Mark Beneke of Westland Auto Sales: “Sacrifice”

Sacrifice: Delayed gratification is something that seems to be very dismissed in the US. We have such comfortable lives here that the idea of giving up that comfort, even for a moment, is unfathomable for most. Even if there is a clear view of the other end, of how much better things could be, most […]

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Sacrifice: Delayed gratification is something that seems to be very dismissed in the US. We have such comfortable lives here that the idea of giving up that comfort, even for a moment, is unfathomable for most. Even if there is a clear view of the other end, of how much better things could be, most people are not willing to do it.

Learning to sacrifice is crucial to achieving anything in life.

We will always have problems, no matter where we are or what we are doing. The difference is that when you have achieved what you want, the problems will be those you chose, not those that were thrown at you.

Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive.

As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Beneke.

Mark is a first generation immigrant from El Salvador who moved to the United States after his family’s business failed. He and his family came with nearly nothing to their name and pursued the better life that this country has to offer. After many years of sacrificing as a family, they achieved a dream further than they had ever expected. He is now the co-owner of two successful buy-here-pay-here dealerships, Westland Auto Inc., and a real estate multi-unit holding company, Stellar REI LLC.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I have very fond memories of El Salvador. The country may be ridden with crime and violence but as a child I can’t recall seeing much of it, mostly because my parents did a great job of protecting my brother and I.

My family was in a decent financial position. We did not have excess but we were also not left fighting for our food. My mother and father owned a shoe manufacturing business where I remember spending most of my time. This factory is where I was introduced to rotary phones, old computers, staplers that I used to accidentally staple my fingers with, employees who were both grateful and resentful, customers that appreciated my mother personally delivering goods with her two little boys in tail, and amongst the most important of things, sacrifice.

The business allowed my brother and I to attend an American school where we were taught English and provided a great educational foundation. There were many times that my parents were unable to attend school functions or pick us up immediately after school because the business required them to do something extra. One might think that I would be resentful of this but my mother did such an amazing job of communicating everything to us that I understood everything they did was for the betterment of the family.

We may not have spent every weekend vacationing or spending time off, but we spent it together. Usually, at the company, but still together. We had a strong family focus and the small amount of leisure time we did have available to us was spent with our extended family. That strong family focus has never ceased and even now we do everything we can to keep our family together, even when things aren’t always easy.

Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?

The shoe business went through turbulent times. Finding reliable and honest employees is never easy, no matter where you are. When you are too focused on putting out fires instead of seeing the impending change, you end up with something that is nowhere near as efficient as it should be.

With the business ultimately failing, my parents tried to figure out where they would have the most opportunity. A look around El Salvador made them realize that there was nothing but a war-torn country looking back.

My father had come to the United States to study as an undergraduate so he knew the area. His sister, as well as my half siblings from my father’s previous marriage, also lived in the US. Everyone outside of the US always hears about the land of opportunity and seeing that his sister and children were surviving comfortably solidified my father’s thought about seeking the opportunity the United States has to offer.

He asked some family friends their opinion and instead of offering advice, they offered him a high paying job as long as he could get his paperwork in order and make the move in a reasonable amount of time.

Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?

My aunt had agreed to house my brother and I while my parents got their papers in order. We came in September of the year 2000. I had been on a plane before so I wasn’t nervous, but if I’ll admit, I don’t think I fully grasped the magnitude of what that flight meant for us. I remember my mother hugging us, trying not to cry, telling us she would see us soon, both my parents trying to get us to memorize where we were supposed to land, where we were supposed to go after.

I was excited.

My older brother fell asleep quickly. I stayed awake, watching the clouds outside the plane as we approached the new country we would now call home.

When we arrived, it was dark. A lady helped my brother and I through the terminal and we recited everything we were supposed to memorize to her. She took us to two people who I didn’t know, but would become very close to over the next two years.

My aunt and uncle drove us to their home in Pacific Grove, California. I tried to stay awake for as long as I could, watching the gas stations as we passed them by, mesmerized by the bright lights of all the different stores fighting for my attention. It felt like I was in a movie. Pretty soon, I was asleep and I would wake up a few hours later in a truly foreign home.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?

My aunt and uncle. Without their help, things would have never been possible. We all sacrificed things in order to come to the US, but they made a sacrifice that wasn’t necessary for them. They were an elderly couple who had raised a group of children who already had a family of their own. My aunt and uncle were at a stage in life where they were getting ready to retire soon and be able to enjoy themselves. They placed their future on hold in order to not only care for two snot nosed kids from El Salvador, but teach them about their new country.

A lot of people don’t realize how drastically different customs are from place to place. Even here in the US, traveling from one state to the next, you will get many unique viewpoints. It’s not always easy to assimilate. It’s one of the reasons why there are so many immigrants that never stray far from people of their own home country and struggle to learn English.

