In the mid-1950s and 60s, Southern California emerged as the car capital of the world. It was an unprecedented time for the automotive industry. Every year, Detroit introduced totally new and radically different models – with larger fins, more chrome and multi-color paint jobs. Each one, a more dynamic and exciting dream machine than the year before.
While this era produced some of the all-time best-looking cars in the 100-year history of the automobile industry, Southern California not only took notice – it took charge.
Great year-round weather and an expansive freeway system certainly helped, but so did a number of significant individuals and relevant factors.
EARLY DAYS OF A LEGEND
Southern California’s automotive fame flourished thanks to many people. While creative genius George Barris was creating news with amazing customized cars for Hollywood stars, the world’s most famous classic car collectors – like Robert Petersen, Peter Mullin and J.B. Nethercutt – began looking to Southern California for their museums.
During this period, a young Paul Rusnak also began looking to determine his future role in the great American Dream. Born in Czechoslovakia during the Great Depression, he immigrated to the U.S. with his family and even as a boy, he saw the unlimited opportunities that the American democracy afforded. He knew he could achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination and initiative – and it is where his dream began.
Eventually eyeing the potential for auto sales in Southern California, he opened his first dealership in May 1959. Just seven years later, on June 21, 1966, he purchased the Chrysler-Plymouth dealership in Pasadena and so began the iconic Rusnak brand.
While Detroit and most other major auto manufacturers from around the world began relocating their design headquarters to Southern California – which now numbers 15 of the biggest and most famous domestic and foreign brands – Rusnak too began aligning his dealerships with the biggest and most famous names in luxury automobiles.
Today and 52 years later, like Southern California itself, the Rusnak name and brand has become synonymous with automobiles and dominates sales all throughout Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Ventura Counties, with 17 different luxury dealerships featuring brands such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Jaguar, Land Rover, Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Volvo, Genesis, Hyundai, and Karma.
We recently had an opportunity to sit down with Southern California automotive icon Paul Rusnak to discuss his views and involvement here in the car capital of the world and the auto industry of yesterday, today and tomorrow.
AUTO INDUSTRY CHANGES
“I’ve represented 32 automotive brands since 1959,” Rusnak begins, “and I’ve been deeply involved with many auto manufacturers, both American and European… and now Asian as well.”
When asked for his views on the shift from American made to increasing global competition, he observes, “After World War II, American automobile manufacturers dominated the industry… and through post-WWII reconstruction programs, America began helping European and Japanese manufacturers rebuild with new state-of-the-art factories.”
“When these countries, primarily Japan and Germany, incorporated modern technology and robotics into manufacturing,” he continues, “their advances made the American automobile industry suffer due to an increasing number of quality issues that ultimately impacted domestic consumer confidence and bolstered Euro/Asian acceptance.”
He notes that German and Japanese manufacturers subsequently established new factories in the USA, employing non-union labor to build their new fuel-efficient, smaller cars – and that effectively competed against America’s union-controlled automobile manufacturers, many of which continued producing their larger, gas-guzzling models.
“However,” Rusnak adds, “it was innovative leaders like Lee Iacocca who saved the American automotive market by introducing ‘K-Cars’ for Dodge, Plymouth and Chrysler that sold over 2 million cars from 1981 to 1989… and also the minivan, that still reigns today.”
ENTER A NEW TYPE OF BUYER
Asked to comment on the Internet, which has changed America’s buying habits in so many ways, Rusnak offers a surprisingly cool and calm response and analysis that has obviously lead to his Auto Group’s status as the number one luxury auto brand in Southern California.
He starts by noting that it all comes down to understanding the “nature” of today’s better educated consumer. “Of course the Internet has changed the buying habits of the consumer. But more so, it is to gain product knowledge and, when it comes to larger purchases such as automobiles, it is not necessarily for shopping convenience, especially in the luxury segment.”
He notes that the U.S. consumer is an impulse buyer, preferring to select from a dealer’s showroom models and purchase from on-site inventory, rather than ordering and waiting for delivery, which is a rare occurrence.
“This is why we have built large state-of-the-art luxurious dealerships that beautifully display all the models,” Rusnak states. “It allows them to bring all they have learned by researching the Internet ‘to life’ with the exciting touch, feel and smell of a new car that only a visit to an auto showroom can provide.”
He also notes the unique value of being a Co-Founder of the prestigious DREAMS magazine. “It has great impact both in recognition and enhancing the reputation of the Rusnak brand,” he notes. “Customers are truly impressed when they see the consolidation and scope of luxury brands we represent being featured in such an upscale publication.”
“We love an educated consumer,” he adds, “it makes our job easier and these new ‘car-smart’ buyers better understand the obvious benefits of having their new cars professionally serviced by our qualified staff all throughout their ownership cycle.”
