An Entrepreneur Goes International

By James Foley, Director,
Turner Center Operations, Illinois SBDC International Trade Center

Nate Huskins, founder and president of the Marshal Group LLC, has always loved cars. To be more precise, he loves selling cars. At age 19 he joined a local GM dealership following in the footsteps of his father who worked at the same dealership. Marshal Group Nate HuskinsIt was a great fit. By the second year he was salesman of the year – an award he continued to get for five more years in a row. With that sort of success and excellent income, Nate never thought he’d leave the security of the job at the dealership. But his entrepreneurial interests were getting the best of him. While at the dealership he saw the potential in online auto sales using sites such as autotrader.com and eBay. But those were domestic sales.

The first export sale was a bit of a fluke. A buyer in Iceland was bidding against U.S buyers for a car Nate had listed on eBay. As Nate explains, “It actually kind of upset me because the Iceland buyer was pushing up the price, and I had no intention of selling to a non-U.S. buyer.” In the end he did sell to the Iceland buyer. That first sale led to more, and before long Nate realized the real growth was to focus on exports. Taking a big leap of faith, he quit the dealership job to run his export business full time. He never imagined these small beginnings would within a few years become a multi-million dollar business.

From the beginning it was a family effort. His mom was a very experienced office manager.  As his first employee, she started helping with the mounting paperwork. It also was when Nate was not yet married and living at home. He jokes, “By the third year sales hit $24 million, and I was still working out of my bedroom!” As the growth continued, so did employees and office space. Today he employs nine staff and is just about to move into new headquarters in Washington, IL. Sales in 2013 hit $50 million.

How does a guy that has no international travel experience sell to so many international buyers in countries as diverse as Russia and China? “I am just myself. My key is to work hard, be sincere, and develop trust.” He concedes the hours are brutal. In order to respond to an inquiry from a potential buyer on the same business day as the buyer, he often finds himself emailing until 2 a.m. In fact, Asia has become his strongest market; though, in the early years, Europe and South America were stronger. When asked about foreign languages Nate joked that English is all he has to offer, and in some respects, his own English is getting worse. “I have had to adjust my speaking and writing to a much more broken English. For example, I now say ‘green is the color of the car’ rather than ‘the color of the car is green’ because that fits the format of some languages.” If he doesn’t catch himself, he finds himself using that same format with friends who wonder what has happened to his English. It also presents challenges when visitors have limited English. Recently, when hosting a foreign buyer at his home, his wife welcomed the buyer by saying, “How was your flight?” To which the reply came, “No thank you!”

Nate primarily deals in higher end cars including BMW, Porsche, Mercedes Benz, Land Rover, but also includes other models such as GM, Ford, Dodge, Toyota, and Nissan. His most expensive car was a Rolls Royce Phantom Extended Wheelbase which listed for $543,000. The buyer mentioned he would not need the car for a few weeks, giving Nate a chance to drive it around Central Illinois. He remembers the fun. “It got more than a few looks when we drove into the McDonald’s in Washington!”

Growing so quickly has also meant leveraging local resources, including Bradley University. Nate participated as a client in a Foster College of Business Management Information Systems (MIS) class in which students work to develop online databases. The project was such a success, Nate hired one of the students to continue development of the site. It has significantly reduced their paperwork as each sales order now has only one electronic record that can be viewed by both staff at Nate’s company, as well as the buyers, suppliers, and freight forwarder each with unique logins to protect the specific data each can view.

As for the next step in his future, his main task now is building a new 4,300 square foot headquarters in Washington. It’ll be a long way from his beginnings in his bedroom. But it means he’s well positioned for even greater success in the future.