stores because the gentleman running it was going through cancer treatments and needed a stem cell.” Unbelievably, a lovely guy named Tim Pring. They said, “Help us out until he gets through his stem cell.” We did so well and they said, “You’re not going back to the dealership.” Now, I was an executive for AutoNation.
What did we do? We deployed the same principles and the same methodologies. We executed the vision but we also adhered to the framework that AutoNation gave us. We went from being the lowest-performing region out of ten. The next thing you know, we’re the highest performing out of ten. It showed that you could do it. You could replicate this. My career at AutoNation came to an end at the end of ‘07 and decided, “Let’s create a software platform that could provide the same insight but instead of a single dealership with over 100 spreadsheets, let’s create something. Let’s leverage the cloud,” which just came into being. “Let’s produce something that would allow any dealership to be able to do the same thing if they execute it.”
That’s what we did and we became the single largest, most dominant reporting and analytics platform in the country. We then sold it to Reynolds and Reynolds. Each time, you notice these inflection points always include a number of things like obstacles, choice and decision, this way or this way. Sometimes you choose right. Sometimes you have to go up to the next wall and then you get a choice again. Learning, evolution, reinvention, execution and repeat.
While there are people that are younger, smarter and faster than I am, I have learned that those statistics on the back of the baseball card, I may reach those. It’s your work ethic, drive, persistence, passion, commitment, dedication, discipline, willingness to work hard, put in the work, ability to evolve from a manager to a leader and ability to be open to reinventing. When I was coming up on 50, I didn’t say, “I’m into the sunset of my career and I’m just going to get a job wherever I get a job.” No. “I’m going to do something different. Let’s be a software company.” Ever since then, it’s turned into more inflection points where I’ve said, “If I can do that, why can’t I do this?”
Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t
There are a lot of things in this. To talk a little bit about what I’m seeing here, there are a lot of times where your trajectory changes. You come back and you get a different perspective on life or where you’re at, which is massively important. Getting that different vision or that different perspective when you’re looking at these obstacles, you have to have that in place. If you can’t have that place, honestly, in my opinion, the work ethic goes out the window.
If you can’t take your failure and look at it as a win because it allows you the opportunity to redirect your drive or your focus then you’re going to work yourself to death. Whereas you were able to take a step back and say, “I’m going to look at this from a different perspective. I understand where I was. I know what issues I had, what challenges I had, even what industry I wasn’t feeling comfortable in certain aspects of my path. I’m going to redirect and I’m going to go this way because I know that this way suits what I have learned in my immediate past.”
Think about it this way. If we all say, “All of our lives are analogous to a book. This is nothing new.” People say, “You’ve got different chapters in your life. You got your childhood years and your formative years and you go on from there.” To your point, Chris, you’re spot on because if you get hit with an obstacle or if you stop evolving or stop reinventing or you run into a wall and you make a wrong choice. You sit there and go, “That’s it.” You’ve just changed the chapter into the ending. Do you understand?
It doesn’t matter if you’re 12 years old or 80 years old. You can be 80 years old and still keep writing chapters like you’re writing war and peace. We’re not even close to done. You’re writing a book and a book because you’re not done. There are more chapters. You could also go to the other end of that spectrum and be 20 or 25 with massive upside, massive potential, great intellect and great ideas. Because you hit that obstacle and you decided, “I don’t think I’m going to work any harder,” or, “That’s it,” you just ended your book.
You constantly hear that thing of, “When life gives you lemons.” Everybody’s like, “You make lemonade.” My thing is when life gives you lemons, tell life to go pound sand because life doesn’t dictate what I get. I dictate what I get. My perception, perspective, and drive.
Who said that the options are either lemons or lemonade? Why can’t the option be, “Lemons aren’t my thing? I’m not down with the lemons. I’m going to go with orange. I’m going to go with apple.”
Sure as hell I’m not going to waste my time making lemonade if I don’t like lemons.
