Special Profile Series: Robert Guerrero


WESTCHESTER, Ill. - 

AR: You now live in Houston, but has that always been home?

Guerrero: I’m a Houston boy — born and raised here. I grew up in the inner city of Houston on the east side of town, and then when the high school years came around, we moved to the suburbs. My Dad wanted me to have a more stable environment, and that was the principal reason we moved.
The inner city was rough; the neighborhood I grew up in was very tough. It was the “hood”, complete with gangs, drugs, thefts … you name it. I saw street life at a really young age.

AR: You’re right; it must have been a tough neighborhood.  How about your core family? How did they deal with these stresses?

Guerrero: We are a very loving family, but like a lot of families, we had our problems. My parents divorced when I was young, and at about the age of 11, I went to live with my Dad. I thought it was more cool to live with my father than my mother at that time but what I didn’t appreciate then, like I do now, was the fact that I was heading into such a tough neighborhood with a lot of negative influences. In addition, Dad was, and still is, in sales at a dealership and was working six days a week. I had just too much free time on my hands.

Luckily, my grandparents were there as a support system during the transition from moving from mom’s to dad’s place. We actually lived with them and near them at different periods,  and my grandfather would do a lot of things with me and for me … like drive me to school, take me to football practice … things like that. At the time, I probably thought he was just helping out, but he probably was looking out for me and making sure I did not let the neighborhood drag me into its grip.

AR: Certainly, those experiences at such an early age had to have had an impact on shaping your vision of life.

Guerrero: I know it did. And I’ve never wanted my daughters to have to experience the kind of challenges I had to endure.
But on the flip side, I never want them to forget where our family’s roots are from either. I take them at times back to the old neighborhood so they can get an appreciation of a life that others have to live. We visit the graves of family members and eat as a family at one of the neighborhood restaurants. It is still rough, maybe even rougher than it was.

Now I don’t want to say everything was bad. Sure there were the gangs and guys who did drugs and stole cars, but there were a lot of good families as well, who might have been poor financially but were rich in values. It was those guys who were my friends and with whom I hung around, and as a matter of fact, one of them is still one of my best friends today. Many of us were athletes so we did a lot of things together. The things we did to get into trouble would be considered minor compared to the troubles that some of the other guys were getting into.

AR: Who was someone who had a major influence on your life and kept you out of serious trouble?

Guerrero: Certainly my grandfather played such a role. He is definitely one of my most favorite people of all time, if not my favorite person. Since my father worked such long hours at the dealership, I spent a lot of time with my grandfather who had just retired from owning his own restaurant. In fact, I think that is where I get a lot of my work ethic. Even after he closed the restaurant after 28 years, he would make homemade tamales to sell by the dozen. Thursday mornings was the day the house smelled like a Mexican restaurant!

He just never stopped. He would get up and make up to 200 dozen tamales, and by Friday our house would look like Grand Central Station as people came in and out to buy tamales. And in our culture, if you find a source of good tamales, you definitely want them for the weekend or holidays! That hustle never stopped; from a work ethic standpoint he is the one who pushed me. I learned from that.

AR: He shepherded you quite a bit.

Guerrero: Exactly.

AR: Speaking of culture, it always has appeared that family is very important in the Hispanic culture.

Guerrero: Absolutely. The family is not just what we call the nuclear family, but the extended family as well.

As men in our family grow up and get married, they tend to gravitate more to their wife’s family, and my wife’s family is very traditional. While I continue to be close to my family, we tend to do more with hers. It is not unusual to see 10 or 20 people going to lunch together. Holidays are something else. On Christmas holidays you could easily see close up to 100 people exchanging gifts well into the morning hours, 25 or 30 kids opening gifts one behind the other. It’s great (laughter). We exchange gifts on Christmas Eve so it is not at all unusual to be driving back home at four or five o’clock in the morning on Christmas Day. That is a highlight of the year.

AR: Any siblings?

Guerrero: I have both a younger sister and brother.  I am the first-born. My sister and I are close together in age, but there is a substantial age difference with my younger brother because he was born to my mother’s second marriage.

AR: Do you see attributes of both your mother and father in you? If so, which one do you tend to be like?

Guerrero:  It’s funny in that I used to think I was more like my Dad, but now I see a lot of my mother in me. She is a grinder, going and going and never stopping. I’m a lot like that. She is also a very giving person, and I try to be like that.

