Joe Girard is one of those rare creatures: a highly motivated man who can communicate his inspiration and attitudes to others. Joe refers to it as “spark.” In his own words, “sparks create fires.” His first sparks would come painfully at an early age. He was born on the east side of Detroit, Michigan, in one of the city’s most deplorable ghettos. He lived about one mile from one of his earliest heroes, Joe Louis, who escaped from poverty and became heavyweight champion boxer of the world while Joe was still a struggling adolescent.
The initial struggle began with his own father, Antonino Girardi, an extremely poor man of Sicilian birth who found no success in his new country and vented his bitterness, both physically and emotionally, upon his younger son. Joe often speculates as to whether his father’s behavior was the carefully planned campaign of a man who desperately wished to challenge his son. Whatever the truth, the senior Girardi chose to constantly berate his son with the message that Joe would never amount to anything worthwhile. This was Joe’s first spark: the determination to prove that his father had been wrong.
At the same time, Joe’s mother fed him her constant love and belief that, indeed, Joe was capable of succeeding in life. This was Joe’s second spark: to show his mother that her love and judgment had not been misplaced.
These two sparks led to Joe’s first revelation: that smart work and persistence could work wonders. At the age of 9, after school and a hurried dinner, Joe patrolled the neighborhood bars for some shoe shine customers. He would not have thought of it in these terms, but after examining the market he decided that the best source for business was a place of leisure where people were relaxed and inclined to be generous. Bars had another advantage in bad weather: they were warm. To this day, Joe’s two most precious possessions are his original shoe shine box, sitting proudly upon the one file cabinet of his office, along with a photograph of Joe shining shoes in a saloon. The experience taught him another valuable lesson: a fear of alcohol. Joe is willing to have an occasional drink, but he has never forgotten what he saw in those bars.
His joy with this success led to his next enterprise as a news carrier. At the age of 11, he took his second job as a news carrier for the Detroit Free Press. Because it was, and still is, a morning paper, it was necessary to be up at 5:30 a.m. to complete his route before school. The Free Press, he quickly learned, also offered bonuses for enterprising newsboys who were willing to solicit and gain new business. For each new customer, the reward was a case of Pepsi–Cola. The old barn behind the Girardi house was soon stacked high with the rewards of Joe’s efforts. Although it provided the four Girardi children with a huge supply of soda pop, something their parents couldn’t possibly afford, Joe soon realized that he had a growing inventory of value and soon began his third business venture as soda pop supplier to the neighborhood children at a price no ordinary vendor could meet. His proudest moments were on those days when he brought his earnings to his mother; no childish gesture as his pennies helped to put badly needed food on the Girardi table.
The Detroit Free Press can probably be credited with the first insight given to Joe with regard to exceptional progress. A contest was proclaimed for the solicitation of new readers. The grand prize was to be a new, sparkling two–wheeler bicycle. Now 12 years of age, this driven youngster had never possessed a bike. Joe knew the secret that could win the bike. He would spend every unused, waking moment knocking on doors and asking for business. This had always been his secret. He knew that it worked — what he could not comprehend was why the other newsboys did not see the obvious. Joe won more than the bicycle. He won the knowledge that if he planned his work and worked his plan, he could succeed. He learned that most people were not willing to make this sacrifice. As he once said,
any one of those kids could have beat me, but they weren’t willing to work. They didn’t want it badly enough.
Joe’s teen years were difficult and bitter, especially at home. His natural spirit and pride brought him, time after time, into direct conflict with an increasingly bitter and vengeful father. Almost regularly he ordered Joe from the Girardi home. From the age of 14, Joe spent many of his nights sleeping in boxcars at the Grand Trunk Railroad yards, located directly across the street from his home. In bad weather, he used 25¢ a night flop houses. At this age he was now able to seek more rewarding employment after school, such as dishwasher, dock loader at the produce terminal, delivery boy, and pageboy at the Book–Cadillac Hotel. He also devoted some evenings to the neighborhood pool hall, trying to hustle additional dollars. He lived with the constant fear that if he didn’t bring home sufficient money he would have to face his father’s anger.
Formal education for Joe ended during the eleventh grade. He was talking during a study period and was addressed by the school principal, but not by his name. Well aware of the existence of bigotry, but not willing to bow to it, Joe advised the man that he would not respond until he was called by his proper name. The principal stated “you people don’t seem to understand how society will be run” and then called Joe a derogatory name reflecting upon his Sicilian ancestry. Joe’s heated reaction resulted in his permanent dismissal from school.
At the age of 16, Joe obtained full–time employment at the Michigan Stove Company as a stove assembler. He earned $75 weekly, his greatest earnings thus far, even though it required 12–hour days, six days a week.
He then went to work as an assistant to a fruit and vegetable vendor who merchandised his goods on the east side of Detroit from the back of a truck. He enjoyed the outdoor work and was proud of his sales ability, but he realized one day that there was no future in this pursuit.
