BUSINESS: Driven

When she first came to Dallas, Brigette Brown could barely afford to put gas in her car. Now she’s one of the largest auto dealers in the state—and she’s never borrowed a dime.

PUT YO’ HOOD UP: When Brown moved to Dallas, she had a Porrsche 944, and she could barely afford to put gas in it. photo by Elizabeth Lavin

Even from the outermost edges of the immense parking lot on West Kiest Boulevard, you can hear the din of Manheim’s Dallas Auto Auction. Engines revving, auctioneers hawking. The largest such dealer-only auction in the area, Dallas Auto Auction moves as many as 4,500 vehicles a week, through an average of 2,500 dealers. Wednesday is the big day. And every Wednesday, Brigette Brown is here.

The place is packed. Men, mostly. Men in cowboy hats. Men chomping cigars. Dapper men. Haggard men. Men who look like they just stepped off the farm. Men dressed for dinner downtown. There is spitting and yelling and back patting and preening and parading. And then there’s Brown, in her yellow Polo and Tiffany’s jewelry. She’s here to buy. Each year she spends more than $3 million at Dallas Auto Auction, putting her in an elite class. All buyers at the auction are franchise dealers, wholesalers, re-marketers, or fleet or lease dealers. Brown works for herself.

She walks through the crowd like she’s the only one there, threading her way through 12 lanes of cars in the auction house, and then out into the lot, where thousands of cars are lined up and slowly making their way to the auctioneers. The guys with the high-speed chatter bark their way through about 18 cars every 30 to 60 seconds. Brown focuses on the center lanes—the ones reserved for luxury cars, cars from Hopper Motorplex, PM Standley, Park Place, and the Sewell dealerships.

A 2002 BMW 330i presents itself. It has the sport and premium packages, as well as “M” wheels. Brown’s eyes dart from bumper to bumper, checking for body and paint work, as the BMW moves to the front of the line. Her hand on hip, attention focused. The auctioneer notices.

“Hey there, Ms. Brown,” he calls.

Everyone seems to know her: auctioneers, dealers, the day laborers and homeless people she pays $10 to drive cars back to her lot at the end of the day. She nods, and the bidding begins.

In seconds, the BMW is hers. “That was a good buy,” she says. “I got it for less than rough.” Rough being the lowest possible value listed in “The Black Book,” or the Used Car Market Guide. Brown is thrilled, but she quickly moves on, in search of the next deal.

For six hours, she moves through the lanes, opening passenger doors and inspecting interiors, deciding which cars to bid on and which to skip. It’s her discerning eye—her ability to determine a car’s actual value—that has helped Brown, in 10 years, starting with just one car, build one of the largest woman-owned, luxury used-car dealerships in the state.

GROWING UP IN MISSISSIPPI, BROWN’S behavior didn’t do much to suggest her current occupation. “My high school principal said to me, ’What are you going to do with your life? Ride on the back of garbage truck?’” she recalls. All she knew was that she loved cars. It never fazed her that people considered cars a “boy thing.” It was simply her thing. And it was the only thing she had when she moved to Dallas in the summer of 1992.

That and a 1992 red Porsche 944 that she bought with the help of her dad’s matching funds. It had wiped out her savings, and she could barely afford gas. But it had been her own doing. She’d left her parents’ home three years earlier and knocked around Florida, partying and blowing through her savings. Now she was desperate for a change. She picked Dallas because her older sister was living here at the time.

She found a job waiting tables at Uncle Julio’s. A fellow employee gave her money to buy three white shirts and a pair of white sneakers. “I couldn’t even afford to starch my shirts,” she says.

She got by, but then something in her changed: “I woke up one day and decided to make things different.” A friend introduced her to the owner of Phones Unlimited. He was starting the cellular division at Park Place Mercedes. Brown took the job so she could be around the cars. But she did so well during her training period, in the store, that the owner never moved her to Park Place. After eight months, she joined National Auto Cellular, staying almost seven years, consistently ranked among the top salespeople.

