by Joseph D’Alessandro
Michael Brown’s journey starts and ends in Huntington, Long Island. The headquarters of his automotive empire is a block and a half away from the garage where his father worked as a mechanic decades earlier.
The Michael Brown of today is a reputable business leader, a father of three, and a generous philanthropist—but he came from humble beginnings. He described his family’s finances as struggling. He saw his father, a mechanic, head to work each day, which he caught interest.
“When I was 9, I said I wanted to go to work,” Brown said to his father. When he was not playing sports or attending school, he would go to Sportique Motors–a garage turned dealership that was owned by his father. First, he pulled weeds around the property. As he grew, he was trusted with greater responsibilities. He washed, detailed and then sold cars himself.
Brown left for college and returned with a Master of Business Administration from Boston University. He also returned with a dream.
Brown said his goal was to be “a big shot on Wall Street,” which he told his father.
“My Dad said, ‘That’s great, a lofty goal, but you gotta pay rent if you’re gonna live here,’” Brown said. “And I said ‘All right,’ so I went back to the store and started selling cars.”
Brown’s step into the automotive industry was meant to be temporary, but he said he noticed something that made him want to stay—a difference between himself and his competitors in work ethic.
“There’s mediocre performers everywhere,” Brown said. “So I just have to be better than the guys around me. I’m just gonna outwork you.”
Brown’s hard work was effective, and his career gained greater momentum. Brown worked for many automotive groups, playing a large role in their growth. He often put money back into the businesses as an investor, allowing him to directly benefit from his efforts.
However, Brown’s success brought opportunities that he could not accept. Penske Auto Group, a business he worked for, grew to the point that his employers wanted him to go to Detroit to expand the business further. At this time, Brown was now a father of two, and he weighed his options.
Brown decided to develop his career with Atlantic Auto Group, but he would come to a crossroads here as well. Years later, he and the mother of his children were going through a divorce. Brown reevaluated his work life to see how he could spend time with his three daughters.
“When you’re a parent, you want to spend a lot of time with your kids,” Brown said. “When Mom’s at home and you’re at work, and you can just catch up here and there, now I had my kids fifty percent of the time and I needed to make sure I was accessible… there was no way that was going to happen if I was working for someone else.”
Brown’s solution was to create his own business, Empire Automotive Group. The business started with seven dealerships, which has grown to 16 over three years. The success of his business made many of his goals possible: developing his coworker’s careers, giving back to the community, and a healthy business that can accommodate its workers’ lifestyles. In Brown’s case, the strength of his team gives him space to be accessible to his children.
Today, at 52, his office is spacious with windows that look out over a parking lot of cars ready for sale, and a Toyota dealership of his is visible down the road. One wall has half a dozen pictures of his kids, and on the other, shelves of Jets memorabilia and plaques from the organizations he has donated to. A point of pride is a helmet signed by the entire Jets team that won the ‘69 Superbowl.
Joseph Gentile, Brown’s in-house general counsel, speaks to the effectiveness of Brown’s management style. He met Brown in 2015 as employees of Atlantic Automotive Group. Over the years, Gentile estimates that he had over a hundred different clients, but none were more pleasant to work with than Brown.
Gentile said that dealership clients can often lack understanding of his schedule’s clutter, which can make his position difficult. Unlike other clients, Brown strikes a balance. “He’s a rare breed,” Gentile said. “He’s demanding, but in a very motivating way.”
According to Gentile, Brown also has a knack for personally assisting in projects. “But not in a meddling way. He’s very hands on, in a productive way,” Gentile said. “You’ll find that’s a pretty common theme; often people in Michael’s position are removed and only check-in in a big picture kind of way. But that’s not Michael.”
Empire Automotive Group uses that success to the benefit of its workers and the local community. Keith Drago, managing partner of Empire, knows this side of the business well. “Michael Brown gave me the opportunity that changed my life,” Drago said.
Drago is a long time friend of Brown. They met playing Flag Football 30 years ago, when Drago overheard one of Brown’s business calls and became curious about the automotive industry. Brown offered Drago a job at Sportique Motors, and since then, Drago and Brown have worked together. As they moved between companies, they both climbed in rank until founding Empire.
Looking back, Drago said he still sees the same man he played football with decades prior in Brown. “Without a shadow of a doubt, he is absolutely the same person,” Drago said.
Brown has used E.A.G. to donate to many charities, including the Archdiocese of Rockville Center, the Make A Wish foundation, Hope on Wheels and Big Brothers Big Sisters. Brown also engages in direct community outreach with scholarship programs for highschoolers and community Christmas celebrations in Huntington.
“He wants to change people’s lives,” Drago said. “I think, now, he takes more pleasure in that than his own success. That’s one of his main goals with this company, to donate as much as possible.”
That assessment is accurate. “That’s the most rewarding part of the work. It’s not the success, it’s what we can do with the money we created,” Brown said.
In addition to that, Brown has been able to live up to his goal of connecting with family. Frank Gauci was Brown’s brother-in-law in Brown’s previous marriage. Despite the split, the family remains in touch. “To this day he still treats me like his brother and would do anything in his power for me,” said Gauci.
Gauci said Brown made sure food was delivered to his house every day until he recovered, describing a health scare he had last year.
Tom Lederer, chief information officer at Empire, sees much of Brown’s father in him. Lederer has known the Brown family since before Michael’s birth, and also worked at Sportique Motors.
Brown’s father encouraged Lederer to pursue work with the New York Times on Long Island while maintaining his position at Sportique Motors, explaining that the skills he would learn through journalism would be valuable there as well. Lederer says Brown’s attitude towards employees is a lot like his father’s; they see value in investing in their employees.
Brown’s career has been successful, as he hoped it would be when coming out of college. But looking back at his priorities, he describes that he realized his achievements on Long Island were far more important than living a wealthy lifestyle.
“It wasn’t important to be in the bright lights of the city anymore.” Brown said. “What became important was making my children proud. Trying to set an example for them and the community. Being able to be successful enough to give back to the community. Not only did I get the dream, but the dream changed.”