My aunt and uncle took on a big challenge, and they did a damn good job of making sure we felt like we belonged. They may have been tough, and their parenting style may have been quite different than my own parents’, but they were good to us and I’m truly grateful for everything they did.

So how are things going today?

Things are great now, however, they were tough starting out.

The 9/11 tragedy set a lot of things back for the world, my family included. After two years, my parents were able to get their papers in order and finally came to join my brother and I. Since it had taken so much longer for my parents to get their paperwork, the job offer my father had originally received had been pulled and my parents came to the US at the mercy of the people around them.

My aunt and uncle lent them a cargo van that had been equipped with two beds and they lived out of it for 3 months as they worked through temp agency jobs, saving every penny they could. Eventually they were able to purchase an older Hyundai station wagon that my father called our “Mercedes,” place a deposit on an apartment, and return the cargo van to my aunt.

Knowing basic English, my parents decided to teach Spanish at an adult school where my father met a student of his who owned a car dealership and offered my father a job as a salesperson.

My dad started selling cars and, after a couple of years of doing so, learned the ins and outs of the business. My parents left their positions and opened our buy-here-pay-here dealership, Westland Auto Sales, in June 2007.

The first few years were rough, especially because of the state of the economy during and after the recession. We were taking just enough from the company in order to eat and pay for the bills. When my brother and I graduated from college, we both dedicated ourselves full force into the company. This came at a much needed time since my mother fell ill right after and my father stepped down to take care of her.

When my mother died, my father had no desire to return and so my brother and I bought him out and continued to grow the company together. We have expanded to a second location and have taken our accounts from 500,000 dollars to nearly 5,000,000 dollars in a matter of 5 years without the use of any debt to fuel our growth. We plan on continuing to grow the company this way and add more locations so we can service different areas of California.

As of three years back, we have begun investing in real estate and created a real estate holding company together, Stellar REI LLC. We have a decent sized portfolio and plan on adding more multi-unit properties every year.

We live a very comfortable life with minimal expenses. It is not flashy by any means, mainly because neither of us has any desire to blow money on things we don’t need. The dealerships make more than enough money every year so that we don’t have to work but we still like being involved. We have recently begun training personnel so that we can focus our attention on growing our businesses and also allow us to explore other personal interests that each of us has.

We both got married last year during the pandemic to extremely supportive and special women who understand how we work and find ways to push us forward instead of hinder us.

I love writing fiction as a hobby and have started to post some of my work, blog style, on a website I created for myself. As long as I have some free time, I’ll keep on writing stories. It’s fun and I hope other people can read it too and find the same enjoyment from reading them as I do when writing them.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

It’s interesting how one good to some can be seen as wrong to others.

My dad loves Dave Ramsey. He believes in what the man preaches and tries to make sure that everyone we come across gets a copy of his book. However, that same man views our industry as vile and predatory. I don’t think he’s wrong but I think, like many people, they take a blanket approach and assume that everyone in an industry is the same.

I think that, like any company, we found a need that had to be met and took the opportunity to meet it beyond the expected requirement.

We have helped thousands of families whose credit would not let them finance anything and provided them with reliable transportation so they could get back on track. We report their payment history to a credit agency so they can help build up their scores and not have to finance through buy-here-pay-here dealerships the second time around. We blog about budgeting and saving on our website so they can learn about what it means to have a strong financial foundation.

Maybe things could be better if we did not have the credit system but I don’t think it is. Our world is beautiful because we continue to improve it. Doing away with credit would not solve anything, it would simply create a different set of problems. Credit is just part of the process, and as time goes on, it’ll be one of the things that will improve for the better.

I hope that as our business continues to grow, my brother and I are able to reach more people and offer them a better program so they can fully learn to dig themselves out of debt and understand how money works. Our goal is to make sure people don’t ever need to finance with us the second time around and instead be able to return to the wants-based market instead of the needs-based one. We hope to teach them how they can learn to use credit responsibly and help themselves by using it.

We plan to continue growing our business and turn the thousands of families we have already helped into millions.

You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?

The massive amounts of time that the entire process takes is ridiculous. This is, by far, the biggest problem I would try to fix.

It seemed to be a repetitive pattern of filling out paperwork, paying fees, and waiting. It took me over 15 years to finally get my citizenship!

I’m sure there is tons of work that goes on behind the scenes that I am not aware of, not to mention the massive amounts of applications that come through each year, but you would think that after so many years of being around the process would become more effective, not less.

This brings me to the second point. Since the system seems to be so complex, most people do not feel comfortable attempting to put everything in order themselves and instead seek out the help of “professionals.”

