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Top Gun in Sales : Leading Car Salesman Can Earn Up to $160,000 a Year

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Nick Karoly, the top salesman at Hoehn Motors Mercedes Porsche in Carlsbad, roamed the lot. Saturday being the busiest day of the week for car dealers, there was a steady stream of potential buyers.

Karoly’s smooth sales approach earns him as much as $160,000 in a good year, meaning a year when he sells 170 cars or more. Hoehn is the top dealer of both Porsches and Mercedeses in San Diego County. Last year, the dealership sold 762 Mercedeses and 156 Porsches. (Mercedes-Benz of America declined to reveal sales figures.)

Harald Wehnert, sales manager at Mercedes of San Diego, confirmed that car salesmen such as Karoly are among the highest paid in the business.

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“Twenty percent of the salesmen make 80% of the money,” Wehnert said. “Those are the ones who know what they’re doing. They stay in a place and build loyal clientele. They don’t let people walk out of their lives. Those are the kind of people we’re looking for. Almost half our buyers are repeat customers.”

After 22 years selling Mercedeses, Karoly is in that top 20%. At 58, he seems perfect for the job, a picture of Southern California health, tan and trim. He has an uncanny ability to say just the right thing to potential customers, just enough to warm them up.

Those unfamiliar with sales might assume it’s a simple way to generate a decent living with little experience. But Karoly, who’s been selling cars for 33 years, sees his job in a much more sophisticated light.

“You continually polish and improve. Sales techniques and people change. You never rest on your laurels,” he said.

He and the other salesmen work the phones in their glass-walled offices when they’re not out trolling the showroom and lot, flipping through customer binders for a flicker of inspiration, the right name to pair up with a particular new or used car. Or they pay cold calls on businesses where executives might be in the market for a new Porsche or Mercedes.

At the dealership, the key to success is making a customer feel comfortable, Karoly said, and that starts with the initial acquaintance.

“It’s of the utmost importance that in the first five minutes you create a favorable impression.”

As for the impression made by the customer, Karoly learned long ago not to judge a book by its cover. The people who may appear the least likely to buy may be among the best off financially.

Before the federal Drug Enforcement Administration began requiring that cash-paying buyers of cars worth more than $10,000 divulge the source of their money, he sold a fair number of cars to shady characters. Even today, about 20% of his buyers pay with cash.

Karoly’s daily existence at Hoehn, where he is one of 10 salesmen, is full of quotas and sales goals. Sales are measured on monthly cycles. As a salesman meets his quotas, he gets a larger share of the dealership’s take on each sale.

On a $50,000 Mercedes, for example, the dealer’s profit amounts to $3,000 to $4,000, and the salesman makes about 15% of that, Karoly said. That percentage goes up during the month each time he reaches quotas of 6, 8, 11 and 17 cars.

The car-sales field, especially at the high end, is still dominated by men, even though the number of female buyers is growing.

Earlier, Karoly confided to a visitor that most of the salesmen drive older Mercedeses so they can mention them as evidence of how durable the cars are.

In his office, where the walls are covered with pictures of Porsches and Mercedeses, Karoly showed off a gift from a friend, a wind-up miniature Mercedes that plays “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz . . . “

Even in this lackadaisical month, Karoly was keeping his cool.

“It’s an extremely slow period; it’s not normal,” he said. “I’m not worried at all. It’s tax time. The period will turn around.”

In the meantime, Karoly was looking forward to the delivery this spring of his new Porsche. Perhaps a victim of his own sales pitch, he had decided to trade in his well-traveled Mercedes.


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