Victoria Rusnak took the long way around to becoming president and CEO of the Los Angeles-based Rusnak Auto Group.
She grew up watching her father, company founder and now Chairman Paul Rusnak, grow the business from a single Triumph dealership and, like many dealers’ kids, began selling cars at age 18.
Then came college, or colleges. She earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing management in from the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, a law degree from the Gonzaga University School of Law and a master’s degree in environmental law from George Washington University Law School.
Rusnak’s interest in environmental law led to positions with the Sierra Club’s legal defense fund, gun-safety organization Washington Ceasefire and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admin. She founded a private law and escrow practice in Seattle, where she specialized in corporate and real estate issues.
With her father as a client, she was never too far from the dealership business.
Meanwhile, responding to the growing popularity in California of foreign cars, Paul Rusnak was busy bringing relatively obscure brands to the market. He opened a Mazda dealership in 1971 and a Peugeot store in 1976.
The group ranks No.50 on the WardsAuto Megadealer 100 with total revenues of more than $1 billion. Rusnak has four stores on the WardsAuto Dealer 500, ranging from No.9 to No. 404.
The group is a major player in the southern California luxury and ultra-lux car market with 17 dealerships selling Porsche, Audi, Jaguar, BMW, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Mercedes-Benz, Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Volvo, Hyundai, Genesis, Land Rover, and Maserati.
Stores are located in Pasadena, Thousand Oaks, Arcadia, Anaheim Hills, Loma Linda and Torrance. Audi, Bentley, Jaguar, Maserati, Porsche, and Rolls-Royce dealerships occupy historic buildings in a prime location on Pasadena’s West Colorado Blvd.
The 850-employee group sold 15,969 new and used vehicles in 2015.
Driven by family loyalty and the realization she could apply her business and legal savvy to the car business, Rusnak moved to Los Angeles from Seattle in 2006 to become the group’s chief operating officer. “It ultimately boiled down to helping my family,” the 47-year-old says.
Rusnak completed the National Automobile Dealers Assn. Dealer Academy and was appointed to the California New Motor Vehicle Board by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009. Governor Jerry Brown reappointed her in 2013 and 2015.
One of Rusnak’s first tasks as COO was to re-structure the group’s operations, from IT to data mining to marketing.
“When I arrived, I looked around and said this is an amazing entrepreneurial company, but if we don’t professionalize ourselves like other industries outside of the car business, we’re missing opportunities for growth and profitability,” she recalls.
“I took the time to grow a corporate structure in a very traditional way, having directors of human resources, fixed operations, facilities, a CFO and a complete marketing department.”
Rusnak created a matrix organization where the corporate staff and directors work closely with individual general managers to find the best solutions.
"I have worked to build a team that is welcoming to outside ideas and that can take advantage of others’ expertise,” she says. “(Our general managers) may not know a lot about digital advertising, but our director of marketing has a master’s from University of Southern California in digital marketing.
“The same thing goes for human resources. It allows the general managers and their teams to focus on selling and servicing cars.”
While the vehicles her associates sell are technically complex, Rusnak found the firm’s in-house systems lacking. “We didn’t have a lot of technology,” she says. “I made a million dollar investment to put in a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) group-wide phone system. While it sounds basic, it actually improved things, because people could now pick up the phone and talk among the dealerships.”
She also introduced group-wide TV ad buys and a group-wide website. “It drives economies of scale and delivers a message publicly and internally of the magnitude and wherewithal of our organization,” she says.
Rusnak also led the group’s initiative to better format information gathered by its dealer management system.
“We harness a lot of raw DMS data and manipulate it through our own system,” she says. “The end product is easy-to-read reports that busy executives and associates can review on a daily basis. It gives detail that helps them see areas of opportunity.”
New-car buyers in California display a temporary registration permit on their windshields and have 90 days to install permanent license plates. Rusnak took advantage of this rule by offering customers a bright pink Rusnak license plate to display until their official plates arrive. The group donated five dollars to local charity Breast Cancer Angels each time a customer tagged or shared a photo of their pink plate on social media.
“That idea came from somebody who was from a completely different industry who was doing work for me,” Rusnak says.
The entire organization abides by “The Rusnak Standard,” a mission statement that emphasizes exceeding customer expectations, helping the community, personalizing service and promoting social responsibility.
Rusnak calls it “rules of engagement.” It had been communicated verbally. She committed it to writing.
“This culture was instituted by my father long before I arrived in the dealership,” Rusnak says.
Every new hire participates in a 1-day cultural immersion process called Rusnak University. That includes a video and discussion of operational standards. The process is continued in the individual dealerships through training and mentoring.
While luxury-car buyers might expect certain amenities not found in mass-market showrooms, Rusnak says all customers should expect the highest level of customer service.
“If I were to take on a Chevy or Ford store, I wouldn’t treat our customers any differently than I would if they were buying a Rolls-Royce or Mercedes,” she says. “People deserve to get great service. They work hard. Everyone wants to be treated respectfully and know that their transaction is important.”
A Run for Public Office
Rusnak ran in the 2012 Democratic primary election for a seat representing Pasadena in the California State Assembly. “I was always interested in serving, and felt we need more business-oriented people elected to our legislature,” she says.
“I had the proper experience in business and with my legal background, I was a well-rounded candidate. I had the full support of our organization and my family and many of the car dealers around the state.”
In the end, she placed fifth in a 5-person primary with 13.8% of the vote. “Our polls showed that I was winning against an incumbent, but I got taken out by a special-interest group that spent a bunch of money in the last days of the campaign,” she says. “It was a wonderful experience and I feel very fortunate that I was able to do it.”
Upon reflection, she says, “Quite frankly, I’m just as happy running our car company, because I can make more of an impact here than I could in the California state legislature.”