Lisa Schomp sets records for success in a male-dominated business. Some people are born with the proverbial silver spoon clutched firmly and permanently in their grasp. Others know it is within reach, but how – or indeed if — they attain it is entirely up to them. Lisa Schomp, owner and president of Ralph Schomp Automotive, grew up realizing the silver spoon was always there, but not necessarily hers for the taking. She has learned the hard way that to be the best, a woman does not have to “do it all.” Finally, years after her initial foray into the male-dominated world of car dealerships, she is truly content with her dual roles of high-powered corporate executive and doting wife and mother. One of six daughters, (“I’m the fourth sister, the one you’d call the dark side of the middle”), Schomp grew up with a very strong sense of self, thanks in large part to her mother, whom she describes as “a strong woman who taught me to have convictions, beliefs and opinions.
“My mother and her generation began the battle, burning bras, crusading for equal rights, etc. Her generation started the movement, and our generation became even more radical with it. Today, women have so many choices, thanks to the courage of women like my mother,” Schomp says. From the beginning, odds were strongly against Schomp embarking upon a career in the car business, much less rising to the top of her profession. After trying her hand at college in California, (“I’d attend classes in between partying”), she concluded that paying to learn how to party was not going to open many doors. She quit school and worked various jobs, which made her realize she ultimately wanted to be her own boss. While Schomp was busy trying to determine where and how to find her dream job, her father, the late Ralph Schomp, was busy trying to entice one of her sisters into the family business. “None of my sisters wanted to work in the business. They were all college-educated, and they all had their master’s degrees, but not one was interested in the business. It bothered him until the day he died that not one of his accomplished daughters wanted to work in the car business, and he had to settle for me!” she says.
When her father asked her what she was going to do with the rest of her life, her focus took on a whole new direction. He offered her a job at the dealership, telling her she could start in his office. “I told my father no, and asked him what he would think if I became a car dealer,” she says. Her father’s initial reaction was outright refusal, but finally he softened his stance and told her he’d be willing to entertain the idea if she agreed to start at the bottom rung and climb her way up. “It was 1972, and I was working as a coffee greeter at the dealership, wearing a miniskirt and halter top and pushing a coffee cart up and down Broadway. I did that humiliating job for two years before I was able to work in the dealership,” she reflects. As part of her internship at the dealership, Schomp worked her way through all areas, including sales, parts and service. “Service was the place I enjoyed the most, because I’ve always liked helping people,” she says. “I am not a good salesperson, because to be good at it, you have to know when to stop talking and keep your mouth shut. I felt I needed to be the customer’s conscience, and I’d want to ask, ‘Do you really need that car?’ So the service department was a better fit for me because it’s the place where the second car is always sold, and it allowed me to maintain relationships with the customers.”
While Schomp’s father didn’t get the college-educated daughter he’d hoped would one day take over the family business, it’s clear that the woman who did take on the challenge brought so much more to the table than academics alone could have ever provided. “I think I’ve proven that if you’re willing to watch, listen and use common sense, you’ll succeed,” Schomp says. “There are so many paths to choose from, whether it’s trade school, seminars, or anything else that offers hands-on, practical experience. Given the right opportunity, you can succeed where others may fail.” Schomp’s critics have been known to attribute her success to family ties, a criticism she believes is unfair and ridiculous. “I rose through the ranks of this business, in what has always been a male-dominated and highly competitive world. I admit I was given a beautiful set of circumstances, but I was smart enough to run with it, and to consistently keep our company on top,” she points out.