Dispirited and aimless, Joe joined the United States Army Infantry at the age of 18. Ninety seven days later, at Fort Knox, Kentucky, Joe fell from the rear of a speeding military vehicle and badly injured his back. He was given an honorable discharge after admitting to previously injuring his back diving for the school swimming team.
During the next two years, Joe would move from one unsatisfactory job to another, constantly frustrated with the belief that his lack of education kept him from all but manual labor. He was often discouraged, but never gave up hope. He felt that somewhere in the world there was a place for him. He had the good fortune to meet Mr. Abraham Saperstein, a building contractor. Mr. Saperstein, a warm, generous, and understanding man, became his surrogate father when he invited Joe to enter the building business with the pledge that he would teach Joe everything he knew. He’d finally found his niche in life. The relationship between Joe and Mr. Saperstein grew over the years until his dear old friend retired and turned over the business to Joe.
Joe contracted to build a number of private homes in a Detroit subdivision. He accepted the word of a real estate speculator that the area was to have a sewer system installed, but this was not true. Individual septic tanks would have to be installed, greatly reducing the value of the homes. As a result, Joe lost his business. Joe Girard found himself without a job, without savings, and in debt to the tune of $60,000 when money was money. It was the lowest moment in his life.
The next year Joe would find himself in an endless struggle trying to recover his losses and his ego. Things would finally hit rock bottom when June Girard tearfully told her husband that there was no food in the house and that their kids were begging for something to eat.
Joe had been job hunting without success, but on that day he pleaded with the sales manager of a Chevrolet dealership to hire him as a salesman. The manager was reluctant because of his lack of experience and traditionally slow sales in the month of January, but Joe stated that he would only take a desk somewhere in the rear of the dealership and count on the telephone to provide prospects. That evening he sold his first car and borrowed $10 from the manager to bring a bag of groceries home to his family. In his second month he would sell eighteen cars and trucks and was beginning to feel he had a secure breath. Much to his amazement, the owner of the dealership fired him for being too aggressive. Some of the other salesmen had complained.
At this point, Joe knew he could sell cars. He had proved it to himself, and was ready to prove it to the world — including Antonino Girardi. Joe quickly found employment at Merollis Chevrolet in Eastpointe, Michigan, working at what he did better than anyone else in the world, selling automobiles!
One day an Italian man came in to buy a car. Joe had the deal all set until the customer asked Joe what nationality he was. Joe said that he was Sicilian. When the customer heard that, he blew up and said “I wouldn’t buy a car from a Diego” and walked out. (“Diego” is a derogatory term for someone of Sicilian decent.) When that happened, Joe called his printer and told him to drop the “i” off of “Girardi” and make it “Girard”.
For 12 straight years, Joe sold more new retail cars and trucks than any other salesperson. More as an individual than most dealers sell in total. No other salesperson has ever retained this title for more than one year, and not for both cars and trucks.
In his own words, Joe recalls a very important decision he made that helped him attain the #1 spot:
“As I said in my book, How to Sell Anything to Anybody—
Time and money well spent will build your business tremendously. Always look for new and better ways to do it.
And I found one! Early on in my career, I experienced the need to make a financial investment. After the third year of my automotive retail sales career I was already doing very well. In fact, I became the number one new retail car and truck salesman in the world; a title I never relinquished until I retired. My record of 13,001 vehicles still has not been broken!
It was after that third year that my CPA convinced me I was giving more money to the government than I needed to. He made me realize that my time was far too valuable to be distracted with things like endless paperwork, phone calls, showing cars and service follow–ups, etc. I decided I needed to get some support so I could concentrate on the thing I did best – SELLING. I hired an individual to help take care of the pre–qualifying and screening process.
It made a big difference. I couldn’t believe how I was actually selling more new cars and trucks and yet was feeling less tired! I took it a step further. Seven months later I hired another person to help with the business growth. It was this key investment I made that enabled me to experience the unparalleled growth and success I’ve been fortunate to have had in the automotive retail business.
During the last 12 years, I had so much business it was by appointment only. I ran my business just like a doctor’s office. First you see the receptionist then the nurse before you see the doctor. By the time I was talking to a potential buyer they’d been screened and pre–qualified. I knew everything I needed to know about that customer. Now don’t get me wrong on this. You have to be in a certain category to consider making this kind of investment. You have to be approaching a growth level where your time spent on actually selling is too valuable to be overshadowed by all the “behind the scenes” things that have to be done. Another important thing to remember is that expenses for support staff (who were employed by me, not the dealership) are TAX DEDUCTIBLE.
If you’re not in that category yet, don’t worry, because this message is for you too! I started with just a phone and a desk and nothing else. Be patient and stay the course. Follow my 13 rules for success. As your business begins to grow, you will begin to see the need for support so that you can concentrate on your specialty… SELLING.”
I know it works. My results are all the evidence you need!