Why? There are some things that I’ve learned in my life. I know this. Wisdom comes from experience and in those experiences where it comes from is making mistakes. It comes from stumbling, falling, getting back up, reinventing and learning. One of the things you learn is, why does anybody let anybody else define them? Why do we as human beings have this tendency when things happen to us that we take them on as if they are us?
Zig Ziglar talked about something that’s never left my brain. “David, failure is an event, not a person.” I never thought about that before. It was a turning point and a flexion point because up until then, I thought when I failed, I was the failure. It never occurred to me that what I was attempting to do was a failure, not me. What that did is it was such a dramatic pivot in my brain. It refocused and reenergize me and I said, “I got handed a piece of the puzzle and I can have my book go in a different direction. It turns out that I’m not one chapter from the end of my potential. It turns out I can reinvent. It turns out when things don’t work out, as long as you don’t give up, not to sound trite, you’re still in the game. As long as you’re still in the game, you’re in the game. Anything can happen.
Everything else is somebody trying to tell you to think a certain way or try to convince you that you need this product desperately.
I’ve learned a lot, Chris, through those experiences. The same thing personally. My marriage ended after almost 21 years. Coming from a family like I did where it was so traumatizing, you think I would never get married but that’s not the way my brain thought. My brain thought was, “When I get married, no matter what, I’m going to stay married. I am going to be married longer than my parents. I’m going to prove that.” It was good news, a bad news story because I did stay married longer than my parents but I didn’t stay married. It didn’t work out.
What I also learned from my father, little did he know in all those years that despite everything that happened and everything he did to wreak havoc on our household in every way imaginable. He never paid $1 of alimony. He never set a good example. What he did though, Chris is he taught me everything not to do. He taught me to do the opposite as a husband and as a parent. That’s exactly what I did. It may sound weird and even preposterous but I oftentimes thought of my dad when I was in situations. I wasn’t thinking what Jesus would do. I was thinking, “What would my dad do? I’m going to do the opposite.”
I hug my kids every day. I taught my kids that if you mess up, as long as you share it with me or share it with us, it’s all good. We’ll figure it out together. If you’re not going to share, you’re on your own. I can’t be on your team if you’re doing that. You’re saying I’m not on your team. I learned to do unconditional love. I learned when my kids got older, not to force them to be like me. I learned to start loving what they do. I went from skiing to snowboarding because snowboarders didn’t like to hang out with skiers. If that’s what it took to hang with my boy, no problem. I’m strapping on a snowboard, I’ll fall on my ass, break my wrist or do whatever I’ve got to do but I’m going your way.
I learned with my daughter not to force her to go to concerts that I loved. Instead, I subjected myself to every boy band who’s ever been on the face of this Earth and it was horrible music-wise. Relationship-wise, Chris, experientially, it was the best thing I ever did. Because of that, my goal as a parent was a simple one. By the time I release my kids out to the wild, 1 of 2 things is going to happen. They’re going to visit me on holidays and on my birthday or call me because that’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s the perfunctory stuff. I wanted my kids by the time they were released in the wild to want to have a relationship, want to hang out and want to grow up together. I’m fortunate, that’s what happened.
It’s your transition from where you were to where you are. There is no ending. There’s no sun setting from the sound of it. You specifically have hit it on multiple touchpoints throughout your conversation that we’re ultimately in control of our life. We manifest what is going to happen. We dictate who gets what, when gets what and how we receive it. A lot of the time, what you find in life, in business and in conversations is people react to an emotional decision or an emotional trauma in their life. Whereas instead of you being a statistic and reacting to that emotional trauma, you’ve allowed yourself to redesign the way you’re going to react to those aspects in life such as, “What would my dad do in this situation? I’m going to do the opposite.”