That said, Schomp acknowledges she would never be where she is today without the benefit of family connections: “This business is so tough to break into, particularly for women, and the only way to succeed is through some type of inside connection. The number of women-owned new car dealerships is still so limited nationally. It’s much easier to look at the used-car side of things, which requires less capital outlay and can be done on a much smaller scale.” Lisa SchompIn keeping with the family-business theme, Schomp’s oldest son, now 23, was introduced to the dealership before he could walk and talk. Because she and her husband both work at Ralph Schomp, it was only natural that their son was a part of the business since the day he was born. “Unlike my two younger kids, my oldest son has been immersed in the business and began helping out here at age 14. My younger kids stayed home with a nanny, because that would have been utter chaos, but my oldest son was always a part of this place,” she says. The decision to have children, and the accompanying reality of what it meant for her career and her future, affected Schomp in a way no one could have predicted. “As part of the women’s movement, it was assumed that girls would get married, go to work and have kids. Now people are starting to look at the end results of that scenario, and it’s not necessarily what it started out to be,” she says. “The people who started the women’s movement had already raised their kids, so it was easier to be out of the home. Now it’s a whole different set of challenges that have to be addressed.” Indeed, married at age 26, Schomp never planned to raise a family. Three kids later, she confesses, “It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done!
“I look at myself today and see how much I’ve changed, in terms of priorities and expectations. It’s fun to watch young women today, because they have so many choices. Women are so much more secure now and sure of how we want to accomplish our goals,” she says. There was a time, however, when the choices did not come so easily. Trying to maintain the proverbial juggling of roles required of a working mother, she often was racked with guilt over not being home with her kids. “I was so caught up in the idea that to succeed in my career I had to network, join every organization, be available at all times, yet I wanted to be home taking care of my children,” she recalls. “It was an absolutely horrible time in my life, and I finally realized that for my own mental and physical health, I had to learn to say no to outside commitments. I learned to say, ‘I have a child. I can’t do that for you.’” The emphasis on networking, she believes, is highly overrated. “It’s a place to go, but you don’t have to go to every networking event out there. I’ve watched women walk into my dealership and refuse to do business with a woman, just because they’re taught women don’t know anything about cars. It’s the same for networking. Women who are willing to do business with other women are going to do so regardless of whether they’re part of a network. This is not something that can be forced upon any of us,” she says.
Eventually, Schomp learned to moderate her life by cutting back dramatically on early-morning meetings, unless they were important to the health of the company. This balance helped her focus on her main priorities: her family, her company and her customers.“What I’ve discovered is that we put way too much emphasis on extracurricular activities,” she explains. “I’ve learned to trust other people and to surround myself with good, honest individuals. We’ve built a family within our business by giving people the opportunity to make bad decisions and learn from them. I’ve learned to be reasonable and to realize that everyone makes mistakes.”
Interestingly, Schomp believes she could never have accomplished all that she has if she were a man. She expounds, “I could never put my kids second to my job, because I believe it’s inherent in a woman to take care of them no matter what. The strings are somehow always there, a trait I don’t know that men have. I know that a change is taking place in this regard, and there are finally some dads who want to stay home with the kids, and who are quite comfortable having a wife working out of the home. But I still wonder if it’s the ideal scenario inside these homes.”
One of the greatest obstacles blocking women’s success in the car business is the long hours. Husbands want their wives at home and often are not willing to accommodate the long hours of this job. “So many women I’ve known will take this to heart, and realize it’s not worth it to face that constant struggle. It’s so sad, because there are so many women who could be truly great in this business,” she says. The catch, she believes, is that women’s nurturing side takes over, and women give in under the guise of acceding to someone else’s wishes. “It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is. It’s very frustrating,” she remarks. For a woman as accomplished and centered as Schomp, it surely would be hard to understand this “caving in” that many women do in an effort to keep peace and harmony in their relationships. “When I became pregnant, everyone, my father included, expected me to quit work and stay at home with the baby. I never planned on doing that, and when my dad suggested it, I nearly threw up,” she recalls. “I think he was worried. He knew the odds of survival in this business, much less the chance for success. I’d worked for 20 years in this business, and I still was not respected by other men. Every day was very mean, and my father saw first-hand how I was treated. It was a hostile world, and I had no friends in it. Even the employees wondered when I would go away.”
