Reflections on a Conversation with Former Cox Automotive CEO, Sandy Schwartz
By Dave Cantin
As an entrepreneur, one of the things that I look for in every conversation is how people carry themselves, their leadership ability, and especially how it carries through a conversation or a meeting.
I’m continually amazed by the drive of the people I meet in the automotive industry. I truly believe it is the greatest industry in the world, full of professionals that are full of resilience and tenacity at a level you don’t find anywhere else.
Today, I want to talk about all the unique flavors we bring as individuals to this “automotive tenacity” . If you’re in a different industry, you bring your own flavor to the distinct superpower of your industry.
You don’t have to be a CEO. You can be starting your career, but you always have an incredible amount to teach and learn from those around you.
I want to talk specifically about the contributions to this automotive tenacity made by one incredible individual, Sandy Scwartz, who I had the privilege of interviewing this past summer on the Dealer News Today Podcast.
Before we start, a point we will circle back to later. The best way to learn anything (including “superpowers” and new ways of being), is two fold:
First, by teaching what you know to others, it becomes a more deeply ingrained part of you.
Second, by openly listening to the contributions of others, your perspective will constantly expand.
I truly believe this is one of the best ways to ensure that personal growth continues as a daily and lifelong journey; to constantly share and invite others to share their best with you.
Over the summer of 2020, I had the privilege of interviewing Sandy Schwartz twice on the Dealer News Today podcast. The second appearance was to announce that he was stepping down as the CEO of Cox Automotive to become lead executive of Cox Family Offices, after 35 amazing years that left an indelible, positive mark on the automotive industry.
But that’s a story for a different day.
Today, I want to talk about the first time Sandy came on the show. It was a moment in our country’s history that will be remembered by all who lived though it—June 25th, 2020. The pandemic was still relatively new, though we were beginning to grow accustomed. Then our country broke into a moment of new and resounding calls for racial justice.
It was at this important moment that Sandy came on the show. His incredible leadership shined through from the start. It led me to see that Sandy sheds a unique light on this “automotive tenacity.”
In our society, we so often think of professionals who make it to the top by being cutthroat, by being able to take the emotions out of hard decisions.
But Sandy is different.
He still has the guts, the savvy, and the business mind it takes to make it to the top level of the automotive industry. He can take the emotion out of a decision when he has to. He’s unique because he combines all that grit with a seemingly bottomless well of generosity and positivity.
For an example, when I asked him, “What have been some of the greatest challenges you’ve experienced as the leader at Cox Automotive during these times? ”
. . . Someone else might have sighed and started with a heavy voice, “Well . . . ”
But not Sandy. Without hesitation, he said—
“I’m gonna answer that, but first of all, I have to tell you my greatest joy, because I think before we get into challenges, there are good things that come out of this.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t recognize the challenges. He’s deeply sensitive to them. Sandy comes from a space of such genuine positivity, that in facing any challenge, those around him are not exhausted or defeated. They’re uplifted and inspired.
By the way, that ‘greatest joy’ was witnessing the entrepreneurial spirit of everyone in the automotive business through these unprecedented challenges. There’s that tenacity again!
Later, he mentioned a mantra he’d been touting, “It’s time to be human at your core!”
In these times, it’s certainly important for us to be in touch with our humanity, but I have a feeling this has been how Sandy has operated his whole life, long before the pandemic.
Actually, I know it is. He talked about a slide he often uses in presentations, of a field where a little league game is being played, surrounded by sponsorship signs. And the sponsors are all automotive dealerships. He shows that image as a reminder, saying—
“We are deeply ingrained in communities. We help them build fields, schools, and so it’s really important that we realize we have a responsibility, not only to our great industry, but also to the communities that we all serve and we’re a part of.”
He embodies this in the way he led Cox, noting that having each of the 25+ different companies under the Cox Automotive umbrella working separately is good… but the “special sauce” is in how they work together.
“It’s less important to stand each one of them up as a separate business, and way more important to make sure they’re working towards something that will make the dealer more profitable.”
He ties this into the way he operates Cox Automotive, saying, “We’re a for profit company, but that’s not what it’s about . . . We do not win without dealers being successful.”
Sandy is an extremely savvy businessman. I don’t want to gloss over that. He led one of the biggest and impactful companies in the automotive industry (and the world) through many phases of key development. He said—
“Shame on us if we backslide at all. We’ve got to be forward thinking in what we do.”
He also sees far beyond profits, to role our businesses play in the lives of our customers and our communities.
And that attitude, to “be human at your core” can be a much more powerful approach to business and life than being “cut throat” all the time. Being human wins allies, commands respect, and can, as Sandy proves, live hand-in-hand with powerful decision making.
Finally, I want to mention Sandy’s response to the current moment in racial justice. It was the biggest lesson I got out from the interview—
The importance of listening.
“What I’ve done more than anything, which is hard for me to do, is listen,” he said, “Right now is not a time for me to espouse all my views. What’s important is for me to listen, to understand how people are feeling, to understand what they see, to understand what they feel.”
We so often think that to be powerful, we have to get up on a soap box and make ourselves heard. But there is incredible power in the act of listening. It has the potential to connect us all, make us all better as individuals, and make any group greater than the sum of its parts.
Which brings me back to my original point.
The way that we guarantee nonstop personal growth is by both sharing the best of ourselves with others, and by listening and allowing others to share their “super powers” with us.
Sandy is a seasoned veteran executive leader. It shows in the way that he operated Cox Automotive and the way he helped so many people navigate through a time of crisis. He didn’t hide from it. He said, “Let’s face it head on. Let’s deal with it.”
And my greatest takeaway from the interview that day was—
We need to do a better job listening.
—and that’s the key to success.