People that supposedly specialize in helping immigrants through the process but instead are too incompetent to keep their own work in order or simply don’t care enough to. They charge ludicrous amounts and don’t deliver on what they promised.

Two times with two different parties we paid, had our own paperwork organized and submitted, only to find out that it was “lost”. We were then told that we would have to repay to have them do the work over again. We instead chose to handle everything ourselves and successfully moved the process along.

I’m not saying that all of these people are like this. I’m sure that many are great at their job and help facilitate the process for their clients, however, our own experience with them was not good and I’m sure we are not the only ones.

I don’t have a third. These two points were what we had difficulties with.

Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.

Sacrifice: Delayed gratification is something that seems to be very dismissed in the US. We have such comfortable lives here that the idea of giving up that comfort, even for a moment, is unfathomable for most. Even if there is a clear view of the other end, of how much better things could be, most people are not willing to do it.

Learning to sacrifice is crucial to achieving anything in life.

We will always have problems, no matter where we are or what we are doing. The difference is that when you have achieved what you want, the problems will be those you chose, not those that were thrown at you.

Many people are sucked into the 9–5 mindset where you clock into work and the moment you clock out you are done and no one can bother you. Their leisure time is to be uninterrupted and no amount of work will ever creep its way into it.

I truly believe in enjoying yourself and doing the things you want to do, but understanding that you are leaving behind an entire 56 hours in a week (121 days in a year) because you believe you deserve rest eliminates your chance of moving toward the things you want.

I wake up every morning and write for at least an hour because it is what’s important to me. On my days off, I write for at least 3 and then work on any additional projects that I have made for myself. I still spend my time playing video games, watching shows, exercising, taking my puppies to the park, and other activities, but I make sure to “sacrifice” part of my time on the things that I believe are important to me and my future.

We do not deserve anything in life just because we are alive, we have to earn it. Sacrifice doesn’t have to be torture, it can be done in a way that can be enjoyed and it is always worth it when you see the results.

Learn what is important to you: The US has a beautiful capitalistic system that promotes constant growth and competition. One could view it as a form of Darwinism that requires businesses to continue improving or risk being pushed out by consumers. Because of this, businesses are constantly fighting to keep the attention of consumers and we have been programmed to buy the most popular, most marketed, most eye catching products.

There is a constant expectation to perform.

The same principle applies to social aspects of life. People believe that as you become an adult there are specific steps you need to take to show the world you have reached certain markers.

Buy a car. Rent an apartment. Get married. Buy a house. Have kids. Work. Retire. Sound familiar?

That’s not the American Dream. Maybe that’s someone’s version of it, but the American Dream is something built within yourself.

My parents always pushed my brother and I to question everything, even our own thoughts. I realized that I wasn’t interested in buying a house for myself, I wasn’t interested in having kids, I didn’t want to work at a company for the rest of my life and retire when I was 60.

I found the things that were important to me and began building my life around it. I spend on the things that I value, not just for the sake of spending. I surround myself with people who support me, not those that set me back or judge me for the way I choose to live. You need to learn to live your dream, not mine or anyone else’s.

Getting a clear idea of what you want, of what your dream is, can help you see the road to getting there and keep you focused when there are so many distractions that could pull you away from it.

Learn to invest: It’s baffling to me how under-taught investing is. For those that manage to learn how to save for a rainy day, the concept of letting your money make you money is as if it were an immigrant from El Salvador speaking a different language to them.

The US has a very competitive market and, while it may have been complicated to get involved in it before, it is very easy to do so now. Spending a little bit of your time to learn enough about different investments will put you lightyears ahead of the vast majority of the population. You don’t need to be an expert, you only need to know enough to feel comfortable.

Whether you choose the stock market, real estate, lending, or any other form of investing, there is a complex way of doing it and a simple way of doing it. Some may require more work and provide more return, while others can be done for you and will require only the occasional eyeball to keep on track. The point is that there is a form of investment for everyone, as long as you take the time to learn about it and explore it.

My brother prefers the stock market and invests his personal money into it while I lean more toward real estate. Outside of our holding company, he has no desire to grow a personal portfolio in real estate and will continue to put it into stocks while I am pooling more in the other direction. Neither approach is wrong or better, they are simply what we prefer. At the end of the day, both he and I will make mistakes along the way but we are confident that both approaches will provide us the means to secure our wealth and continue yielding us more.

Take risks: Risk seems to be everyone’s high school crush. Everyone talks about her, everyone wishes they could take her on a date, but when it comes down to approaching her, you find yourself either frozen or making excuses as to why it isn’t the right time.

The United States has endless opportunity! Even if you fail at one thing, you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and fail at the next, and the next, until you finally succeed at one.

Everyone has ideas, but the people who succeed are the ones that are willing to take the risk of following through with them.