Not because it’s an immediate reaction. It’s an actual cognitive process. You’ve stopped those trains in your brain or that amygdala response of, “This is what I’ve always done,” or, “This is my emotional reaction to this.” You stopped and you said, “No. What would my dad do in this situation?” It brought you to not only being a successful businessman but also brought you to be innovative and be a great father. You were trying to prove a point but at the same time, it brought you along with a marriage that allowed you that experience of having those children to develop that relationship, which I can attest to myself. I’ve been in many situations like that but at the end of it all, it’s fantastic.
My ex-wife and I have always been amicable. There was no War of the Roses, disaster, fighting, vitriol or anything. We didn’t each get an attorney. We had one attorney as an arbitration person. We worked it out ourselves because we were respectful until the end. That allowed me to have the ability to go through a transition that was already hard enough. Whenever you go through the trauma of saying, “Those twenty years didn’t work out. That’s a little rough.” It allowed me to have space and the freedom to be able to focus on getting myself back to my center. Not to sound too Zen-like.
Losing Control: Sometimes you choose right. Sometimes you have to go up the next wall and get a choice again. Learning, evolution, reinvention, execution, and repeat.
Oftentimes in relationships, we don’t realize how far away from our center we go. “We start out. Let’s be honest.” It started out of love, “You’re full of crap.” You didn’t even know the person. You didn’t know what they thought of. You didn’t know their ideology. Are you serious?” No, we fall fast. We fall into hope, lust and interest all by that. As you learn about that person, you fall in love with the whole person. It’s that unconditional but you fall in love with the whole person. I got to get back to center and I had no desire to date. I felt like Austin Powers. I haven’t dated in more than 21 years. Everything changed.
The world is my canvas.
I got married at 22 or 23 but when I was a kid, everything was different. The ideology, environment, styles and everything were different. Having to relearn how to date, what a pain. It was brutal. I had no desire to date. I tried. I went on to Match.com for about three weeks and I was like, “This is no good.” What I got from Match.com is I wanted to become part of their community guidelines. If I was, I would have said, “We need to have some rules. Your picture should look like you. We start there. Your profile should be accurate. Your profile should be written by your friends and not by you so that we have a completely honest assessment. We’d all be better off, not just one gender or the other.
I’m thankful because at least they got me out of the house. It got me to step outside and go, “Maybe this is something interesting.” I learned I didn’t like dating at all, not even a little bit. I’m not trying out your play. I’m not trying to impress you. I like to get to know somebody and if it works out, it works out. Honestly, if it ended up with us becoming friends, that’s a win in my book. Anything more than that is icing on the cake. I’ve gotten to the point where I was like, “I’m good being single.” Single is not alone. I had two great kids. I have a great family. I had four brothers and sisters. I had a successful business and a lot of friends. I wasn’t ever alone.
A dear friend of mine, by him, I ended up getting introduced to my beautiful wife. If I would have met her the first time, we’d be married for the duration. By the grace of God and again inflection point, things that you think are obstacles and that are traumatic at the moment are part of that whole process of reinventing. It’s allowing you to have accessibility for the first time to that what you were intended to have even though you didn’t know it.
I always put it into an archer’s perception where you’re the arrow. A lot of people think when we start going backward in life, we’re failing or we’re running into all these obstacles but we’re not. We’re like the arrow. God, the world, the universe or whatever you want to call it takes us backward and they’re teaching us a lesson. They’re teaching us that tension and that hard truth and then they’ve set us free. We’re so far ahead of where we were that we look back and go, “That was a good experience,” but it’s all about that perception during that time.
I love that analogy. We’re not only getting thrusted ahead but probably for the first time in a long time, we have the potential to be on target based on your analogy. The truth is we don’t get what we want. We get what we expect. For a lot of people, they don’t understand that they are self-fulfilling prophecies. Their brain is steering the column. It’s because it’s not in your conscious mind, it doesn’t mean that’s not true. Your subconscious cannot tell the difference and cannot discern between physical and non-physical. That’s why when people put VR on and then they start climbing, what do you see them do? Look up VR man falling over. Type it in Google and you’ll see a guy climbing on the mountain in a shopping mall and all of a sudden, he falls down. It is subconscious in his mind that he’s climbing that mountain.
