Politics and cars may make strange bedfellows, but Robert Nesen has parlayed both avocations into a long, illustrious and decorated career. Nesen, a 1991 recipient of a Distinguished Service Citation from the Automotive Hall of Fame, has combined two careers into one spectacular life: as a car dealer, he has built one of California ‘s most respected dealerships; as a politician, he has been elbow-to-elbow with several presidents, and has served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and as ambassador to Australia and Nauru. And he says politics and selling cars are a natural combination. “Diplomacy is involved in both,” he said with a laugh. “You have to be able to please people and yourself in both professions.”
Certainly, selling cars was Nesen’s first calling. His grandfather was a Buick dealer from 1918-30, but had to sell his business because of a serious illness. That planted the seed for Nesen to enter the business, but, instead, he almost listened to some poor advice. “After World War II, people were saying everyone would have two airplanes in their garage and no cars,” he said. “So I went into aviation sales and service. Well, it didn’t take me long to realize that what people were going to have would be three cars and no planes. So, I returned to selling cars.
I’ve never regretted that decision. It’s a challenging, vibrant career.” Actually, Nesen had been selling cars part-time to finance his way through college. But it wasn’t long before he acquired his first dealership-an Oldsmobile franchise-and began his meteoric climb to the top. “In my first year as an Oldsmobile dealer, we grossed $167,000, and I thought that was fantastic,” he said. “In 1990, through the first 11 months, we took in $136,000,000. That’s how much this business has changed.”
Nesen, who houses seven different dealerships on one block, said the biggest transformation he’s seen has been the size of dealerships. “The days of the mom ‘n’ pop operations are over, in much the same way mom ‘n’ pop grocery stores are a thing of the past,” he said. “Also a thing of the past are single-franchise dealers. The multi-franchise dealer is the wave of the future.” One of the consequences, Nesen said, is a change in the way consumers shop. “We’ll see customers come in, and they’ll look at our Lexus, Infiniti and Acura models,” he said. “They won’t be able to make up their minds immediately, but, almost invariably, they will buy one before they ‘re through.”
Nesen has built this automotive empire while nurturing a highly successful political career as well. That career began when he met Pat Nixon’s brother while in the Naval Reserve. He invited Nesen to have dinner with Richard and Pat, and Nesen ended up working every Nixon campaign beginning with Nixon’s 1950 run for the Senate. It was Nixon who appointed Nesen Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1972, and that position gave Nesen a memorable experience. “The Assistant Secretary of the Navy is, in reality, comptroller,” he said. “I was being interviewed by Melvin Laird (Nixon’s Secretary of Defense) who explained to me that I’d be watchdogging the largest budget of any service at $32 billion. ‘I can’t relate to how much that admitted to Laird. ‘That’s all right,’ Laird said. ‘Neither do I.”‘
Nesen took Ronald Reagan to a Republican fundraiser in 1960, while the Gipper was still a Democrat. He switched parties shortly thereafter, and when Reagan became president, he called on Nesen to be his ambassador to Australia and Nauru. “Nauru is the smallest independent nation in the world,” Nesen said. “How small? When I arrived to inspect the army, the entire army consisted of eight policemen!” Nesen calls his stay in Australia and Nauru “the crowning jewel” in his career, and said he still keeps in contact with several leaders he met as ambassador.
During that four-year stint (1981-85) as ambassador, Nesen’s sons ran the business. In fact, Nesen ‘s three sons have followed him into the car business- and that makes him happy. “This is one of the most exciting businesses in the world,” he said. “That hasn’t changed. I’d encourage young people to try it. They have to love cars, and they have to realize two things: first, it’s not an eight-to-five job, though there is ample opportunity to get time off; second, they should get all the schooling they can in business and sales, and then learn the rest on the job.”
Nesen says there’s no magic formula to success, and he ‘s happy to share his with anyone. “I never had a low golf score,” he said. “I never had time to get better at golf. The key to success is hard work, and plenty of it. Still, there are many rewards, both personal and financial. It’s a great industry.” Spoken like a true ambassador-and a true success.