Schomp finds it interesting that her father was so concerned for her welfare despite having a wife who was highly involved in politics, education and womens’ rights. “He didn’t consider these to be real jobs, so he didn’t understand my desire to continue working. And, too, there was a part of him that was embarrassed. He’d take me with him to meetings and took a great deal of razzing from his colleagues. It was a double-edged sword; part of him was proud of me, the other part wanted me to just go away,” she says. Then came the kicker. Schomp’s father asked her husband, who was working at another dealership, to work for the company. “I felt totally betrayed. I thought my father was bringing in my replacement. But I was so wrong. My husband had watched for six years and was witness to every mean and horrible event in my life. He listened to all of it, and through it he was the most wonderful, kind, supportive man on this earth. So
our partnership worked wonderfully,” she says.
In 1988, Schomp’s father died, and the couple bought the business from her family. Throughout the years, her husband, Mark Wallace, has been her anchor in the storm. “He’s been such a trooper and so supportive of me, even though he’s taken a lot of stuff from a lot of people,” she says. “There are always some guys who cannot talk to me because they’ve never worked for a woman. They have the attitude that ‘even though she said no, I’ll just go over to Mark and get him to say yes.’ Mark always backs me up and never contradicts me. I can count on one hand the number of times he’s made a decision I can’t deal with, and vice versa.” In the end, Schomp believes she owes her success to her father, who never intended to be in the car business. “He was a designer and architect, but it was the 1930s and ‘40s, and times were tough,” she explains. “He went to work for his father-in-law but was always cognizant of the reputation of car dealers. Honesty, integrity and family were everything to him, and he always told us if you make a decision that doesn’t let you sleep at night, it’s a bad one. He lived by this creed, and the motto, ‘To thine own self be true.’ He believed strongly that if you don’t put your customers and employees first, you are not living honorably.”
Taking these criteria to heart, Schomp decided in 1991 to take a radically different approach to the business: “I decided to put the customer first by going to a set price and eliminating the negotiation process. I realized we didn’t have to negotiate, and that if we priced the cars right, we could take haggling out of the process and still sell our cars at competitive prices.” Upon announcing the new plan, 80 percent of her sales force quit, which “scared me to death.” Refusing to give in, she hired all new people, including schoolteachers, realtors and other professionals with no knowledge of the car business, but who possessed good people skills. She put them on salaries, provided bonuses and succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.
“The hardest part of the process is telling the salespeople to let the customer go. We like to teach the customers how to buy a car before they make any decision, and to make sure they’re comparing apples to apples. For example, how does financing affect the final price? It’s amazing to see that even if people buy elsewhere, many of them come here for service and eventually for their next car,” she says. So how successful has this novel approach been? In the first year it was implemented, the dealership saw an 80-percent increase in business. For several years running, Ralph Schomp has been the No. 1 Honda and BMW dealer in the Rocky Mountain Region, consistently racking up the highest retail sales volume.“Going to the one-price option was scary,” she admits. “Many people believe ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’ I decided to take a chance and trust in myself. Everyone held their breath and waited for me to fail, and I didn’t. It took a huge, long-term commitment, and of course it was hard to watch customers walk away. But I kept telling my employees to trust in themselves, to ask themselves if they gave the customer all the information and education they could. It’s all about relationships – trust me until I do something to prove you cannot trust me anymore.”
Recently, the years of blood, sweat and tears Schomp has poured into her work were rewarded, when she was named the TIME Magazine Quality Dealer Award winner for the state of Colorado. This highly coveted award is presented to dealers based on their outstanding reputation, accomplishments and community service. As the winner for Colorado, Schomp is a finalist for the national award, which will be presented later this year at the National Automobile Dealers Association annual convention. Not bad for a one-time party girl who never learned the meaning of the word “impossible.”
By ELLEN GRAY
Photography STEVE GROER