Recession Fading for O.C. Jobless : Economy: Many of the Newly Hired Are Making Less : Car Sales: 'I like interacting with people, so talking to them and helping them is fun.'

Dick Hsu, general manager of Tustin Acura, believes he has ridden out Southern California's worst recession--an economic downturn that has claimed 22% of the new car dealerships in Orange County over the past four years.

Hsu said that while things have been tough, he is seeing signs of recovery--sales at his dealership in the Tustin Auto Center have picked up in recent months.

So sure is he that Orange County's economy is about to take off again that late last month Hsu added six new people to his sales staff--three times the number he needs at current business levels. One of the trainees has already quit, but Hsu said he hired six figuring that one or two would drop out.

The five who remain all answered Hsu's newspaper ad for people interested in making career changes: Several said their desire to change was driven by the recession's impact on their old businesses, others said that they just needed to do something different.

One thing is clear, though: all of them owe their new careers to Hsu's faith in a recovery.

Hsu's crew is a diverse bunch, including a former pro football player whose office cleaning business had shrunk in the recession and a 47-year-old mother of three who was regional sales representative for a major carpet manufacturer and got tired of trying to compete with much younger sales reps who are willing to work for much less money.

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The youngest on the team is also the oldest hand in the auto business--Linda Lee, 37, has worked at Tustin Acura for almost seven years in various clerical and support positions, most recently as a service department cashier.

"It was a dead-end job," she said, "and I had let people know that I was interested in a change, so when Dick decided to add to the sales staff, he knew I wanted to do something different and asked me if I wanted into the training program."

Lee jumped at the chance. After a week of training and sales floor experience, she said she finds selling as enjoyable as she thought it would be, but more difficult, too,

"I like interacting with people, so talking to them and helping them is fun," she said. "But finalizing the sale," the part of the deal when both sides buckle down to negotiations, "that's harder than I thought it would be."

Like Lee and the others, Dave Cochems, a 42-year-old former mortgage broker from Brea, said shifting to a sales career doesn't put him off because he enjoys working with people. And there is a degree of prestige associated with selling high-end cars like the Honda-built Acura, he said.

Cochems said he would like to use his sales job as a stepping stone into the finance department and then into management. His 20-year career as a self-employed mortgage broker should help in all three areas, he said.

He made the change from running his own business to selling cars on commission because the recession was wreaking havoc with the mortgage business. "I saw the writing on the wall. The economic situation was making things tougher and tougher and I just decided that I needed a change." He said his wife, Susan, and three sons are supportive of his career switch.

Steve Riley still operates his own business, but the Irvine resident's custodial company that cleaned commercial buildings dwindled in recent years from 15 employees to two full timers and two part timers.

The 41-year-old former Minnesota Vikings tackle (the USC grad was Minnesota's first-round draft choice in 1974 and was on the team through the 1984 season) says he ran up against a pair of obstacles he couldn't knock down--the debilitating impact the recession has had on anything connected with real estate, and the huge demands on his time from running a business with 15 workers.

So he said he trimmed it down to its present size and went looking for something that would let him use his people skills.

Hsu's call for people interested in the car business as a mid-life career change caught his eye, Riley said, "because I liked the idea of having a good product to work with and of being able to work with people one-on-one," something he didn't get to do much of in his business.

"And I really like that it's local," said Riley. He wasn't looking forward to a commute that took much time away from his family life--he and his wife, Jan, have four daughters, ranging in age from 4 to 14.

Robin M. Saporito brought a strong sales background with her when she answered Hsu's ad. She was one of 60 people who responded in three days, Hsu said, adding that he was "amazed at the quality of people who applied."

Saporito, 47, was working as Southern California territory manager for a carpet manufacturer after having been a part owner of a retail carpeting store. She quit the sales job in early June because she felt the East Coast manufacturer she worked for wasn't paying sufficient attention to the California market.

And, she candidly acknowledges, she didn't look for another carpet industry job because "I didn't feel I fit anymore" in a business where "all the sales reps look like 24-year-old male models and will work for $24,000 a year."

Saporito said she "really likes cars, the look and the style of them. I had been thinking about trying car sales for several months" before quitting the carpet sales job, "and I'd even talked to several other dealers, but I didn't like the atmosphere or the attitude at their places."

"So far, it exceeds my expectations . . . and I get no grief from anyone for being a woman."

The senior member of the trainee team, a 61-year-old former computer company vice president who was let go in a merger, wasn't available to be interviewed. His strong sales background was a big plus, said Hsu.

Hsu said that he is very happy with the five trainees and with his decision to go a bit outside the mainstream to find them. "The market is changing and customers want a more hassle-free environment," he said.

As the economy comes back, the auto dealers who make the most of the recovery are going to be those who stress service and "relationship selling," Hsu said, adding that he was able to find good candidates for his program in part because so many highly qualified people had been set adrift in the recession and are considering new careers.

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