My Dad is a very loving man, and I definitely would categorize him as “having the gift of talking”… after all, he is in sales at a local Houston-area car dealership (laughter). I’ve also got some of that talker in me too. Now he is the manager-type to help others close deals.

AR: Tells us a little about your interest in sports.

Guerrero: I played both football and baseball, but I was a better football player. I had the height and size and was good enough to attract the interest of several small colleges, but later in high school my focus shifted from continuing my education to making money and being cool (probably a mistake). I had the grades, but because my father worked so much I just didn’t have the supervision, and from that the discipline to focus on the right things. When you had good grades but with no one at home, you would do things like show up for school late, leave early, the kind of things a 16-year-old without supervision would do. Things were coming too easy.

Now looking back, without that parental structure, I made some poor decisions and that is one of the reasons I am so involved in my daughters’ lives. I make sure I ask about their days constantly since I travel so much. If I had been more disciplined and concentrated more on football, I may have been able to get a scholarship and go to college.  Of course, if I had done that, no telling how my life would be different.

AR: Now if you back up a few years, more to middle school or early high school, what did you think you might like to do as a career?

Guerrero: You may think this is funny, but I actually wanted to be an FBI agent. I didn’t want to be a regular police officer but instead be either a DEA agent or with the FBI, a federal law enforcement officer.

I also thought I might like to be a lawyer! Of course, all of that dreaming went away when I decided not to go to college right out of high school.

AR: What did you do after high school?

Guerrero: I went to work immediately.

When I was a high school senior I had gotten a job waiting tables, and along with the familiarity of the restaurant business from my grandfather’s restaurant, I was very much at home in that world. I was 17 when I first went to work with the restaurant and had to wait until I turned 18 to wait tables, where the best money was to be made. I worked hard, impressed management and before I was even 20 they made me a manager. A year after that I was an assistant general manager, and before long I was running a store.

One good thing led to another and it wasn’t long before I am in charge of opening stores, managing people. At the time, I was only 21 or 22 years old. I was hardly old enough to drink!  Now I made a lot of mistakes, you have to if you are managing a $4 million restaurant and only 21, but it was a great experience and I loved it.

AR: You certainly out-paced your former classmates who did go to college.

Guerrero: Exactly. They were studying for final exams and here I was driving a nice car, making a strong salary with no debt. Now I did have to work all the time in this line of work, along with working crazy hours. I one time worked over 90 hours in one week.

AR: So what happened? Why are you not still in the restaurant business?

Guerrero: It changed when we had a store audit coming up, and I worked from the wee hours of the morning until well past midnight. I was extremely tired, and when driving home I went to sleep at the wheel. The next thing I knew there was a lot of noise, and I was going across a field and weeds were flying everywhere. Luckily, I didn’t hit anything solid.

That day, I was done. I didn’t quit that day, but I made the decision that I had to change careers. I was done.

AR: So what happened?

Guerrero: Coincidentally, I found out a local whole-car auction was looking for an entry level salesperson who spoke Spanish. I talked with my Dad because he knew the car business and told him they only wanted to offer me this very low salary, a far cry from what I had been making in the restaurant business. My wife also played a role in this decision process because she had previously worked there years before we met, but the hours were much more appealing.
Of course I had considered going to work at the dealership with my Dad but that meant weekends, and I had had enough weekend work to last me a lifetime from the restaurant business. Although the money was nothing like I was used to, I was in ok shape financially, and something about the auction business really appealed to me. So I took the gamble and did it.

AR: You were still pretty young.

Guerrero: I think I was about 23. And it was the best decision I ever made.

AR: What was your first job?

Guerrero: I was an outside salesperson calling on dealers, primarily in the “hood”. I knew Little Mexico very well, and all of the areas they wanted me to cover as well. And it made Dad proud as well, especially as I have taken on more and more industry leadership roles.

But I would have not gotten to where I am today without a lot of hard work, but I was used to hard work coming out of the restaurant business. In fact, working my tail off in the restaurants was good training for what I was able to do at the auction. Back then, a lot of auction people were working regular 40-hour weeks and I was used to 70 or 80 hours a week. I just kept up the same pace I was used to.

AR: That is like having two employees in one.

Guerrero: (Laughter). Right. I’d ask: What’s the record for sales calls in a day? 43? OK, I’m going try to do 50! I made it a practice to get in early and stay late.

