Nothing But Net–Working
via the Florida Tech Today
Forget the golf course! For CarMax CEO Tom Folliard Jr., business connections begin at center court. The leader of the largest used car retailer in the world ascended from small-town obscurity to Fortune 500 success with a basketball in hand.
With a new baby on the way and a freshly earned business degree, Panther Basketball Hall of Famer Tom Folliard Jr. ’89 realized it was time to buckle down and get a job. He had always done his best work on the basketball court, and as fate would have it, it was his key to career success as well.
A fellow baller at the Grant Street Community Center court was an auto wholesaler who bought and sold cars at auction. He needed a driver, and Folliard needed a job.
“I was kind of like an independent broker,” explains Folliard. “That’s how I got into the car business. I drove all over the state of Florida and bought and sold cars.”
This was wholesale, not retail. Folliard interfaced with dealers and auction houses, not individuals. It wasn’t glamorous—he earned straight commission with no benefits—yet the charismatic basketball star was creating his shot.
Around the same time, bygone home electronics giant Circuit City had decided to diversify their retail business. They wanted to get into used cars, and they needed a buyer—someone with the know-how to build their used car inventory.
While conducting market research, the CEO of Circuit City read a trade article ranking Jim Rathmann Chevrolet as the biggest used car dealer in the country (in little Melbourne, Fla., imagine that!). Eager to learn the tips to their success, a team of Circuit City executives traveled to Melbourne to investigate.
Turns out, the figures reported in the article were wholesale, not retail, and the sales were made by Folliard’s broker gig, which had an informal partnership with the dealership for financing.
Folliard met with the unidentified executives (who were keeping the Circuit City thing quiet) and tried to sell them some cars.
“They said they were going to buy a ton of cars, like 400 cars a month, which was ridiculous. I could tell they didn’t really know what they were talking about. And, they looked like they had money. They were wearing suits, and I was wearing an FIT practice jersey and flip-flops,” laughs Folliard, in his fast-talking, light-hearted Bostonesque swagger. “It was like the trifecta. I showed them around the shop and tried to convince them they should buy cars from me!”
A few months later, the mystery executives called with a job offer—they were a Fortune 500 company expanding into the car business and they needed a buyer. But … the job was in Richmond, Va.
The Boston native, who had once aspired to return to the Northeast, had now comfortably settled into a Melbourne Beach home—complete with half-court basketball court, painted Celtics green—and life was good. He wasn’t interested.
They insisted. All expenses paid. Fly to Richmond for an interview and see what you think.
Unexpectedly, Folliard was among four finalists of a national recruitment search for the first CarMax buyer. And a pick-up game helped seal the deal.
“On my second interview, they told me to bring my sneakers,” says Folliard. “I played basketball at the corporate headquarters with a bunch of Circuit City people, two of whom I later hired on at CarMax and are in top leadership positions today.”
Folliard went to work for CarMax in 1992, a year before CarMax even existed.
“We actually had a name-the-company contest,” he quips. “The winner got a set of steak knives.”
Market research, focus groups and industry analysis helped the fledging enterprise craft its core concept—no hassle, no haggle car buying. And selling.
In the past 20 years, Folliard has grown from senior buyer to director of purchasing to vice president of merchandising to senior vice president of store operations to executive vice president of store operations and, currently, president and chief executive officer. In that same span, CarMax has grown from one superstore in Richmond with a 500-vehicle inventory to 108 superstores nationwide earning $10 billion in revenue.
So, what does the CEO of this automotive powerhouse do on a daily basis?
“It’s different every single day,” he admits.
He travels a lot—meeting with investors, interacting with employees, attending board meetings, surveying real estate possibilities for new stores—Portland, Seattle, Denver, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles.
“I’ve been to 65 stores in the last 18 months,” he says. “I grew up in our stores. I was the original buyer in our original store. Of our 16,000 employees, 95 percent of them are in our stores. I think it’s really important to be visible and to be approachable.”
His casual, carefree manner certainly puts people at ease. (He still rarely wears a suit.)
Yet despite his corporate successes, he credits basketball as the winning advantage.
“Basketball was my chance at a college education,” he says. The sport helped him connect with the right people at the right times and filled the role you might expect golf to monopolize among the corporate elite.
And, it’s really no surprise. Basketball is in Folliard’s blood. His father Tom Folliard Sr., FIT’s head men’s basketball coach from 1984 to 1991, is included in six basketball halls of fame, as both a player and coach. His brother Kevin Folliard ’90 played Panther basketball. His wife Mary Kispert Folliard ’92 played Panther basketball. His son plays college basketball for Tufts University. His daughter plays high school basketball. And his two younger daughters, ages 10 and 8?
“I’m going to force them to play basketball, too,” he jokes.
The 6-foot-3-inch family man still plays two to three times per week at his home court—adorned with the original backboard and score clock from the Hedgecock Gymnasium, where Folliard made his mark on the Panther record books. He’s on the board of the National Association of Basketball Coaches Foundation. And, of course, he’s an avid fan.
From small town wholesaler to Fortune 500 executive, Folliard has enjoyed great success—showing that hoop dreams don’t always end on the court, but they might put you in the sky box.
- Largest used car dealer in the world
- Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” eight
- Aside from retail sales, CarMax also operates:
- A finance arm, which originates $3.5 billion in financing a year ($280 million in profits)
- A wholesale arm, which is the third largest auction chain in the United States with $1.5 billion in revenue
- Entering a growth phase with plans to open 10 stores a year for the next four years
It is very amazing to see how sports and other extra-curricular activities, done at the college level can influence and motivate mid-career success. It sets a perfect example for upcoming entrepreneurs. Knowing that he is an FIT alumni who has lived in the same halls, attended classes in the same classrooms just makes it more exciting.