It’s always easier to stay doing what you’re doing, it’s hard to try something new. Even worse, if you fail there’s a chance your friends might rub it in or you might lose out on a lot of money or time. Ultimately, the fear that holds many people back is that they may end up worse than how they started.

At the end of the day, though, how much can you really lose?

The potential for gain is so much more powerful than reverting back a few steps. If you take a look at third world countries, people live on a fraction of the comfort that we have here in the US. We could lose nearly everything and still be better off than the family of 8 who only has a single egg to feed the entire family.

Our country provides us with so much that we refuse to see how gifted we truly are.

I remember how things were when we left El Salvador. We didn’t have much left and I was happy. I remember how things were when my parents worked through temp agencies and we only had enough to eat canned beans, rice, oatmeal, or top ramen for nearly all our meals. I was happy. I remember when we opened up the business, lost our house, and took just enough to eat those very same canned beans (which I still love).

I’ve always been happy.

I prefer the life I have now. I prefer not having to struggle for money or food, but if I took a risk that set me back to that point, I would be ok. I am willing to take risks because I know that I’ve been through the low and our country has so much opportunity that I would always be ok.

Positive Mindset: The majority of people that we meet every day are so focused on complaining about their circumstances that it makes it impossible for them to be able to see all the good that surrounds them. Instead of being able to find solutions to problems, they put a veil over their eyes and hope that someone or something else will come along and remove the obstacle from their path.

Listening to people complain around you tends to put you in a similar state of mind as them, we are extremely empathetic creatures after all. Pretty soon, you find yourself complaining about all of the misfortune around you instead of finding a solution and seeing the opportunities that come your way.

My mother always told me that most things in life are out of our control, but the way we react to them is. We have no idea what will come our way or what someone might do to us, but no one can take away the way we respond to our circumstances.

Whenever I would be upset over something, she would hear out my frustration and then always guide me in the direction of solving my own problems and seeing how every negative has a positive that can come from it. She taught me to always find opportunity, no matter how bad things may seem.

This has helped me tremendously in our businesses and my everyday life.

Angry customers have become opportunities to earn more business. Financial setbacks become points of improvement. Familial disputes are simply moments to analyze the relationship and find a way to strengthen it. I don’t stress or worry about anything in life.

Don’t get me wrong, I still get upset at times and can react in a way that may not be the best to the situation at hand, we are all human after all. However, more often than not, I always analyze the situation ahead of time to find positives or pull myself away when I’ve reacted badly and figure out what can be done to either correct it or improve next time.

We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?

Everything in life can be improved. Nothing in this world is perfect and that’s what makes life so satisfying.

Our constant stride towards something better keeps us engaged and fulfilled.

The United States is an amazing country that has done nearly everything right and yet is still far from perfect.

Many people around the world have anti-Americanist sentiment but still look here to find opportunities that their own countries do not have. Yes, we may be jealous of the good looking guy or gal who seems to have everything going right for them and everyone seems drawn to, but at the end of the day, we can’t resist them either.

We can operate businesses without fear of being shaken down by gangs. This may be more specific to where I currently live, but knowing that the authorities are truly protecting the interest of the common people is a massive weight off our shoulders. They may need a lot of improvement, even in our own city, but the same applies to any government, business, or individual. If my business is broken into, I can call the authorities and know they will do what they can, within their limits, to correct the issue. I don’t need to feel scared of them or as if I need to take it upon myself.

There are constant changes that happen both locally and federally in order to secure the interest of not only the people, but the businesses and authorities in our country. There may be changes that will sometimes align too much in the favor of one party or another, but our government allows us to unify and show that something is wrong without the fear of being massacred for it.

Many people may not have been thrilled about President Trump’s time in office, just as many are not happy about President Biden, or President Obama before them. We all have differing opinions about the way that things should be and there is nothing wrong with that. Our country is built in a way that can acknowledge all different viewpoints and allow changes to be made towards the ones that require the most attention.

More could happen if we allowed there to be only one point of view, of course, but that would mean giving up the rights of many in order to rule under one direction. Surrounding yourself with only people that think like you is a massive pitfall. It would keep you from being able to see all different angles, all different opportunities. Our country continues to do what it was built upon; change. As long as it does so, we will continue to prosper.

Eventually, just like all great civilizations in history, I am sure that power will be transferred elsewhere. This might not happen in my lifetime, but I am confident that the US will pave the way for a new type of government that will learn from all of the US’s failures and create an even better way of life than the one the United States has now. In the meantime, I am glad to be part of the one that has provided me and my family so much and am confident will continue to do so.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

There are a lot of people that provide me endless inspiration but the one that I look up to a lot is the author Joe Abercrombie. I love his writing style and feel he is a truly gifted individual in his line of work. Plus he just seems like a really cool dude!

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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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