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How I Made It: David M. Conant

An enthusiasm for cars drives dealer to the top

August 31, 2008|Ken Bensinger | Times Staff Writer

The gig: Chief executive of Conant Auto Retail Group, which manages eight car dealerships and is based in Newport Beach. Majority owner of all eight dealerships, including Norm Reeves Honda in Cerritos, the top-volume Honda store in the country and, by most accounts, the world. Combined, the Conant dealerships sell about 25,000 vehicles a year. Conant Auto Retail Group has about 900 employees.

His background: Grew up in Fond du Lac, Wis., about an hour north of Milwaukee. His father owned a motorcycle dealership before expanding into car sales. Conant's first job was as a mechanic in his father's shop when he was 13.

Education: The son of a trained biologist father and brother of a college professor, Conant is the first person in his immediate family not to finish college. He got his high school diploma and studied for several semesters at Los Angeles Valley College before following his brother's advice to "go out and do what I already knew I wanted to do: automobiles."

First car: A 1957 Chevy in bad condition that he fixed up, followed by a 1963 Corvette split-window coupe, also in need of work.

Personal: Conant, 57, lives in Newport Beach with his wife, Cassie, and three daughters, 17, 14 and 12. A son, 22, graduated from New York University this year.

Big break: Conant came to California in 1970, but after a five-year stint as a mechanic at a Chevy dealership in the Valley, he went back to Wisconsin, where he helped at his father's dealership. In late 1983, however, he came back to L.A., new wife in tow, and, after several months, persuaded the general manager at Norm Reeves Honda to give him a shot as a salesman on a trial basis. In just 17 days of work, Conant sold more cars than all but one employee.

On loyalty: After getting a foot in the door, he jumped around a lot, working at another Honda dealership before returning to Norm Reeves as general sales manager. Then he left to run a Hyundai dealership before going back to Norm Reeves again as general manager, in charge of all dealer operations, including service and sales. "Bouncing around was normal. You had to look for the opportunities where they were," he said.

A piece of the action: As general manager, Conant began slowly acquiring a stake in the dealership, reaching 100% in 1995. "I wanted security for my family, but I also didn't want to be in a position where they could send me down the road."

Why California? "As an automotive enthusiast, it always seemed that California was the center of the universe," Conant said. "In Wisconsin, people drive cars because they have to. Here they do it because it's part of who they are."

Downtime: Conant keeps a small fleet of collector cars, including a 1966 Mini Cooper that he occasionally drives to work (when he isn't driving a current model Honda, Infiniti, Acura, Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Toyota, Scion or Lexus borrowed from his dealerships). He is an avid skier, and he and his wife maintain a family foundation that helps fund public education. A travel buff, he takes the family on a big trip every summer. Next year is Europe. "We're hoping like heck the dollar will rebound a little bit by then," he said.

Eternal optimist: Conant hopes to expand further. "Who knows? A year from now, a Ford dealership you could buy on the cheap today might have been a really great opportunity."

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ken.bensinger@latimes.com

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