LINCOLNWOOD, IL – Alumni of Wellesley College include former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, TV journalist Diane Sawyer and auto dealer Caroline Grossinger.

Grossinger, 36, may not be as famous as some graduates of the top-ranked Massachusetts women's college, but she runs one of the most successful dealership operations in the nation.

She is president of Grossinger Autoplex, a multi-franchise dealership spread in this northern Chicago suburb. It is one of the Midwest's largest dealership complexes and a regular on the Ward's Dealer 500.

She is a third-generation dealer who fondly recalls a childhood of accompanying her late father, Irwin, to work on Saturdays. When it came time for her to take a job at the family business, she picked an unusual position for a teenage girl in her first year of high school: a service advisor, writing up customers' repair orders.

Caroline Grossinger

“Being a service advisor was a wonderful way to enter the business,” she says. “It keeps you focused. It suited me because I always enjoyed solving problems.”

She recalls how some service customers, vying for special treatment and unaware that she was the dealer principal's daughter, claimed to be good friends with her father, calling him Irv. “I'd chuckle at that because no one who knew my dad ever called him 'Irv.'”

Her stint as a service advisor offered lasting impressions of the business – as evidenced by an impending $4.5 million project she is overseeing now: a new service center.

Currently the dealership's sprawling service facility is down the street from a 10,000-sq.-ft. (3,048-sq.-m) sales center and showroom built in 1990 and delivering about 4,200 Buicks, Cadillacs, GMCs, Pontiacs and Suzukis per year.

Grossinger is building a new facility for the primary purpose of bringing the sales and service departments together under one roof. That's important, operationally, dynamically and otherwise, she says.

She explains: “Sales people, who develop the original relationships with customers, need to be in the same building where the customers bring their cars in for service. It's important for the customer to walk in and see the sales person, and for the sales person to see the customer.”

Moreover, a common building also offers a chance for service customers to see new products displayed in a favorable showroom setting, she says.

Grossinger runs two other dealerships nearby. One is a Toyota store that just moved to a new home – a converted 45,000-sq.-ft. (13,716-sq.-m) former supermarket on a busy Lincolnwood thoroughfare. “I like to look out the window, and see all the traffic going by,” she says. “It's good for business.”

The other store is a Volvo outlet. Its new home will be the old Toyota store that's being renovated to give it a “Volvo” look, including a water wall and other upscale amenities.

Those two dealerships sell about 3,600 Toyotas and 1,200 Volvos a year.

Grossinger is the youngest of three children. Brother Gary runs a Cadillac, Chevrolet, Toyota and an impending Hummer store in Chicago and nearby Palatine, IL. Oldest sibling Suzanne is a stay-at-home mom. The three hold equal shares in the family business that started when grandfather Sam Grossinger started selling Hupmobiles in Chicago in 1928.

Grossinger says she learned much about automotive retailing from her father, who died in 2000. A large painted portrait of him hangs in the Grossinger Autoplex's conference room.

“He taught me the gift of listening,” she says. “Many times when dealing with people, especially if it's a customer with a problem, they will provide the answers you need, if you listen. My father also taught me that often less is more.”

Her formal education comes from two renowned institutions.

The first is Wellesley. Grossinger graduated from there magna cum laude, became a member of the Phi Beta Kappa scholastic society and earned a double major in political science and economics.

“Wellesley was a wonderful, wonderful experience,” she says. “Being an all-women's school, there were no distractions. You spent 100% of your time, or 98% anyway, on academics. It's a school that gives its graduates a tremendous level of confidence to do whatever they want.”

Having written an honor's thesis on developing countries of Southeast Asia, Grossinger at one point considered a career in international economics.

Ultimately, she decided to return home and work at the family dealership. While doing that, she attended night classes in the University of Chicago's MBA program to bolster her business knowledge.

She earned a real estate license, too. The Grossinger family also owns a real estate firm. Husband Scott Schiller is a real estate developer and an attorney.

Grossinger oversees a force of 350 employees. They often work in teams on various projects, especially those involving customer satisfaction, while looking for more effective ways to do business.

She describes her management style as “definitely hands on, but if I had to pick one word to express it, it would be 'accountability.' Everyone who works with me knows that everything has to be done 100%. If it's 70%, it's like it's not being done.”

She downplays the challenges of being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated world of automotive retailing:

“I do the best I can and hope that I will ultimately be judged by the quality of my work, not my gender. But I can't remember the last time that was an issue with anyone.”

She is the mother of three girls, 8-year-old twins and a 5-year-old.

Running a major dealership operation and raising three kids is a struggle, says Grossinger, who has read many books on the subject.

“I love every minute I can spend with my girls, and I also love every minute at work,” she says.

She drops the kids off at school each day, then heads to work. She stays there until 6 p.m., then goes home, eats dinner and puts the girls to bed. But often she returns to work and stays until 1 a.m.

She doesn't mind that schedule: “To me, the glass is half-full.”

She jokes that when she retires, she'll move to Florida and open a dealership there to relax.

“I'm kidding, I'll never give up these stores,” she says. “But the Chicago market is very dense and competitive, and there are a lot of smart dealers here who've been at it a long time. It's a tough market.”

sfinlay@primediabusiness.com