AR: Sometimes when the “new kid” comes on like a ball of fire, older guys don’t like it. Did you run into that?

Guerrero: Absolutely. We — within a year or so I had recruited other hard workers from my old restaurant days — came in with a passion. Within six months, I had been named as a sales supervisor and we had made a significant improvement in the auction’s conversion rate. Our drive became infectious, and the auction changed a lot of ways it was doing business.

It was definitely a change. In the restaurant business, there is a service mentality … you look customers in the eye and ask how can I help you. We took that approach to every dealer we talked with, and we began bringing new dealers to the auction one by one. The sales people, especially the ones recruited from the restaurant business, were real drivers. As a result, the business quadrupled in a relatively short period and everyone was happy.

AR: How many years did it take?

Guerrero: Four to five years. We began to be noticed and won several auction performance awards.

AR: With that success, why the change into a different side of the industry?

Guerrero: We had a lot of success, but at times I wasn’t smart enough to duck, so at times I put myself in bad spots. I was young and probably should have handled corporate management better than I did, but I didn’t. Go figure, now I am that corporate type manager I drove crazy back then. I’m really thankful for a lot of the good people from Manheim for taking a chance on me because without them I wouldn’t be sitting here today with you.

The IAA job came about when I met with a recruiter they had hired. We hit it off, and he said he needed to get me to Chicago for another  round of interviews. I got to Chicago for the interview a few short weeks later, and I was wowed by how great the IAA people were. . My wife and I had just had our first daughter so I looked at the IAA opportunity as a fresh start across the board.

AR: When you interviewed with IAA, did you have to compete with other candidates?

Guerrero: Absolutely. Not only were there other candidates, there were some auction people I knew and who knew me.

AR: So why were you selected? And what was the job title?

Guerrero: The title was national program manager, which was a dealer sales manager on a national level. It was the company’s first venture into dealing directly with dealers, and I think my experience of dealing directly with dealers impressed them.
You never know for sure why a company hires you over other applicants, but I think it was because I came in very prepared. I didn’t show up just with a suit on. I came in and was able to discuss the current market conditions in my market, who the players in the market were and what I thought was realistic to come this way. Also, I explained what I thought it would take to make these goals achievable.
I remember I had down my top ten potentials, those I would go after first. Now remember, I had a lot to learn about the difference between salvage and whole-car, but at that time I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Looking back, I’m not sure I got much business from those top ten targets but that organized approach seemed to impress IAA.
That is how it (the relationship) started and from that point onward we have been building.

AR: It seems your career has been on building something up — first the restaurant then the auction and now the opportunity to build the sales force at IAA.

Guerrero: That’s right. I don’t look at myself like most employees … working for a corporation mentality. Instead, I approach this like a business within a corporation. I am technically corporate, but in my heart I am still a field guy. I now understand both worlds. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to learn how both the auction world and the corporate work.

My office is in the field; I don’t even have an office at corporate because I am out all the time.  I want to be out there with my team, working with them and supporting them. I cannot be the guy who shows up once and awhile with a briefcase and a business card.

AR: Certainly a lot has changed since you first arrived. How is it different today than back then?

Guerrero: The learning never stops, and there are some similarities between the whole-car world and salvage, but I quickly found out there are tremendous differences as well. Salvage is international; we play so much more on an international stage dealing with damaged units, while the typical auction is more regional. That mirrors our auction strategy of incorporating both the live and the live online auctions for our buyers. That’s key for us.

Our organization can be dealing with what the Chinese government will allow (for imports) one day and helping a dealer in Ghana learn how to buy cars the next. I’m learning how things work in the Middle East, how things work in Europe, what tax rates are and what tariffs are in different parts of the world, what ports you can get cars into. That is stuff I would never have learned if I had stayed on the whole-car side. That is knowledge that is in me now.

AR: On the world stage there are a lot of different opportunities.

Guerrero: Definitely, and when one segment gets soft you work other segments. For example, when lease cars started drying up, we went to the body shops, the tow yards.

But we also realized there is a different buyer base internationally. When I meet a buyer at a conference who says he is looking to get some cars into Northern Iraq, I ask him if he is taking them through the port in Turkey? He looks at me like how do you know that? I say, well I’ve been told that is the best way to get them to that part of Iraq.