It’s like the definition of faith, substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Our mind doesn’t know that fact from fiction. We can tell ourselves every single day that we’re losing or we’re failing. You’re going to fail. You’re going to lose. You’re going to hit that bottom. When your thinking is right, the facts don’t count. I say that 100%.
Like the software I developed, I got fatherhood 2.0. I’m much more chill and confident. I’m much wiser as a parent. More than anything else, most importantly, I’m much more reverent as a parent because I don’t take one day, one age, one milestone for granted. I share with my wife, I said, “Things are going to be exhausting.” There’s going to be things with an infant, a baby, a toddler, with terrible twos that you’re going to go, “This is killing me. This is annoying.”
It’s a lie. They got to four. It’s terrible fours.
Just because something is not in your conscious mind doesn’t mean it’s not true.
I said, “I promise you, every one of those things, you’re going to miss one day. I promise you’re going to miss getting woken up in the middle of the night and picking that baby up. You’re going to miss that last time that you changed a diaper. You’re going to miss the last time they go and grab for your finger.” The thing is the universe never goes, “I want you to know that this is the last time he’s ever going to grab your finger. This is the last time he’s ever going to call you daddy. This is the last time he’s going to want to do whatever.” This time, I have reverence for that. I’m not missing a thing. There’s a great Japanese expression that I don’t know in its original language but its translation is, “Each moment, only once.” As simple as that is, think about that.” That’s it.
When you’re in front of the next person you’re in front of, once. When you’re a dad, once. That particular moment, once. That opportunity to impart wisdom, once. Will you have other opportunities? Yes, but it won’t be that one. Over time, I’ve learned to have so much reverence, to be more sensitive to the human condition, to understand much more the power that I have to leave somebody better than I found or worse than I found. To understand the difference between managing and leading. To understand the difference between being a dad and a father, between being a husband and a great partner. It’s context.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve gotten the gift of context and perspective. Through that, I’ve been given the choice. Anytime that anybody in life is offered context or perspective, think about it. Within that is a choice. If you’re offered two different perspectives, choose. If you could do that and be open-minded, be willing to learn, be willing to be self-deprecating. Hopefully, over time, what happens for all of us is the real wisdom is learning what counts and what matters. I have a good resume. I have a bio that a lot of people say, “You got an impressive bio.” Don’t be impressed by my bio. I hope you’d be impressed with how I am as a person.
In Clubhouse, I said to somebody that a lot of people these days want to grow up and be famous and sell out an arena. I want to sell out my funeral. I’ve been to a funeral before where you couldn’t get into the pews. You couldn’t get in the aisles. You couldn’t get into the vestibule. People were pouring outside. For an hour, I saw one person after another because they had to say a word on behalf of this person. I imagined that if I could live that life, what an impact not only does that mean you’ve had on people in your life but what message does that send your kids?
As I tell my kids, everything else is marketing. Everything else is somebody trying to tell you to think a certain way or try to convince you that you need this product desperately. You watch the psyche that we think that this is more important at the moment. This is what’s going to make us happy. This is what’s going to make a difference. This is what’s going to unleash our potential. This is what’s going to matter and you learn over time.
“I’ll be happy, when.”
It’s do, be, have and have, do, be, “If I could do this and then I could do this then I’ll be happy.” No. You could be happy. It’ll enable you and unleash you to do this and then you’re going to have what it is that you seek. That person isn’t seeking stuff. They’re seeking substance. In life, I’m not done. I’m not a huge Broadway guy but I’ve seen some Broadway plays that had an impact on me and one was Rent. It’s somebody who grew up and spent a lot of time in San Francisco who lost somebody early on to AIDS. The other one that was impactful was Hamilton. It’s the story of Alexander Hamilton, which made no mistake. They fined tuned some things. They changed a few things. They even embellished a couple of things but the story remains the same.
