Tales of people who thrive in the face of adversity can be inspiring, but, as the story of Marion Luna Brem illustrates, in real life, there's no such thing as "happily ever after." In the real world, there's always a sequel.
Ms. Brem's unbelievable ascent from being a single mom with terminal cancer and no health insurance to a millionaire owner of one of the top car dealerships in Texas is the stuff of national news. Indeed, over the years, it has landed her on TV programs such as the Oprah Winfrey Show and Good Morning America, and in newspapers such as USA.Today and The Washington Post.
Her success has also landed her the "Avon Women of Enterprise" and "Inc. Magazine Entrepreneur of the Year" awards, as well as recognition from this magazine as one of the "100 Most Influential Hispanics in the United States."
But for Ms. Brem, author of two self-help business books and owner of the Love Chrysler dealership in Corpus Christi, Texas, it's time for the sequel, and the sequel is the bad economy.
Love Chrysler is among scores of other dealerships across America to be feeling the pinch. Since July, the company has laid off 25 percent of the workforce, and is down to 65 employees.
Ordinary employers might be tempted to lay low and scale back. Not Ms. Brem. Despite the gathering gloom of the recession, she's leaning into the fight by seeking to expand. In February, she made an application to launch a new Jeep franchise.
Ms. Brem says her bold approach to business is the product of the perspective gained from surviving a near-death experience. In short, it lent her the courage to kick caution to the curb when necessary.
"I have a chest with lots of scars you could play tic-tac-toe on, but I wouldn't trade the courage I decided upon as a result of my cancer experience for the most perfect body," she said, speaking in a slight Texas accent by phone. "None of us has the luxury of time. We're just a speck."
In a sense, the seriousness of Ms. Brem's current battle for economic survival pales in comparison to that of her previous struggles.
For Ms. Brem, who is now in her early 50s, life had cruised along pretty smoothly until age 30, when she felt a lump on her left breast. At the time, she was married to a military man, and spent most of her time as a stay-at-home mom raising two sons.
Doctors found an aggressive cancer in her left breast, as well as her cervix. Then they told her she had no more than five years to live.
Ms. Brem underwent surgery for a hysterectomy, and then 12 weeks later had her left breast removed. She also went through chemotherapy, at the expense of her hair. But that's not all. Not long after, her husband lost his medical insurance. The resulting stress proved too much for their marriage, and they divorced.
Though Ms. Brem -- who was a straight-A student in high school growing up in New Mexico-- was pursuing an engineering degree at the time, she had to drop out of college and look for a job. (She later graduated from the Executive Education program at the Harvard School of Business.)
Ms. Brem had little in the way of hard skills, but was personable, and at the urging of a friend, decided to try sales.
"I had a homemakers' resume, is about all," she recalls.
Because she'd once worked at an auto dealership as a part-time switchboard operator, it seemed like a pretty natural place to start. Ms. Brem, who was bald for two years after the chemo, threw on a wig, hopped in her old beater of a Pinto station wagon and drove to the dealership.
The owner said "Thanks, but no thanks." So did the next 15 dealerships to which she applied. It was the 17th dealer, an Oldsmobile outfit in Dallas, who gave Ms. Brem her first chance.
The owner told Ms. Brem she seemed "like the nervy type," and that he'd been "thinking about hiring a broad lately."
She sold her first car at age 32, to a "ruffled Texan" whose first words to her were: "I ain't never bought from a woman, and I ain't about to start today." That same day, he ended up driving a brand-new 1988 Oldsmobile off the lot.
Two months later, Ms. Brem was "salesman of the month." Twelve months later, she was "salesman of the year."
A couple years into her new profession, Ms. Brem struck out on her own. With the help of a silent investor, she opened the dealership, naming it Love Chrysler.
Within two years, she bought out her partner. By the time Ms. Brem was 36, she was CEO of her own company.
Though success came swiftly, it wasn't instantaneous. At first, Ms. Brem said, men tended to challenge her technical expertise. In response, she overcompensated, cramming her head full of "under the hood" facts and statistics, and then spewing them at potential customers.
"What I learned is I was actually turning people off with my arsenal of information; I was boring them," she said.
Instead of telling a couple with young children that a vehicle contains 28.6 gallons of gas, she learned to appeal to their interests: the vehicle allows a family to make a round-trip to San Antonio without having to stop for gas.
In this way, Ms. Brem – author of the book "Women Make the Best Salesmen" -- says, women tend to have an advantage over men.
"We are trained in relationships," she said. "I believe where there is no relationship, there is no transaction."
Women, she said, also tend to empathize with the customer, even if they don't have all the answers.
By contrast, she said, men tend to be solution-oriented, which also has its advantages.
"I think it's the yin and the yang," she said.
Nationwide, less than 3 percent of all car dealerships are owned by women, according to the National Auto Dealers Association. Meanwhile, Ms. Brem says, 80 percent of all car-buying decisions are made by women, "and I believe the other 20 percent hold veto power."
In Ms. Brem's first book, "The 7 Truths About Successful Women," she urges struggling women – and men, for that matter – to stop asking "Why me?" and replace the question with "What now?"
Now, as she navigates her company down a dark economic road with no streetlights and many potential hazards, she's again having to follow her own advice.
"I've been in this business 19 years, and I've never seen it this rough," she said. But in her trademark way, Ms. Brem sees opportunity in the roadblocks.
"I just look at the obstacles like they are there to stop the other guy, and to test how badly I want it," she said. "There's nothing to test your commitment more than the risk of losing something."
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