If someone asks Paul Rusnak how he likes being in the car business, he’ll likely flash his trademark smile and kindly answer with a measured response, betraying the sparkle behind keen eyes.
That’s because he’s not in the car business.
After more than six decades of opening and expanding about 17 dealerships at breakneck speed across Los Angeles and Orange County, serving drivers across all Southern California, the Rusnak Auto Group founder will let you in on his secret with a wink: He’s in the people business.
“You have to love people,” he said. “I really, truly do love people. And it’s not just your wife and your kids or your immediate family, but also your employees and your associates and, obviously, your customers.”
On the cusp of turning 90 on Jan. 31, Rusnak recently sat down to reflect on his remarkable journey to success at the headquarters of the glossy Pasadena auto megamall, one of the first “super store” luxury dealerships of its kind across the nation. He jests about being 89, still, noting that really, he’s 68, but dyslexic.
“I don’t feel a day over 50,” he said sunnily.
Now a billion-dollar business, the Rusnak Auto Group has survived recessions, wars, the oil fuel crisis of 1973, manufacturing challenges, shifting fashion, technology — the good and the bad —and, of course, a pandemic, since the founder opened his first “Jet Imports” dealership in 1959. When looking to strike out in business, Rusnak looked at the three essential services of “housing, food and transportation,” of which he ultimately would invest in all three.
“I think all boys and girls have a love affair with automobiles growing up. It’s probably the first thing you’ll ever want to own. You need it to be independent and to make a living,” he said, slyly quipping, “You know what the only difference between little boys and big boys is … the price of their cars.”
Rusnak’s business acumen may be based on vision, but he accomplished it all with grit, perseverance and sacrifice. In his memoir published in 2021, “Keeping Both Hands on the Wheel: A Testament to the American Dream,” Rusnak details in equal parts his idyllic vision of the New World as a young man intertwined with the hardships, hurdles and tragedy he faced and that inevitably follow such a tale of storied success.
He came to the United States at the age of 14 as his parents fled communism and the iron grip that took over his homeland, Slovakia, in 1948. English would become one of his six fluent languages. Though he was brought up in an upper middle-class household from central Slovakia, his father, who himself was a self-built entrepreneur, lost successful auto retail businesses twice over the course of warring political upheaval that swept central Europe. The Rusnaks narrowly escaped the spread of communism following World War II, traversing Europe to arrive in the United States with a few connections and a little money. Both of his parents took working-class jobs in the industrial sector, effectively “starting over.”
Once an adult and looking to earn the best of minimum-wage jobs at $1.25 an hour, Rusnak operated a forklift and other machinery until eventually finding his way to sell cars while attending Los Angeles State College. He had a knack for it right away, he admitted, saying, “You had to be personable, and you had to make sure that the first impression you made was the right one.”
His memoir recounted the years he worked hard, studied hard, saved and scoured, but also enjoyed life along the way, chronicling his wide-eyed impressions of the heady glitz of Hollywood, circa 1950s.
When Rusnak doles out advice for success, he reflects on early lessons, one of which was also his first failure. While in college, he invested $500 (an unheard-of sum to him at the time) to open a flower shop. It quickly floundered, compounded by an unseemly business partner.
“Obviously I knew absolutely nothing about flowers. And it was not a successful endeavor,” he said, laughing. “But that taught me a great lesson. Don’t attempt to be in a business you don’t understand.”
Rusnak learned every inch of the auto industry business and the discernment of real estate along the way, opening dealerships brick by brick, steadily, seeking to fill the gap between the supply and demand he witnessed throughout Southern California. A self-described “business building thrill-seeker,” Rusnak countered that with taking well-informed “calculated risks.”
As a leader in the automotive retail industry, Rusnak said he continues to focus growth through innovation, technology and training, but perhaps most importantly, through the success of his employees. Some of his employees have worked at his company for more than 40 years, he proudly noted.
“My employees are just as important as my customers. You have to have respect for all of them. One of the things I pride myself most on is the longevity of our associates,” he said, lifting his hand to show off the “Rusnak Super Bowl ring,” which employees receive after 25 years of work.
“You create opportunity, and you promote from within, and you make sure that you give everybody equal opportunity. If you treat people right, the chances are they’ll stick with you.”
Rusnak frequently extols his love for Pasadena, where he ultimately built the auto empire’s headquarters. In his memoir, he lovingly expressed the reasons for coming to the San Gabriel Valley, and the symbiotic nature of healthy businesses building healthy communities. As part of that, Rusnak Auto Group has committed to philanthropic support and social responsibility as part of its vision and values.
