America’s Car-Mart had only 30 dealerships in 1995. That year, Bruce Bryant was hired when he was 30 years old looking for something better. He joined Car-Mart and within three months, he was hooked on the company atmosphere.
And, now, as Director of Expense Management, he’s the 32nd associate to reach 25 years with Car-Mart. Recently, he celebrated his 25th service anniversary and reflected on his Car-Mart adventure. In this insightful Q&A, Bruce shares his passion for the company and why he chose Car-Mart as his lifestyle.
Talk about your Car-Mart career.
When I joined Car-Mart on July 25, 1995, I just needed a job. I wasn’t looking for a career here. I had a plan that would prevent me from staying long-term. I never dreamed Car-Mart would quickly become a game-changer.
I read a newspaper ad where this little car dealership was looking for management trainees. I put on my best suit and applied on a Sunday. Car-Mart was open seven days a week then. A week passed and nothing. I felt I had a good resume. I saw the ad again, so I called and talked to the manager, Steve Fisher. He had not seen my application but invited me in for an interview right then. I said I wasn’t dressed for an interview and he told me to come anyway. We had a good talk for over an hour.
The next day, I interviewed with the District Manager Ted Taylor, for three hours. That was common for Car-Mart as they wanted to know who they hired. Ted offered me the job and I started the next day. I was hired as a Manager – Trainee at Car-Mart of Fort Smith, Ark. I had never worked around cars or auto financing.
The training program was approximately two years. I started the basic training in Ft. Smith learning Inventory Management/Sales for the first four months. Then it was on to Car-Mart of Tulsa where I was the first associate to be a part of a new pilot program where the Trainee had to become a successful Purchasing Agent before being allowed to continue training in other areas. After four months of purchasing, I relocated to Car-Mart of Texarkana, TX where I worked under Rick Musial learning Collections. Rick was very generous with his time for me – I learned a lot more than Collections, I learned how to teach. Then I moved back to Ft. Smith as an Assistant Manager until taking the Car-Mart of Joplin lot in 1997.
As a Trainee we had to master all aspects of our business – ‘buy ‘em, clean ‘em, sell ‘em, collect ‘em.’ My job description was simple – ‘whatever it takes.’ The same job description still applies to us today.
I had a meeting with the CEO and four other Assistant Managers on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 1997. It was a one-day seminar with Nan Smith, and she told us, that, at the end of the day, one of us would get our own lot. It was a wonderful, educational day. At 5 p.m., she dismissed everyone but me. She had the key in her hand, and she said I was the new GM at Car-Mart of Joplin, MO.
I took that job without ever seeing the lot or having been to Joplin. Nan wanted me to start the next day, so I drove back to Fort Smith, packed and left the following morning at 3 a.m. to be at work in Joplin at 7 a.m.
While in Joplin, my team and I worked to make projections. We almost made projections in my first partial year. The second year, we tore the roof off it. We were always top performers and in 2003, we won Lot of the Year.
In 2004, I became an Area Operations Manager and did that for four years. But I missed managing at the lot level, so I returned to Joplin as GM. And, in 2016, I had another opportunity to become Director of Expense Management. And, here I am today.
It’s been a great ride!
Describe your first few days at Car-Mart.
On the first day on the job, I’m in the manager’s office filling out the onboarding paperwork. Steve Fisher kept looking out the window at the customers who had no associates helping them. I ask, ‘you want me to catch ‘em?’ I had officially been working for five minutes. I went out and met the first lady. She told me she really liked the looks of one particular car. After looking inside and seeing keys in the ignition, I asked her if she would like to drive it. So, she hopped in and sped away.
Another couple drove up. They were back for a second look at a truck. I asked them instantly, ‘do you want to drive it?’ The keys are in it, and they hopped in it and sped away.
As they were leaving the lot, Steve came running out with a dealer tag in hand and asked, ‘what are you doing?’ I proudly said I got two customers on a test drive, then learned quickly the vehicle should have a dealer tag and an associate in the car with them.
My first thought was if they don’t return with those vehicles, I would probably lose my job. They both returned and I sold my first car to the first customer I ever spoke with.
On my first day, I sold one car. On my second day, I sold two cars. On the third, three. On the fourth, four. On the fifth day, I felt like Babe Ruth calling the shots. But, unfortunately, I did not sell a car that day.
After my first full month, I won the company’s sales award, having sold 37 cars. That’s with a dealership having two Trainees in sales training, winning three sales awards out of four months.
How does it feel to be one of the most tenured associates at Car-Mart?
It’s an amazing feeling. I remember my first manager meeting where I was asked to tell everyone about myself. I remember exactly what I said – ‘it is an honor to be affiliated with a group of people of this caliber.’ I said the same thing at my 25th service anniversary celebration. It’s a family, there’s no doubt about it.
What do you like about working at Car-Mart?
Creative freedom, inspiring mentors, daily variety.
When you manage a dealership, you become Car-Mart. When you look in the mirror, you are the company! It’s the best job in the world.
In three words, how would you describe Car-Mart?
People, philosophy, culture.
Car-Mart offers so much that you can’t get other places. Once I got to Car-Mart, I knew within three months that this was the path for me. I have never once picked up a newspaper or had a thought about leaving Car-Mart. I was made for this job – the customers, the associates, the variety – this was it.
I’m one of the luckiest people I know. Car-Mart is a unique place – to be able to do this kind of work with these kinds of people. It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle.
When Car-Mart started it was about the people. Everything we are today we are a direct product of our early people. They developed our culture.
Another great aspect of Car-Mart is to be at a dealership and truly impact people’s lives. Car-Mart has changed a lot of lives.
What’s your most proud Car-Mart moment?
Back in the early 2000s, Joplin became known as a lot that was striving for excellence in every area – collections, repairs, inventory, purchasing. Many of the people I hired are still with the company. We hire good people. We develop good people.
So, I was especially proud of Joplin to win Lot of the Year – not for myself, but for my associates. I was able to bring that plaque back to the dealership and share it with my team.
How has Car-Mart evolved to better serve customers?
Better inventory. Better processes for prior to the sale and after the sale. Better service. We’re constantly evolving. Car-Mart is a growth company. We evolve daily. Plus, our senior leadership has a clear vision of where they’re taking our company.
What do you find rewarding about your current position as Director – Expense Management?
The biggest thing we do is teach – teaching new managers about the business and how to be efficient with money and achieve profitability goals while maximizing and delivering on customer service. That’s incredibly rewarding. Besides, I’ve had the greatest mentors – Steve Fisher, Rick Musial, Bryan Adams, Ted Taylor. These people are still with our company today. So now I get to pay it forward.
What makes you smile about working at Car-Mart?
Car-Mart is a special place.
Years ago, customers would drive up to Car-Mart, shut the car off, get the kids out, put the dog on a leash and they would all come in to make their payment. They would talk to their salesperson and get some popcorn. There’s something for everybody at Car-Mart.
Years ago, we sold young families. Now, we’re selling to their kids and even grandkids.
What words of advice do you have for someone who may want to start a career at Car-Mart?
Take the plunge. Do it now.
What do you want your legacy to be at Car-Mart?
Someone who worked hard played hard and helped others achieve their goals.
And, the adventure continues
Indeed, Bruce is still as excited to be with the company as he was back in 1995 when he first started his Car-Mart journey. He’s enjoyed great success and met many life-long friends.
When he’s not working at Car-Mart, Bruce spends time with his son and three grandchildren. Every week, you find him high in the sky flying his powered parachute personal aircraft and continuing another adventure.
The sky’s the limit.