2014 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"The refusal to fail is a more powerful driver than the quest for success."
Mike Jackson was born in 1949 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was raised in the nearby town Moorestown, New Jersey. He is the second of five children, reared by parents who were strong in their Catholic faith. Mike's father, after serving as a naval aviator during World War II, worked for a refinery as a mechanical engineer. After Mike's birth, he attended night classes at Drexel University and earned an engineering degree. "My dad was the most honorable, decent, humble, and hard-working man you could ever meet," says Mike. "My mother, who is still with us, stayed home to take care of the children. She is brilliant and always seemed to have a book in her hand. She read extensively and infused all her children with an intellectual curiosity. Reading was very much celebrated in our home."
When Mike was 10, his father had a talk with him. He said, "Mike you are a Jackson, and all Jacksons work. Work defines you in life. But to have choices in life, you need a good education. You are going to be expected to pay for your education, and you had better start working and saving to make that happen." Mike got his first job one week later, shoveling manure out of horse stalls for $1 per stall.
Mike had a growth hormone deficiency, which made him much smaller than his peers. "I simply did not grow until I was in college," he says. "As a kid I was bullied quite a bit for my size. I remember, when I was 14 I signed up for a Boy Scout camp in New Mexico. I filled out the forms and paid for the camp ahead of time. When my father and I showed up the day the buses were leaving for the cross- country trip, we were a little late and I had to scramble to get on the bus. I looked out the window and saw a scout leader talking with my dad, and then my father came on the bus to tell me the scout leader thought I was too small to go on the trip. I told my father that the application just said you had to be 14; it didn't say you had to be a certain size or weight. I told him I met the standards, I paid for the camp, and I wasn't going to get off the bus. I was a very obedient boy, and for me to defy my father in front of a busload of people was a big deal. The scout leader finally agreed to allow me to attend, but you can imagine the abuse I had to suffer on that trip across America. When we got to the camp, with 2,000 other scouts, we experienced three life- threatening events—a flash flood, rattle snakes, and bears in the camp. I seemed to intuitively know how to handle each situation and had fellow scouts following my advice. At the end of our stay, I was given the highest leadership award in the camp. On the way home, I thought about my adversity and decided that it had given me an advantage because it had prepared me for handling difficult moments. From then on, I thought of adversity as more of an opportunity than something negative."
His Catholic faith being important to him, Mike served as an altar boy every morning at the six o'clock Mass. He was the head altar boy and organized the schedules for the parish. He attended St. Joseph's University, a Jesuit school outside Philadelphia with the intention of becoming a lawyer. Throughout his college years, Mike worked 40 hours a week to pay his way. He started a business called A-1 Lawn Service. He also worked midnight to eight o'clock in the morning at a gas station. "Looking back, I would say working in college was the best thing I ever did," he says. "I learned a lot about myself and life in West Philly. During the night shift at the gas station, I discovered the world was different in those early-morning hours. I learned how to deal with people, how to judge character and personality, how to smell trouble, and how to stay a step ahead of sticky situations. It was as important as the education I received inside the classroom."
Mike did well in his academic side of life as well. He became excited about his classes and developed an appreciation for the Jesuit way of learning. "I came to understand that the exam was not the finish line," says Mike. "Cramming facts and figures into your head to do well on an exam was not the point. The Jesuits give you a deeper understanding and a never ending intellectual curiosity. Every day I found a growing curiosity to know more, understand more and challenged myself to continue to learn for the rest of my life."
Mike graduated in 1971 with a degree in political science. The summer prior to attending law school he bought an old Mercedes, his first car ever, and drove to Cape Cod in search of a summer job. On the way the car broke down. Having no money to pay for the repairs, Mike offered to work for the Mercedes dealership in exchange for his car being fixed. At the same time he got a job, working as a chef for the Kennedy family on their Cape Cod compound. "I met all the Kennedys," says Mike. "It was a wonderful experience."
