Whatever your preconceived notions of a car dealer are, Karen Lombardo will shatter them … gently. The soft-spoken Ohioan spent just over 10 years working for BMW Financial Services before taking on the role of general manager at Roadshow BMW-MINI in 2017. In an industry where 95% of general managers are men, her path was unconventional in multiple ways. She has since been named one of Automotive News’ “40 Under 40” for her immediate and impressive successes at the dealership, but when you sit down to talk about her plans for the future, it’s clear she’s just getting started. Meet this week’s driven FACE of Memphis, Karen Lombardo!
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
I was born about an hour from Columbus, Ohio, in a small town called Marion. My family moved to Columbus when I was 8. My parents are both educators, and I am the second of five children; we were blessed to have a wonderful upbringing. And the best part about having four siblings is that you have four best friends your whole life.
What was your first car?
A Ford Fusion that I got in college. I made that decision in about an hour and a half. Now, that’s the kind of customer I love because they just walk in and leave with the car, and it’s fun for everyone.
How did you get involved in the auto industry?
After my second year of college, I made a huge decision to take a break from school for a bit. I needed to work while I was figuring things out, so I got a job in BMW Financial Services’ call center. It turns out I just fell in love with the whole idea of the career path it could open for me and with the business itself.
I went back and started taking classes at night, and I finished my bachelor’s and my master’s while I was working. And then, in 2012, I got offered a position in BMW’s headquarters in New Jersey. After that role, I went to Baton Rouge as a sales and marketing manager.
What brought you to Memphis?
When I was based in Baton Rouge, Roadshow BMW-MINI was in my market. One day when I was here for a meeting, my boss now, Randy, asked me if I was interested in a leadership position at the dealership, and I was like, wait, are you joking? I’ve never worked at a dealership, never changed a tire, never sold a car. But it turns out that he had an incredible vision that has rung very true — that my background with so many years of experience on the corporate side, and all my exposure to so many different processes and people, would all translate really well into the position that he offered me.
What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced in making that transition?
Aside from entering an entirely new facet of the automotive business, as well as the personal challenges that occur when you move to a new city, I probably can’t leave out the female aspect here. As most women in leadership positions experience, I feel that I have to work a lot harder than some of my counterparts to prove myself and earn credibility.
How do you feel that your leadership has created new opportunities for the business?
The automotive industry is, unfortunately, not a very diverse business right now — so I’m working really hard to change that. For example, we put in paid maternity leave this year. Being able to implement that benefit was incredible because it’s almost unheard of in automotive retail. But how do I expect other women to come work in automotive when they’re choosing between working at a dealership or working at an accounting firm or something that’s going to provide them 8-to-5 hours and six to eight weeks of paid maternity? It’s important to me to create more opportunities for more people in our business because it truly is an incredibly fun space to work in — and to continue to diversify our workforce so that we have a representation of all people.
What do you feel are the most important things for buyers to know when they are getting ready to walk in the door?
I want people to know that the car business is not scary. Our organization — from the top to the bottom — is full of good, decent people. We are very fair and transparent and honest.
I also want people to know that we’re a local business that wants to be involved in this amazing thing that’s happening in Memphis. We are working really hard to support that with our Roadshow Gives Back program. This program is probably the endeavor I am the most proud of since joining the team at Roadshow.
How do you feel cars are an expression of personal style?
Oh my gosh, how are they not? People who really, truly love their car, you can tell. I can look at the back of your car and know where you went to school or who you’re cheering for this weekend. I can tell what kind of dog you have or if you’ve run a marathon.
What are the first places that you take visitors to Memphis?
My 10-year-old niece really loves the zoo. I had some friends come up and visit from Baton Rouge, and the first thing we did was check out Beale Street. My older sister came to visit — she LOVES sunflowers, and the sunflowers were blooming at Shelby Farms. We had friends come in for Larry’s birthday in January, and we went to Flight, which is probably my favorite restaurant ever.
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What is your best advice?
The best advice I’ve ever been given is, “Just be yourself in every aspect of your job and every moment of your career.” This sounds so cliché and so easy, but it’s actually really challenging to completely be your true self. “Fake it ’til you make it” might be true for a while, but it doesn’t last. For me, being my true, authentic self means approaching all business interactions with kindness. I can’t tell you how many times I have been told to stop being so nice throughout my career … but I’ll just never do that!
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things that you can’t live without?
Black coffee! I have been buying the same black Nine West pumps over and over for like 10 years, and they’re the only heels that I can wear and not be dying at the end of the day. And my Weimaraner puppy; she has brought so much joy to my life.
Thank you, Karen! And thank you to Abbey Bratcher for the fabulous photos!
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