Building a business
Alumnus uses skills honed at BGSU to start successful car dealerships
By Matt Markey
What Michael Dustman ’73 saw in the Alpha Tau Omega house more than 40 years ago was not just the fraternity’s chapter president. His close friend Rick DeSilva ’74 was a leader who could organize groups of people with a variety of talents and get things done. DeSilva had that unique ability to energize the room.
“He displayed his leadership skills and knew how to dial into the collective psychology of the house,” Dustman said. “The personalities in our fraternity were surprisingly diverse, and Rick could navigate amongst all of us with a smile and his sensible nature. Rick was a leader who stepped up to the plate when his time came.”
DeSilva took those “people skills” honed over his four years on the BGSU campus, combined them with a strong work ethic he credits to his parents, and over the past four decades built two successful automobile dealerships on the East Coast. The New Jersey native lived in Rogers as a freshman, and quickly started a move that bolstered the ranks of the ATO house.
“I was in the dorm with a bunch of real good guys, and after I pledged, a lot of them ended up pledging, too,” DeSilva said. “The ATO house had been in some trouble membership-wise and financially, but I think influx of new members set things on the track to getting much stronger.”
DeSilva served as chapter president for two years, juggling his academic work with the wide array of duties required to manage the house, and the ATO membership.
“I think that helped put me on the path of what I would be doing for the rest of my life, because as chapter president, you are running a business,” DeSilva said. “We had employees to hire, a kitchen to run, and a lot of people to feed every day. And you sometimes had to run interference for guys who were in trouble, so you learned how to talk to all kinds of different people.”
DeSilva reconnected with some of his ATO brothers from that era at a recent reunion.
“He was the glue that brought us all together, and although the years had brought about many changes, we stayed in touch and the gathering was a real blessing to everyone who came,” Dustman said. “My four years at BGSU gave me some of the most wonderful friendships and memories of my life.”
Those lasting friendships that were born in the ATO house must have been part of some master plan, since DeSilva’s route to Bowling Green was hardly a conventional one. He worked as a lifeguard on the Jersey shore and heard about BG from a co-worker who had attended the University.
“He told me it was a great place to go to school, so I flew out, and then never looked at another school,” DeSilva said. “My parents supported my decision.”
After his two years as chapter president, DeSilva married his high school sweetheart Wendy following his junior year. DeSilva graduated in 1974 with a degree in marketing and advertising, and then the couple returned to New Jersey where they both had jobs lined up. But then things changed.
Wendy found out she was expecting their first child, so she could not take her job as a physical education teacher. When Rick went to start his new job, he was informed that the individual who had hired him had been fired, and that Rick would not be part of the company’s plans going forward.
“We had to grow up in a hurry when we got out of school,” DeSilva said. “You run into barriers, and you can overcome them, if you work hard enough. Our future went on from there.”
DeSilva, whose father had been a service manager at an auto dealership, always had a love of cars. He worked in sales for the dealership for a while, and then branched out on his own in 1975, opening a used car lot in Patterson, N.J.
When a building in an affluent community outside New York became available, DeSilva rented it. Soon after he got a call from Subaru, offering to make him a dealer as the company expanded into the area. DeSilva turned the Subaru dealership into a very successful venture, and for the past quarter century it has been one of the top 25 dealers in the nation. He opened a Hyundai dealership in 2003 and it became a leader for that brand in the tri-state area.
DeSilva, whose sons now run those two dealerships, has served as chairman of the American International Automobile Dealers Association, which represents the 10,000 international nameplate auto dealers in the United States. He and his wife have been involved in numerous community and philanthropic ventures over the years.
“A lot of it is luck, and a lot of it is also being a good business person,” DeSilva said about his success. “You don’t think about it at the time, but my days at BG were so important. As I look back, all of the pieces came together for me. I’ve been blessed with the ability to talk to someone, and they know my word is good.”