Victoria Rusnak grew up in the car business. Her father, Paul Rusnak, launched Rusnak Auto Group more than 50 years ago with a small Triumph dealership in Los Angeles and then a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership in Pasadena. He built the company into a luxury auto dealer empire. But his daughter first pursued her own career as an environmental lawyer and then headed a gun control organization before coming to her father’s car business, first as a legal adviser and then as chief operating officer. She then took a break in 2012 to run for Assembly as a pro-business Pasadena Democrat. She was defeated by Chris Holden and returned to the family business. She took over as chief executive in June and now oversees 15 dealerships that sell 11 luxury auto brands – including Maserati, Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Jaguar – and employ 750 people. Rusnak met with the Business Journal in her headquarters at the company’s Pasadena dealership to discuss her career, thoughts on the auto business, run for office and love of travel.

Question: What was it like growing up in the car dealership business?

Answer: My dad worked all the time and I spent many Saturdays going to work with him. I also got to go on many business-related trips with my father.

What was your first impression of the car dealership business as you were growing up?

It was very family oriented, not the corporate culture you see today. At the meetings I would attend, folks always brought along their families and kids. And, of course, I really grew to love cars.

What was your dream your car?

The 911 Porsche convertible. And I’m driving one right now – I finally got one for my most recent birthday. Of course, now I have a new dream car – one of those on display in the main showroom. (Among the cars there were a Bentley convertible and a Rolls-Royce.)

But you chose to pursue other career options. Why?

When it was time to go to college, I found I didn’t have a desire to go into the family business. Also, like most young people, I had a sense of adventure. So after completing business school at USC, I decided to spread my wings a bit, to venture out of Los Angeles. And my parents were very supportive – I was under no pressure to go into the family business. Of course, I’m pretty sure my father secretly wanted one of his daughters to go into the business.

Why law?

I was always interested in law. Not as a practicing attorney – I had no intention to do that – but to be able to use the law in whatever business career I chose and to learn the rules of business. I found that studying the law helps you to analyze, to weigh the options.

What prompted you to work for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund?

When I was at law school in the Pacific Northwest, I spent a lot of time outdoors and I loved it. The more I hiked and skied and ran, the more I also learned about forestry and land use and water rights. That’s when I decided I wanted to go into environmental law. When I was doing my thesis, I was also an intern with the Sierra Club’s legal arm. My first assignment was the legal campaign to save the manatees. What I really wanted to do was to gain some experience so I could go overseas and pursue my real dream: to work in international environmental law.

So why didn’t you?

My plans changed. By that time, I had met my future husband, who was completing his medical studies in Washington, D.C. If we were going to be together, I had to go with him to wherever he got his next medical residency. It turned out that of all places, he got his residency in Seattle. It was right after the Exxon Valdez oil spill; I interned at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which was the trustee in matters involving the Exxon Valdez spill.

How did you end up running Washington state’s top gun control organization?

I was always interested in politics – that’s why I recently ran for office. A political consultant I had run into eventually recommended me for a job raising money to get a gun control measure on the ballot. I was quickly named executive director of a new group, Washington Cease Fire. After all the big fights I had experienced in working on the environment, I thought this would be easy – everybody was for handgun control, right? Boy did I learn!

What happened?

It was crazy. After two years of raising funds for a mid-1995 ballot measure, the National Rifle Association came in during the last two weeks and just shut it out. They spent so much money in such a short time they drowned out our message and the initiative failed. It was my first time really dealing with the press, my first experience with zealots on both sides. It really opened my eyes to the influence of special interest groups in the United States.

What did you do then?

Well, in the meantime, I had gotten married. We had to move again so my husband could take another residency in Charlottesville, Va. We lived there for three years and that’s when I had my two children. When his residency finished, we had to decide where we wanted to live. We both decided we wanted to go back to Seattle. I opened up a law practice, specializing in business, estate law and real estate. I also opened up a small escrow company.

How did you find your way back to the dealerships?

All this time, I had been doing some legal work on the side for my family’s business – reviewing contracts and the like. Then, in 2005, my father made the difficult decision to close down his Chrysler dealership – very difficult because it was one of his oldest dealerships. When that happened, there was a dispute over whether Chrysler or we had control over the site. I ended up coming down to Los Angeles a lot to meet with all the lawyers involved. But in the 16 years I was gone from Los Angeles, I didn’t realize how big our family business had grown. That’s when I started wondering who was going to run this thing if something happened to my father or he just decided to retire.

So what did you do?

I called a meeting in my father’s home in Bradbury and told him I would be willing to come down and help run the business if he wanted me to. This was not an easy decision for me. My kids were in private school in Seattle and my husband’s practice was just taking off. It was also a huge commitment to take on. Nonetheless, a year later, that’s exactly what happened – we moved down to Los Angeles. My husband was willing to make that move. That’s how I ended up on a career path I never had the intention of pursuing.

What do you mean?