At the end of the summer, he drove to Washington, D.C., to start law school. His car broke down again and this time he exchanged the extensive repairs for a job as an apprentice mechanic. Mike quickly discovered a love for the automobile industry and decided to pursue that rather than a law degree. He became a technical specialist for Mercedes-Benz, the manufacturer. A few years later, he switched gears with the company and became a district manager, responsible for the company's business operations in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.
Several years later, when Mike turned 29, he negotiated with several European partners to purchase together the Mercedes- Benz dealership where he had started his apprentice. "I had to borrow a lot of money to be a part of this deal," he says. "It was going to be magic or tragic!"
He traveled extensively to meet with his partners in Vienna and Eastern European nations behind the iron curtain at the height of the cold war. "I saw Communism in its full force," he says. "I learned more about America and the promise of opportunity in America by going to Communist countries than I did by being born and raised here. Our opportunities give America a vibrancy that is so exciting. When I would come home from those trips, I would kiss the ground. There is no country in the world like America!"
Mike's first dealership, EuroMotorcars, did so well that during the next 10 years he expanded to 13 franchises. During this time Mike was elected chairman of all the Mercedes dealerships in the United States,
Mike's first dealership, EuroMotorcars, did so well that during the next 10 years he expanded to 13 franchises. During this time Mike was elected chairman of all the Mercedes dealerships in the United States, responsible for representing the brand on issues between retailers and manufacturers. Years after starting as an apprentice mechanic, Mike became president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz of North America. During his tenure, Mercedes became the number- one luxury brand in the United States.
Mike was approached by the founder of AutoNation, Wayne Huizenga ('92) in 1999. "Mr. Huizenga offered me the CEO position at AutoNation," says Mike, "and I didn't see how I could turn down the opportunity to work with one of the greatest entrepreneurs in the history of mankind."
Mike quickly began to build up AutoNation, and in 2002 added chairman to his responsibilities. Today AutoNation is America's largest automotive retailer, operating 260 franchises in 15 states with 22,000 associates. In six of the past eight years, Fortune magazine has named AutoNation the "Most Admired Company," in the auto industry.
When asked about his success, Mike says that he is excited to wake up each day and see what will come his way. "By the end of the day, I want to be better and smarter than when I woke up. I will never stop learning. I think the fire in my belly came from my handicap. I know I would not have been the same person without it. I developed an 'I'll show you' attitude and a determination to refuse to fail."
Mike says he believes young people should embrace hard work, even during their college years. He also believes that in working, a person finds his or her passion. "It's important to be open to opportunities," he says. "View life as a journey of interesting experiences and the money part will take care of itself."
In 2003 Mr. Jackson was named Automotive Hall of Fame Industry Leader of the Year. He is also the first recipient of the Sports Illustrated All-Star Dealer Award. In 2006 South Florida's CEO magazine named him CEO of the Year. In 2009 Mr. Jackson was designated as one of the "Fifty Visionary Dealers" of all time by Automotive News, and in 2010 he was inducted into the H. Wayne Huizenga School of Business Entrepreneur Hall of Fame. In 2012 he was named by Fortune magazine as one of the top 50 global business leaders. Mr. Jackson has the distinction of being the only person who has been named to the Automotive News All-Stars in two categories: manufacturer and dealer. In January 2011 Mike Jackson was appointed to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's Miami Branch Board of Directors and in 2013 to the Atlanta Federal Reserve Board of Directors.
Under Mr. Jackson's leadership, AutoNation has become an active and generous corporate citizen, contributing significant funding and volunteer efforts to dozens of community organizations, philanthropic foundations, charitable enterprises, and cultural institutions.
Mr. Jackson currently serves as immediate past chair of the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale. He is a noted speaker and media personality regarding the auto industry. In this capacity, he is a contributor to CNBC and Bloomberg T.V.
"I think the greatest gift you can give to youth is opportunity in life," says Mr. Jackson. "And if you want opportunity in life, you cannot have it without education. If I can help give that to our youth, I am thrilled to do it."