Losing Control: Who said that the options are either lemons or lemonade? Why can’t the option be oranges and apples if lemons aren’t your thing.
The financial system that we use now, that guy created it singularly. That guy without a formal education, that guy who was the son of, as it says in the play, a horrendous Scotsman. That guy who had no money who was below the poverty level, that guy who was an immigrant rose up and came to this country with a singular focus and passion to want to fight for this country that he wasn’t even born in. He wanted to make a difference and he outworked and outhustled everybody. If you ever watch that play or listen to it, you’ll hear something recurring and it’s Alexander Hamilton saying, “There are a million things I haven’t done but just you wait.”
If we all have that conviction, compassion and that understanding that whether you’re 10 or 80 years old, all of us have a million things we haven’t done. If we have that approach like the kid, “Just you wait.” You remember when you were a kid and somebody said, “Chris, you get that.” “You just wait. I’m not done yet.” That’s my view of the world. There are a million things I want to do to have a positive impact on this planet, on my kids, on my wife and my friends. Hopefully, I got more time to do that. If you ask my wife, as he says in that play, I will work like I’m running out of time. I’m not taking it for granted. I don’t know if I’m going to be here tomorrow, next week or next year.
Time we definitely can’t get back.
You get one shot. I appreciate you having me on for a lot of reasons. First of all, purely for the invitation and for the interest. I also have to thank you because there are some things that you brought to the surface. In our day-to-day lives, one of the things that you’re doing, which is a service and is a great thing on two levels is you’re causing the person in this seat here to go, “I haven’t thought about that in about 40 years.” You go backward and think why that happened the way it happened. For a lot of us, that may be the first time that we went, “Now I understand what happened.” The second reason is as we’re having those epiphanies, realizations and revelations, hopefully, the people that are reading goes, “I can get something out of that.” You’re doing a real service and you did a real service for me. I thank you.
I appreciate what you said. Full disclosure, my wife has hit me over the head. By the grace of perception, understanding and willingness to change, my perspective has been through a lot of unveiling in my life. Also, understanding a lot of the impact that history and our amygdala responses have guided our life. The deeper root of understanding is getting down to releasing our expectations in life, being able to be in the present and being able to understand that we are our manifesters. Whether you’re biblical or whether you’re not, it is biblical.
In the Bible, it specifically said, “It’s harder for a rich man to get to heaven than it is to put a camel through the eye of a needle.” The reason for that is because God, in biblical terms, has given people the ability to manifest their future. When a rich man, per se, is understanding the manifestation of his life, he feels that he needs no longer God. “No longer do I need Christ because I don’t need him for anything. I’ve got it all. I know how to make it happen.” Whereas if we can understand and use that for good, per se. If we live in our presence, we find our joy and we dive back into what has happened in our lives, we can get to the point where we’re okay with it all and truly be blissful.
This isn’t new. I didn’t make this up. I have a few original thoughts. If you live long enough on this Earth, you’re going to have things past your years.
You learn from others.
On social media, stop worrying about your bios. Stop worrying about the likes. Stop worrying about the comments. They’re poison and misleading at the end of the day. They are moving you away or pulling you away from the best version of you. I’m not talking about legitimate influencers that leverage those things to make a living. God bless you. Do what you’re doing. I’m saying for the typical those of us in social media, those things, you’re taking that platform and moving it from being a tool or an enhancement to a weapon. You’re taking that platform and allowing somebody to either like you or the fact that somebody didn’t respond define you.
