Driving Force: How Damian Mills Built an Auto Empire

By Angela Lindsay

Growing up in Garyville, Louisiana, Damian Mills didn’t expect to receive his dream car, he just wanted a car.  He never imagined that one day he’d be in a position to assist others with acquiring their own transportation. However, through ambition and hard work, Mills has done just that — amassing an impressive arsenal of 14 dealerships across three states, including Classic Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram of South Charlotte and a Maserati franchise in Fort Mill, S.C. His fleet also includes Mercedes, BMW, Toyota, and others.

Damian has come a long way from his college days when, as a freshman, he had to walk from dealership to dealership looking for a job because he didn’t have his own car.  His perseverance paid off and Mills landed a position at Crown Dodge in Greensboro while still enrolled at North Carolina A&T State University, majoring in business economics. He soon developed a passion for sales and was earning six figures by his second year of employment. By the time he was 25, he was promoted to finance and insurance manager and, in 1998, when he was 28, he became a Crown Automotive Group partner.

Now, at the age of 47, Mills is president and CEO of Mills Automotive Group, the 4th largest black-owned auto dealership in the U.S.Early in his career, he says he was drawn to the competition of his job. Selling cars was like playing sports, he said. Before long, his desire for ownership drove him to participate in a minority investment program given by Ford. He left a steady job, took a 60% pay cut and invested all of his savings into what became his first dealership in Smithfield, North Carolina. It was a sacrificial leap of faith at the time for the young married father of three, but one that proved pivotal. He expected to purchase his dealership in 7 years, but he did it in 22 months.

 While the automobile industry can be very rewarding, it isn’t without its challenges, particularly for minority businesses, Mills said. Recognizing this, Mills has helped to train and advise several other African Americans on how to own their own dealerships. He also became keenly aware of the lack of Black people in leadership positions and, as former president of the Chrysler Minority Dealers Association, helped establish a Future Dealers Alliance to mentor future minority dealership managers. He also sits on the board of the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers (NAMAD).

A major barrier that African Americans face when opening a dealership is a lack of capital, Mills said. “It’s not opportunities. It’s not talent. It’s capital,” he said.

Then occasionally, there are unique circumstances that you can’t always forecast, such as the great recession of 2008-2009.  “Our industry is very fragmented. A lot of the African American dealers were hampered and affected by the recession in ’08 and ’09, and our numbers came down drastically,” Mills said.

Yet, rather than scaling back during the recession, Mills doubled down and decided to build. During those times, the group experienced its largest growth and biggest successes. He acquired several new stores and revenues spiked by 52% between 2009 – 2010. However, it was the dexterity and dedication of his most valuable resource that made the difference — his people.

“We did not lay off a single employee (during the pandemic), and I was committed to doing that, said Mills. “We didn’t do it in ’08 and ’09, and we didn’t do it this time.”

“He is truly authentic in every way,” said Jeffrey A. Cropp, director of corporate development, who started with Mills Automotive Group in the Management Company Division in 2012. “There is so much I can say, but authenticity is my first thought and really sums up a lot. He is a servant leader and definitely in my top five for work ethic.”  

Mills operates his company based on “five pillars” of character, integrity, performance, work ethic and teamwork. He gained many of these principles from his mother who taught school for 54 years and his father who played AAA minor league baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. Mills’ father taught him and his brother that “it’s not where you start, it’s where you end up,” he said.

While striving to be a successful leader and entrepreneur, Mills has fostered providing exceptional customer service, increased profits and productivity and cultivated a culture of mentorship and incentives.

“I have worked for two other very large companies and they both contributed to my maturity both personally and professionally, but my time at Mills Automotive Group has been the most rewarding,” Cropp said. “Here, I have a platform to totally be true to myself and my belief system. I get to be extremely creative and help others improve in the most critical areas of their lives. No one day is exactly the same.”

Helping people achieve and accomplish their goals is what Mills considers to be the most rewarding aspect of his work. “Being able to offer those opportunities to people you don’t normally see in this industry is extremely rewarding,” he said. To that end, Mills plans to continue to be an advocate for diversity in the industry by helping increase training for minorities and communicating with manufacturers to create more opportunities and be more inclusive.

Mills makes sure that he and his team gives back to the community by passing out meals to those in need, volunteering at the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and donating to various charities.

For his own motivation, Mills looks to a higher power. “I want to do everything that He put me here to do,” Mills said. “I don’t want to stop short of that.”

For others seeking wisdom, Mills suggests finding out what your passion is and not being afraid to step out on your own faith. “Even when the critics tell you it doesn’t make sense, if it makes sense in your mind’s eye, then go for it!”