'Car business is just in his blood': Jesse 'J' Perez sets pace for selling cars

Samuel Lisec
Galesburg Register-Mail
Jesse 'J' Perez waves to a customer passing by as he stands next to an advertisement of his car salesman accomplishments

GALESBURG — You'd probably recognize Jesse ‘J’ Perez, even if he’s never sold you a car.

That’s because his face and accolades — Salesman of the Year for the past eight years straight —  adorn bus benches and newspaper ads, and when he goes to the grocery store or high school basketball games, he doesn’t leave until he’s talked to everyone he knows.

Perez, 59, spoke with The Register-Mail about the success and challenges he's experienced in his 36-year career to become Galesburg’s most visible car salesman, and how selling a car is often the easy part of his job compared to what comes after.

Yemm Auto Group Dealership car salesman made 70 phone calls in a day 

Perez likes to be the best. He is dedicated to going all in or not at all, and that means while the average number of cars a car salesperson sells a month is 10, Perez sets his quota at 20. 

Motivational messages sticker his desk and phone — “Sell 1 vehicle a day,” “Hustle Jesse Hustle” — and a black bracelet around his wrist reads: “Success is my duty.” The most cars he’s sold in one month is 36. The most phone calls he’s made in one day is 70. 

Perez does not always hit his month’s target, but he is on a streak of selling more cars each year than any of the other 14 sales people employed by the Yemm Auto Group Dealership at 2195 N Henderson St, where he has worked since 2006.

Jesse Perez at his desk at the Yemm dealership, adorned with inspirational messages.

Those metrics aside, Perez’s dedication is perhaps exercised best through a lesson that was imparted onto him by one of his former sales managers, Gene Stull: “If you're going to spend the commission, make sure you take care of the customer." 

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Maintaining relationships after sale helps

By maintaining a relationship with customers even after a sale, Perez said he can help address any problems that may arise in a vehicle down the road and prevent customers from going to competing dealerships. 

He handles a spreadsheet on his desk that is 1,746 rows deep recording the names, birthdays, addresses and car makes and models of every person he’s sold a car to since 2013. By regularly consulting the catalog, he said his birthday cards and phone calls often congratulate people before their spouses do. 

One of the cards that Jesse Perez sends out to all of his customers on their birthdays -- part of his emphasis on strong follow-up after a sale.

But this ethic dovetails with another main pillar of stratagem that he learned from his father and namesake, a former detective for the Galesburg Police Department: never lie, and you’ll never have to keep track of what you said. 

“I've had people say, 'I want to buy this car,’ and I say, ‘No you don't because it has issues,’ and they say, 'Well you're the car salesman, you can't tell me not to buy this car,’” Perez said. “Yes, but I am a human being, and I'm busy and I don't need you upset with me because the transmission went off the vehicle. If I notice something wrong with the car I won't sell it.”

In one case, Perez said he had a potential customer arrive at the Yemm dealership who needed a car but didn’t yet have a license. Perez spent a week giving her driving lessons in the parking lot of the Carl Sandburg Mall before personally driving her to the DMV. 

“I remember her pulling up in a cab,” Perez said. “It took about a week and a half but we got it done and we laugh about it to this day when I see her at church.”

Sarah Yemm, 30, is the daughter of the dealership’s owner Rick Yemm and works in general operations and administration at the lot. 

Yemm said she has known Perez since she first started working at the dealership when she was in high school and that though each salesperson has their own varied strategy at the Yemm dealership, Perez is “one of the best” there when it comes to follow-up with clients.

“He takes it extremely seriously, and it's very clear the car business is just in his blood,” Yemm said. “I think people know when they call him he's going to get something taken care of for them.”

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Perez didn't take a day off for 10 years

Selling cars is Perez's passion because he loves to meet people, but it is also how he makes a living. And since 100% of his pay is on commission, Perez said he has had to learn how to operate without buckling under the job’s stressful demands. 

He begins each morning at 8 a.m. by “driving the lot” in order to take inventory of what cars are on hand and prepare any request that might walk through the dealership’s doors. But he usually doesn’t leave the dealership anytime before 6 or 7 p.m. each night. In his first 10 years, he said he never took a single day off. 

Such long hours mean car salespeople are often at the dealership longer than they are at home and Perez said that can be “hard on marriages.”

Gene Stull a mentor for Perez

Perez first became a car salesman in 1986 when he was 22. Tired from working on and off at Maytag, his wife suggested he apply to the Ford of Galesburg Dealership. It was there that he met Stull, 76, who has worked as a car salesman since 1970 and recently joined Perez at the Yemm dealership.

Stull echoed that as a car salesman, “you miss a lot of ball games and you miss a lot of picnics.” He said stress enters the body when it’s the middle of the month and you’re only halfway to your quota. For example, while 36 is Perez's high, the least amount of cars he's ever sold in a month is eight.

"And I wanted to kill myself," Perez joked. "I worked harder trying to sell eight, but if you don't have the cars it's tough."

That pressure, Stull said, and the ability to reset from it at the start of every month, is ultimately what pushes people to become better car salespeople or to get out of the business.

“It's no different, really, than today how the world has changed where people work from home now instead of going into the office,” Stull said. “These guys, this is home. That lot is their show-room and you have to discipline yourself and take a deep breath and start all over (each month). And some people can't do it.” 

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Perez advertises himself on benches, billboards

It was also in Perez's early days at the Ford dealership that he first paid to advertise himself on a billboard. He pays $240 a month out of pocket for his ads to stay on four different benches around the city and he also spends his own money to attend a car salesman convention every year — wherein he said if he learns even just one thing, the trip is worth it.

The challenge of filling out one’s quota each month has only been exacerbated, too, by pandemic-related delays including a global microchip shortage. Yemm said that in 2020 the dealership had at least 400 cars on its lot at any given time, with at least a couple hundred being new cars.

But today, Yemm estimated the dealership has between 260 and 275 cars on its lot, the majority of which are used cars.

Perez said there’s nothing he can do about the car and microchip shortage but work harder, as all dealerships in the area are in the same boat. For him, that means continuing to send out those birthday cards, work the gymnasium bleachers and file the monthly rent on those bus benches. 

“I've never been afraid of putting my name out there. I could care less what people say,” Perez said. “A lot of people might say things about me because they don't even know me. If they knew me, they'd like me.”