We’re putting personal relationships out there. For instance, our organization had over 1,200 people show up over a two day span in Africa to learn how to bid on our platform. We’re holding those types of meetings all over the world. It’s all about education; that is a big part of our job, not just selling them something. We teach buyers what they can buy here, and we teach sellers how these new buyers open new opportunities for them.
But these opportunities put a lot of pressure on me. My wife jokes that I spend so much time on the Internet, but that is because I am always studying. I am always reading. I read nearly every article you guys put out whether it directly impacts me or not. I call it being a student of the game. That education gives me perspective on the entire industry, and we ask that our sales team in the field takes that same approach.

AR: It sounds like the corporate office also shares that vision.

Guerrero: That is where I am blessed. Tom O’Brien and his leadership team have a ton of faith in us, and maybe it is the Texan in me, but I don’t want to ever let the man down!

AR: With that type of support you must feel that IAA is where your career should be.

Guerrero: Absolutely. Absolutely.  My plan is to work another 10 to 15 years and then be done … but to do it here. I am very happy where I am, and the vast number of opportunities this job provides is exciting. At the end of the day, I could not work for a better company. I have been blessed with the company’s vision and passion.

AR: There has to be some time away from the work grind. Tell us a little about that.

Guerrero: As I said earlier, family in our culture is very important and although I spent 179 days on the road last year, when I am home I am committed to the family. We are very involved in the College Exposure program that helps young athletes showcase their skills in order to better position them to get college scholarships.

I work with the girls, 16-and-under, with fast-pitch softball. This is not your Friday night softball image with a lot of girls just having a good time, but an intense national, fast-pitch program. It is very intense because our goal is to help these girls get ready for the college recruiting that will start when they reach high school. It is a select program that is also called “club” or “travel ball”.

I have 13 girls I am responsible for, making sure they get the college scholarships they need at the schools they want to attend. It is a strictly volunteer program, but I look at it as my “second” job. Of course, dealing with 14- or 15-year-old girls can sometimes be challenging … they can have an attitude!

AR: That is interesting. What exactly do you do and how did you get started?

Guerrero: My oldest daughter got interested in softball when she was about five, was pretty good, and when she was about eight we got into the select program. We have been doing it ever since.

As I said, I coach a college exposure team. On top of that, I am the United States Fast Pitch director for the Texas region (laughter). So, I have my business world with all my people, my family, the softball team I run day-to-day and then I am the regional director. Whew! It never stops, but I love it.

I’ve coached over 1,400 games, and last year our team was national co-champions at the 14u World Series in Florida with mostly 13-year-old girls. Over the past few years, our team has won over 40 trophies.

AR: Is your other daughter also into fast-pitch softball?

Guerrero: The little one (daughter) is tall and beautiful with big dreams, but those dreams do not include fast-pitch softball. She wants to be an actress and singer and be in Hollywood (laughter). She says she has to keep her nails looking good so her hands will look good when they take her handprints on the Hollywood Walk of Fame! She has big lofty goals.

The funny thing is I see a lot of those big-dream traits my daughters have as feelings I had growing up. What’s that saying? What goes around comes around!

AR: Sounds like bonding.

Guerrero: Let me tell a quick story. With me traveling so much I missed a special father/daughter event with my youngest daughter, rather like the take-your-daughter-to-work program. She was the only one in her class who had nothing to write about so you can imagine the tears. I felt terrible.

So, I told her I was going to take her on a trip to Nashville, just the two of us. There had been a flood in Nashville, and there was a fundraising concert for flood victims. She is a big Taylor Swift fan, and the concert turned into a benefit for flood victims starring Taylor Swift and 13 other artists. It was a four-hour concert!

Later, when we returned home, I saw something she had written talking about the flood, the concert and the time with me. She concluded by saying it was the greatest day of her life.

I was done. Now we go on annual trips!

AR: We can see why family is so important. Are there a lot of family vacations?

Guerrero: Yes, but to be honest, we tie these around the softball tournaments we are playing in. But we travel all over the country, to places like Florida, Denver and Los Angeles. We like to travel as a family.

Because I travel so much, my wife has the principal job of raising our daughters. That’s a full-time job, so we really treasure the time we can all spend together.

AR: One final question: Is work still fun?

Guerrero: Absolutely. I have the greatest job one could ever imagine. I love it.

 Robert Guerrero is the vice president of national sales for Insurance Auto Auctions Inc.

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