Brown saved as much of her commissions as she could. In the meantime, she sold her Porsche and bought another car. Then she sold that one and bought another. Before she knew it, she had acquired 12 cars. She parked them in front of her house, behind her house, even in nearby retail parking spaces. “The neighbors complained, and the mail carrier wouldn’t leave mail in the mailbox because there was always a car in front of it,” Brown says. Many times, the cars were towed from the parking lots she “borrowed.” “It was almost a game with the former manager at Michael’s at the corner of Trinity Mills and Marsh. He would call the tow trucks early in the am, and we would have to get up and run with all of the keys to move them.”

The situation was impossible, so she rented a warehouse on Trinity Mills Road, across from Covenant Church. “I put a desk in there, and it wasn’t long before I walked into my old job, boxed my stuff up, and walked out,” she says. She named her company International Motor Productions and made replica cars the focus of her business. It was a gutsy call. The reproduction business ties up lots of money. It requires the purchase of chassis from less expensive cars as the basis for re-creating custom models of Lamborghinis, special-edition Jaguars, and so on. But the cars are so specialized that they have to be created before the buyers can be found and the return on investment realized. And people looking to buy such cars are often people looking to pretend they’re someone they are not. Someone more wealthy, for instance.

That’s what ended Brown’s interest in the reproduction business: one of her favorite cars was stolen on a test drive. Her insurance wouldn’t cover the $25,000 loss because she herself had handed over the keys to the “customer.” At that point, Brown had $60,000 saved and had begun the paperwork to get her dealer’s license. So she started buying and selling as many cars as she could afford to pay cash for, a strategy that she follows to this day. Selling cars that way is almost as unique as a woman owning her dealership. Most dealers “floor plan,” or finance, their used cars.

Brown’s approach is like gambling. Ed Tremblay, Dallas Auto Auction’s credit manager, explains it this way: “A financial institution agrees for a fee to pay for the vehicle while it sits on the dealer’s lot, creating more working capital for the dealer. If the vehicle doesn’t sell after a certain point, the dealer pays curtailments, a percentage of the vehicle’s worth.” Usually dealers have 90 days to sell the vehicle. “If it’s not sold by then, the dealer needs to come in and pay it off,” he says. Which means those dealers unload the car at auction. And Brown gets out her checkbook and snaps it up.

Her unorthodox strategy has served Brown well. From its humble base of operations on Tarpley Road in Carrollton, International Motor Productions has become one of the top 500 dealerships of the nearly 8,000 in Texas. She built the dealership there two and a half years ago, after outgrowing her first space. She owns the building and the land it sits on. Paid for upfront. And she now sells about 75 cars in a good month, during the spring and summer. She did $8 million in sales last year.

Besides paying cash for her inventory, Brown does a couple of other things that are unusual in her business. Even though she’s the owner, you’ll often see her emptying trash or detailing cars. “If I do the work with the boys, they’re more motivated to do the work,” she says. “I’m not a boss. It’s more of a team around here.” She also has a bad habit of answering her phone at all hours, not wanting to miss a single sale.

Brown gets more than half her business from repeats and referrals. Paul Hargett, CFO of Consolidated Restaurant Operations, has purchased five cars from her—four for his teenage daughters. “They [Brown and her partner Kristin Bienvenu] are a breath of fresh air to deal with in the business community,” he says. “Their personalities are the same as the way they do business: honest, ethical, above-board, and very fair.”

Brown is still the woman who came to Dallas in 1992 with a Porsche 944 and no gas money. Who once returned clothes to Neiman Marcus because after she got them home, she couldn’t help but envision the cars that she could have bought instead.

Right now, her spotless warehouse houses $1.7 million worth of cars. “Sometimes at night, I turn on all the lights and just walk through the rows of them,” Brown says. “I love them.”


Dallas-based freelancer Jenny Block is a frequent contributor to D Magazine.

 

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