The Iconic Rissy Sutherland on Her Purpose, Passion & Plans
At age 12, Rissy Sutherland’s daily wish was to answer phone calls at her father’s automotive repair shop in South Carolina.
“I kept asking him if I could please, please answer the next one, until he finally said yes,” Sutherland relates. “Turns out, that ‘call’ was him posing as a customer, seeing if I could do it. I was so mad, but he said I passed the test.”
She pauses to laugh at the memory, speaking by car phone on a drive between business sites in Houston and Dallas. “So, clearly, I never wanted to do anything else but be in this industry,” she concludes.
Two decades later, Sutherland has become one of the automotive industry’s foremost experts in shop operations, opening and operating shops in the hundreds during her career to date.
She's CEO and president of Drive Automotive Services, an Atlanta-based corporate office that runs repair shops for all major vehicle brands across six states and under a handful of operating banners. Drive has a team of more than 350 team members to support and provide maintenance and repair services to more than 140,000 vehicles annually.
Within the next year, Drive plans to build or acquire 55 more locations, focusing on high-growth metropolitan markets such as Atlanta, Denver, Houston, Dallas, Austin, Nashville, Knoxville and Phoenix (with a few more yet unnamed). In 2024, the company is on track to have at least 78 locations, with more than 120 under review.
In August 2021, Drive solidified its financial backing by recapitalizing with Silver Oak Services Partners, a private equity firm based in Illinois.
“This partnership allows us to grow in the best areas and choose which shop owners we want to work with,” Sutherland notes. “If I meet a good operator who wants to expand or retire, I want to help. But if I’m not the right person, I’m going to say so. I always tell people my true opinion. The best deals and partnerships are the ones that equally benefit both sides.”
Drive’s growth keeps Sutherland, 44, and many of her team members on the road for days if not weeks at a time. Asked where she lives these days, she answers, “hotels,” but quickly adds that she embraces all of the adventures and opportunities.
Sutherland credits her past mentors and current team members, her educational background– she has master’s degrees in real estate and human resource development–and strong relationships with city officials and reputable contractors in targeted expansion markets.
“This is a small industry,” she says. “If I do a bad deal, word is going to spread, and everybody would know. I also grew up as an auto technician myself, as the daughter of a shop owner. I’ve been on all sides of operations.”
The next six months should be a sellers’ market, Sutherland adds. Valuations, while still high, are falling. Loan and real estate markets are tightening. Meanwhile, a coming influx of new cars will give more people the option not to repair older cars.
“There will always be cars to fix, but it’s not going to be the abundance of easiness that it has been,” she predicts. “If anyone is thinking of selling, now would be the time.”
To understand Sutherland’s success, it helps to understand her life. Growing up in Anderson, South Carolina, she had five older brothers and a family with an automotive franchise business; an older stepsister, now deceased, was the only sibling to resist the pull of cars.
Before Sutherland was in high school, she was learning how to change oil and repair transmissions. “You didn’t see a lot of women in the industry back then,” she recalls. “As for me, I had no idea that I was a girl until at least ninth grade. I did all ‘boy’ things.”
Once Sutherland’s father trusted her to work his shop’s front desk, he noticed her promise and enrolled her in Automotive Training Group classes. The 18-year-old, who eventually would open her own shop, studied day and night to outperform much older men.
Sutherland also took time out to be a college student. At Clemson University, she earned a degree in biological sciences with minors in psychology and physical therapy. She later received her two master’s degrees at Clemson and taught human resources and real estate classes for more than 10 years (she still flies in for every home football game).
The automotive industry, however, remained Sutherland’s true passion. When Moran Industries purchased her family’s franchises, she moved to Chicago and began writing and implementing training programs for all shop owners, soon becoming VP of Operations/Training. In nine years, she helped open, support or operate more than 200 locations.
In 2008, Sutherland partnered with Jack Keilt, an executive for Jack in the Box and several other large corporations, to create Honest-1 Auto Care. Her goals were to better serve a growing number of female customers and introduce more environmentally-friendly fluid lines and buildings. H-1 ultimately opened 75 locations.
After selling her equity in the company, Sutherland looked for new roads during a contracted non-compete period. Hired as a consulting COO for three struggling companies in three different fields—health care, inflatable play equipment for kids, and maid service—she turned each around in less than a year.
“I’ve just always liked a challenge,” she explains. “With five brothers, I guess I’ve always had to figure out how to make my voice heard.” (Not surprisingly, many of Sutherland’s hobbies are adventurous, too: surfing, motorcycles, wake-surfing, hiking and deep-sea fishing. Plus, golf.)
Sutherland has been Drive Automotive’s CEO for five years. Her top piece of advice to shop owners is to spend 60 percent of their time on people: recruiting and training employees and developing good relationships with them and customers. That leaves 30 percent for sales and 10 percent for profits, as taught to her by one of her mentors.
“That last piece should fall right into place if the first two are solid,” she states.
In addition, owners should plan days out first thing in the morning as much as possible: “Be there at least 30 minutes before opening. Listen to messages, deal with equipment issues, come up with strategies. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get overwhelmed. You want to be working ON the business, not IN the business.”
Sutherland also is a person who cares deeply about others. She has been involved in foster care ministry for many years, founding and supporting organizations that provide kids with mentorship, scholarships, career training and gift packages.
“I felt God calling me to serve them before they age out of the system at 18 and don’t know what to do,” she explains. “They should know a world where we all love each other.”
Today, Sutherland owns a therapy dog–Crusher, a 10-pound Shi Tzu-Bichon Frise mix–that works with abused children during stressful interviews and medical examinations by law enforcement and physicians. “We all need each other sometimes,” Sutherland states.
That’s why, no matter how high she rises in the automotive industry, Sutherland loves to visit repair shops that have good reputations–big or small. “I just ask, ‘Can I come in and learn from you?’” she says. “Luckily, most people are generous about opening their doors.”
As Drive Automotive continues to expand its footprint, Sutherland is excited about the future. “I love everything about this industry,” she says. “The customer base, type of cars and equipment are going to change, but there’s always going to be clients who need us.”