PICKING THE FAVORITES
Of the 32 automotive brands he has represented since 1959, and others he’s seen come and go over the years, we asked which were his favorites.
After a moment of reflection, Rusnak says, “The iconic Porsche 911 has to rank as the number one all-time sports car. Its life cycle is unprecedented in the automotive industry and it has built the Porsche brand into what it is today.”
Taking his observation just a bit further, we note that the Porsche 911 he favors is an absolutely incredible model – and like no other. As for basics, it is an ultra-sporty, two-door, high-performance, rear-engine classic German design that was first introduced in Stuttgart in 1963. It has since endured, with only minor change, as one of the world’s most sought after measures of sophistication and affluence for more than 55-years.
Like Paul Rusnak himself, it has reigned as a true automotive icon for over five decades and for more than a half-century from 1963 to 2018.
Rusnak then adds, “As for the best designed car… I would say it is the Jaguar XKE Roadster.”
“Another timeless classic,” he continues, “is the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing.” Proving his point, and admiration, an incredibly pristine 1955 300SL silver Gullwing, valued at $1.3 million, sits on the showroom floor in his Mercedes-Benz of Arcadia dealership location. It is a must-see classic. This showroom also features another limited edition Rusnak favorite, a McLaren Mercedes SLR worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars as well.
When asked which other famous cars – from the classics of the early 1900s – are his favorites, he answers, “All of them. The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles has one of the finest eclectic car collections. The Mullin Automotive Museum, by Peter Mullin, in Oxnard and the Nethercutt Museum in Sylmar also rank among my favorites. And my friend, Jay Leno, with his Big Dog Garage in Burbank, is simply a unique and fun collection. Can’t choose… I love them all.”
Rusnak does not hesitate to pass on the basics of his past success and what it takes to sustain as a leader in a given field.
“I located my dealerships in prime markets,” he begins. “Obviously, I would not build multi-million dollar facilities for luxury brands in an area that the demographics would not warrant.”
“I then built an organization with ongoing training programs and what we call Rusnak University. It teaches standards and guidelines from which we do not, and will not, deviate,” he states emphatically. “We do this to consistently and professionally deliver the best customer experience. Period.”
Some of which includes attracting and employing the finest automotive professionals in the industry, respecting customers by meeting and exceeding their needs and expectations, and creating a positive impact through community involvement, social responsibility, and charity.
“Our success is due to attention to detail and employee retention,” he notes, “and my motto is ‘employees are equally as important as our customers’.”
Rusnak Auto Group dealerships are also consistently ranked among the very best in management and customer satisfaction. They are repeat recipients of the Mercedes-Benz “Best-of-the-Best” Award, the BMW “Center of Excellence,” Porsche’s “Premier Dealer,” the “Pride of Jaguar,” a Volvo “Dealer of Distinction,” the Audi “Magna Society,” and many others.
Rusnak’s passion for business excellence carried over into making investments in the auto industry and beyond. He is the largest shareholder – owning nearly 18% – of Sonic Automotive Group, a Fortune 500 company that is the fifth largest automotive retailer in the United States.
On a more personal level, Paul Rusnak has received the “Outstanding Business Leader” Award from Northwood University and the AIADA “Dealer of Distinction” Award, and has chaired a number of industry and charitable organizations such as the International Aids Research Hospital and Foundation. Rusnak was Chairman of Chrysler Corporation President’s Council, where dealers were one of five founding members of the “Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Restoration” program. In 2016, Rusnak received an honorary Doctorate of Humanities degree from SIAS International University at Zhengzhou in the Province of Henan – one of China’s most prestigious universities.
IF YOU CAN DREAM IT…
For young entrepreneurs, Paul Rusnak’s advice centers around two words: “Hard Work.”
Elaborating further, he adds, “It begins with aspiring to wanting something and then actually executing what is necessary to achieve that goal. That’s where the hard work comes in.”
“First, you have to learn in your skills,” he continues. “You’ve got to acquire the skills necessary, in whatever the field may be, and then you have to commit yourself to it. And still, there’s no substitute for hard work.”
In conclusion, he adds, “You have to be a dreamer.” Walt Disney is known to have said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Paul Rusnak’s best advice for people today? With a knowing smile, that only comes from experience, he simply says, “Dream it… and begin your quest.”
Owned and operated by the Rusnak family, the Rusnak Auto Group offers customers a higher standard in products and services. Prestigious brands include Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Jaguar, Land Rover, Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Volvo, Genesis, Hyundai, and Karma. Visit RusnakOnline.com or contact one of their seventeen Southern California dealerships for a complete listing of available vehicles.