If I walk up and I say nothing to you, would you let that have an impact on you? No. I walked by you. You don’t even know me. If I’m physically walking down the street and you’re standing there at a building looking through a window, I stand through the building looking at the same window, looking at the same clothing that you’re looking at, you’re going, “It’s nice.” I walk away. I didn’t like your thought. I didn’t dislike it. I didn’t say, “Great taste what you said about that outfit.” I like the way you think. I didn’t give you a physical like, a verbal like or a verbal comment. I didn’t say, “I overheard what you said about that outfit. I’m going to share it with five people.” Do you understand how ridiculous this whole concept is?
We’ve been poisoned by genius algorithms that have sucked you in and made you want to look ten times now to see, “Did somebody else like this? I hope they did.” If they didn’t, some people go, “Whatever.” Other people go, “Nobody likes me.” When you talk about what you said there, when you have success and you understand, you didn’t have everything to do with it. You had something to do with it, 100%, celebrate it. Give yourself credit. You didn’t have everything to do with it. You had people that put you in a position to do that. You had something bigger than you. Oftentimes, it puts you in a position to do that.
When you see people grow and achieve success in humility, all that means is they didn’t lose the sense of themselves. They didn’t lose their core. They didn’t lose their acknowledgment that it wasn’t just them that did this. We don’t know because they’ll never tell us. One of the most brilliant brains in the last century is Elon Musk. He helped to create and launch Tesla, Solar, SpaceX and Neuralink where he’s allowing people to control things with their mind thinking. It’s unbelievable. By the way, in his free time, he’s working on eliminating childhood cancer. If that’s not a multi-generational brain, I don’t know what it is.
We don’t know who or whom, multiple, may have unleashed all of that in the world. It wasn’t simply by his own doing. When you think about that, that also means that the next person you meet and you leave them better than you found and you’re a leader and not a manager, you might be releasing the next Elon Musk, Mother Teresa, Sara Blakely or whoever out there in the world, a person you admire. Sometimes it’s great to quiet your brain and think about some of those things because we tend to get busy in our lives. The one thing none of us have enough of is time. We oftentimes put ourselves last. We don’t take the time to get into solace and think.
David, it’s been a good conversation. I appreciate it. Maybe we could do a segment two.
For sure. Apologetically, I have to go. On the other side, the last thing I want is to put people into a coma. You probably have plenty of David or what comes out on my brain. I’m appreciative. It is my sincere hope that I’ve provided value or a service to you and to anybody nice enough to give their time to read this. I certainly would invite you. Hopefully, we’ll stay connected. Who knows? Maybe we’ll have an opportunity for a sequel at some point. If anybody wants to reach out to me via LinkedIn, Instagram or any one of those other algorithmically-driven systems platforms, please do so.
You’re a great man. It’s been great to speak with you. Anybody that even has that small thought in their head, it would be beneficial for them to do so and reach out to you. You got a lot of experience and a lot to learn from. I appreciate it, David. I look forward to our next segment or staying in touch. Thank you so much.
David Spisak is currently the President/CEO of ReverseRisk, a web-based analytics program used by dealers to help manage their operations. David founded ReverseRisk in 2008 and sold it to Reynolds and Reynolds in 2016. He has worked with the owners of many leading groups to help them use data to optimize their performance and evaluate acquisition opportunities.
David also has 27 years in retail automotive management where he ran single point stores and large groups. He was the operator at Smythe European, a Mercedes-Benz dealership, that generated $23.7M in net profit in a single year, the record for the most profitable dealership anywhere in the US. Smythe European also achieved an industry low 3% employee turnover, #1 rank in fixed ops gross profit and top 10 in used cars and F&I.
Later David joined AutoNation where he was responsible for managing a $2.3 billion, 35 store region with over 3,500 associates. He won AN’s top honor for guiding his market to becoming the highest performing in the entire country.
David’s front line experience and work with groups of varying sizes has given him a unique perspective on what works today in our industry, how conditions are changing, and what leading dealers are doing to prepare for the future and how they are creating sustainable success in any economy.
David has been invited to present to over 100+ 20 Groups in addition to hundreds of privately owned dealerships and groups.