Well, in the back of my mind, I knew I might come back to the family business, but I never set it out as a goal. In fact, I had made nearly every effort to not work in the family business. When I did make the decision to move down to L.A., my friends did not believe it. But I did feel a sense of responsibility to help and grow my family’s business and carry my father’s legacy on.

You have two other sisters. Did either of them want the job of running the business?

My oldest sister never got involved in the business. My middle sister was always on the marketing and public relations side. My experience was centered on business, law and operations. Given those skill sets, it was probably an obvious choice.

How did you learn the car business?

I did have some experience. When I was in college, I sold cars; the summer before I went to law school, I helped the CFO of Rusnak with some audits. I also helped write our first employee handbook. But the business had grown so quickly; my charge was to bring some sense of corporate culture to what was truly an entrepreneurial company, to set up some infrastructure so we could absorb that growth and handle future growth.

So what did that mean?

We professionalized our accounting systems. We invested in new technology – phones, computers, software and the like. I instituted a “walk in your shoes” program; I myself made sure to shadow people in every department: technicians, sales people, the finance people, etc. That’s how you learn the business quickly. On top of everything, I had to visit the auto manufacturers to build and deepen our relationships.

Do you intend to keep growing the company?

Of course. We’ve added three dealerships in the last 18 months, among them a Jaguar and a Volvo dealership. Whenever an opportunity presents itself that makes sense, we’ll continue to grow.

What are your goals as chief executive? First, of course, is to continue to build upon my father’s legacy. Another goal is to attract female associates into the retail auto side. We do a relatively good job attracting and promoting female associates, but the industry as a whole has done a terrible job. I feel I’m uniquely positioned to lead this charge as a leader of one of the largest auto groups in the country. Fifty percent or more of the decision-makers buying cars are women, and studies show that women prefer to buy from women. But it’s hard to find good talent in general and talented women in particular.

Why don’t women go into the automotive retail business?

Part of it is just the stereotype of the retail automotive business. It’s had, shall we say, a somewhat shady reputation over the years and a reputation as a man’s world. And auto dealers in general haven’t done a good job promoting this as a career choice for women. Finally, we just haven’t had that many successful women in the business to help promote this message. And that’s why I see myself having such a crucial role in this.

So what do you see as your biggest challenges?

Probably the pressures we feel from manufacturers. Sometimes as their profits are squeezed, they in turn squeeze our margins. This is not just us, but all auto dealers. There’s also the challenge of marketing to the Gen Y. They tend to wait longer before buying their first car and they want to have a lot of information before even coming to the showroom. Also, the cost of doing business here in California is so outrageous; so many environmental and other regulations to comply with. We comply with them all, but that comes at a cost, double or more the cost of doing business in other states. It’s one of the reasons why I decided to run for office.

What else drove you to run for the state Assembly?

As a Democrat who understands how hard it is to do business in the state, I felt the new top-two open-primary system would help me. Also, it was the first time in six years no incumbent was running in the Glendale-Pasadena area.

So what happened with the campaign?

I learned how hard it is to run against an entrenched special interest, especially one that comes in at the last minute with huge independent expenditures. I was blown away. Things I never said or did were attributed to me. Now I have thick skin, so I was able to not take it personally. It’s just that there really wasn’t time to respond. Also, I didn’t pick up the support I had hoped for from the business community, chambers and the like.

Would you do it again?

Not in the immediate future. I’m so focused right now on growing the business. And I just want to be in a position where I can lead people, either in politics or business or in charitable pursuits.

How do you balance all this with raising two children and personal time?

My personal goal is to live the most balanced life possible. I compartmentalize and also pace myself. Of course, there were times when I couldn’t do that – when I had to work 12-hour days, six days a week. But I’ve found that you are only good in one area of life if you are a good steward to other parts of your life.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?

Something I’ve picked up along the way: Patience is a virtue. You need patience in business life, in your personal life. Whenever I apply patience, things generally tend to work out for the best. You have to have some faith in the course you’ve chosen. For example, in the car business, if a specific dealership isn’t at 100 percent, you have to work hard and over time to make it happen.

You say you love to travel. Any favorite destinations?

My parents instilled the love of going out in the world. I try to take one major trip each year and of course I travel a lot for business. I also love taking weekend trips around Los Angeles and the West Coast. As for the most influential and memorable places: a trip a few years ago to Bhutan and then just this past year to Vietnam. And, of course, because of my European heritage, I love traveling anywhere in Europe.

Victoria Rusnak

TITLE: Chief Executive

COMPANY: Rusnak Auto Group

BORN: Los Angeles; 1968.

EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in business from USC; master’s degree in environmental law from George Washington University Law School and J.D. from Gonzaga University.

CAREER TURNING POINTS: Decision to pursue career in environmental and natural resources law; decision to take post as consultant to Washington state gun control organization; decision to take active role in managing father's car dealership group.

MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: Father, Paul Rusnak; Ron Taylor, director of sales at Rusnak Auto Group.

PERSONAL: Divorced; lives in Pasadena with two teenage children.

ACTIVITIES: Travel to exotic countries; skiing; hiking in the Sierra Nevadas; attending sports events and concerts.

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