The many local charitable organizations his company sponsors and supports includes the American Cancer Society, Breast Cancer Angels, Five Acres, Give-Mentor-Love Foundation, Hillsides, Ronald McDonald House, USC Arcadia Hospital, the Distinguished Speakers Series of Southern California, and the Pasadena Symphony and Pops.
Rusnak Auto Group is also the corporate sponsor for the San Marino Motor Classic Car Show fundraiser. Its founder, Aaron Weiss, noted that the nonprofit “could not have asked for a better sponsor,” and added that “Rusnak Auto Group is invested in our community and wants to make it a better place to live.”
Apart from financial support, Rusnak also brings cars to the show from his store and his personal collection, including a Packard that he had restored. The car was similar to those Rusnak’s father sold back in Slovakia.
“He has a private collection but is very low-key about it,” Weiss said. He recalled an incident where he once commented “Paul has a really great collection,” to which Rusnak, overhearing it, interjected “I have thousands of cars, but they’re all for sale.”
Long an admirer of Rusnak, Weiss said he read the memoir in awe of the history and with eagerness to learn: “There was one chapter where he alludes that his success in Chrysler [was due] to his modern management techniques … but he doesn’t share what those are,” he said, laughing. “I’ve asked him what those are, but he says it’s classified.”
Rusnak has blended personal passions with those of his loved ones. His late daughter, Liz Rusnak Arizmendi, was an avid supporter of Cancer Support Community of San Gabriel Valley. She died at just 59 after a battle with cancer.
“Paul knows all too well the great loss that cancer sometimes brings. He lost his daughter, Liz, to the disease in 2022. Liz was a great supporter of CSC, too, having co-founded our volunteer Guild,” said Patricia Ostiller, executive director of CSC.
“There are a lot of wealthy people in the greater Pasadena area, but not all are necessarily philanthropic. Paul sets an impressive example on how to selflessly share his great fortune with nonprofit organizations in our community.”
As he begins his ninth decade, Rusnak said he has no plans to slow down. In fact, one of the last chapters in his book is called “A Case Against Retirement,” and writes, “As long as my health permits, I have no intention of retiring. In fact, the older I get, the better I become at playing to win in business, which makes me eager to play longer.”
By all accounts, Rusnak is fit as a fiddle. He regularly golfs and continued his passion for skiing up until three years ago, when he found himself in a thick fog, navigating slushy terrain. “I did have to ask myself then, ‘What the hell am I doing?’” he said, laughing.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she counts herself lucky to consider Rusnak a friend. For as busy as she is attending events, Rusnak equals her stamina and attendance, she added. She first met him when she was just starting out in politics, and has since learned to admire his forthrightness and wit.
“For Paul, his work is his passion, it’s what keeps him running. Paul loves what he does. He’s got great people working skills and passion for the game,” Barger said. “I wish all young people would read his book — when you learn about how he has come to where he is right now, it serves the lesson that hard work does pay off. This is the greatest country in the world, but he made the opportunities through hard work … there were sacrifices, but he persevered.
“Paul is a people person, and his glass is half full. He’s very well rounded, he has many interests, and he takes time to know people. He’ll call a spade a spade, which is refreshing in a way,” Barger said, laughing, “If they hadn’t already cast the most interesting man in the world, it would be Paul.”
Rusnak and his longtime partner, Donna Pierson, make charitable giving seem a full-time job, attending countless benefits to help support local causes as well as giving actual dollars.
“Look at where he is right now. He and Donna [Pierson] and Rusnak Auto support so many nonprofits that are truly helping people and giving people a hand up, not a handout. I so admire them for their philanthropic commitment to the community. They talk it and they walk it,” she added.
Rusnak’s next chapter is full speed ahead, he said. He recently oversaw five large projects, including three new dealership facilities, as well as two major dealership remodels. He’d like to take his family and grandchildren to visit Slovakia, where he is a celebrity in his own right, having served as president on the Slovak World Congress (he once turned down the offer to be president of the country, but that’s another story).
If he could offer any words of wisdom to those who follow, Rusnak says, it’s “Dream big.”
“Whether it’s a profession or trade, hone your skills, become very knowledgeable in that and then, work hard. Dream big. Apply yourself and look at life in a positive way. The opportunities are always there. It’s up to you if you seize them or not.”
First published in the Jan. 25 issue of the San Marino Tribune