Steve Pleau '69 (Business Administration)

Keeping it in the family gives Pleau his drive

Steve Pleau

“Now and for generations to come” is more than just a commercial catchphrase for Future Automotive Group.

Owner Steve Pleau says it represents the three generations of Pleaus who have grown the company from a single downtown-Sacramento Ford dealership to an award-winning eight-store chain representing four manufacturers in five Northern California communities.

But it also describes the scores of employees who have been nurtured through the group’s ranks and gone on to manage—and even own—dealerships within the company.

The original dealership—Downtown Ford—was established by Steve Pleau’s father Gene. Steve put in time at the dealership with summer jobs washing cars, but it wasn’t until after he graduated from Sac State with a degree in business administration, followed by a stint in the Army, that he decided to enter the family business as a career.

And like all good success stories, he started at the entry level.

“I decided I liked the business and went to work for my dad as a commissioned salesman. It was good training and I worked my way up,” Pleau says.

But at a point he realized that he might have to chart his own course if he wanted to continue to advance.

“I refer to my dad as ‘a diesel engine.’ He was a very hard worker and I wasn’t comfortable sitting around waiting around for him to retire,” he says. “I needed another mountain to climb. I told him I wanted my own deal.”

So Pleau started his own operation, Future Ford in Roseville. He laughs that, at the time, people were speculating that the move was the result of a family rift, which was far from the truth.

“(My dad) was a real supporter. We continued to work together—I was a minority partner in his operation and he was a partner in mine.”

In fact, when Gene Pleau sold his downtown property, he came to work in Roseville along with Steve’s son Geoff, who is now a partner in the Roseville and Sacramento stores. “At one point we had three generations working together,” Steve says. “There was no other dealership in the greater Sacramento area that had three generations together at one time.”

The drive to build the company, and with it the employee base, is the result of Pleau’s admittedly competitive nature—in college he was on a Hornets gymnastics team that didn’t lose a meet during his four years in the Far Western Conference.

“My business philosophy is either you are growing or you are dying,” he says. “We recruited, and trained, and really made an investment in our people,” Pleau says. “And we needed to create opportunities for these people or we would lose them to someone else. That really motivated the expansion. We had a good solid team which made it easy for me to transition to be more focused on acquisitions.”

He also emphasizes learning as a crucial component of the Future Automotive Group’s success, something he inherited from his father.

“We spend a tremendous amount of time on education in our business. My dad, when he was in his 80s, still considered himself a student of the business and maintained an attitude of always trying to learn and improve,” Pleau says, adding, “My belief is, ‘The day I am satisfied with the way things are, is my last day.’ That’s when the competition takes over.”

While some new employees have found the expectations overwhelming, Pleau says, “Once they get on board, they become very solid employees and solid managers.”

“I probably get the most satisfaction taking someone who is brand-new to the business and training them to move into an upper-management position, a general management position or even an ownership post.”

Of his own education, Pleau calls his time at Sac State “very good,” noting it was where he met his wife, Vicki. He began as a pre-med major before switching to business as a junior.

He says that the campus felt like a community and still does, remarking that at a reunion of his Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity brothers, “We found out that a half-dozen of us were still within about a mile of each other every day, either through our residences or our businesses.”

He also says the tight-knit campus allowed a lot of contact with professors, but that he got the most out of his relationship with Gymnastics Coach Irv Faria.

“He was the reason I went to Sac State. He had a huge influence on my life. He was the most disciplined, the fairest person I ever came across,” Pleau says. “We still see each other.”

As a former athlete, Pleau has high hopes for the future of the Hornet program, comparing it to the gains achieved by former conference rival Nevada.

“That is a great example of the opportunity that Sac State has. The program will be a success,” he says. “There’s no reason it can’t.”

And while he and wife Vicki were early proponents of the Eli and Edythe Broad Fieldhouse, he sees their support as more than a boost for athletics.

“I view that as an investment in Sac State, not just in the facility,” he says. “What motivated me to give is that I had a wonderful experience. I owe a great deal of my success to what I learned there.

“This university has an opportunity that is probably greater than any other because of its location (in the capital), and in the past we’ve not taken advantage of what the community provided,” he says. “That’s clearly taking part under Alex’s (President Alexander Gonzalez’) leadership. It’s fun to invest, to be a part of it.”

In addition to his support for Sac State, Pleau served for 16 years on the board of the Sutter Hospital system.

“I believe in giving back to the community. And I expect our employees to do the same thing,” Pleau says. “Our focus is on taking very good care of our employees and we expect them to take very good care of our customers. Everything else follows.”

This article was originally published in the Fall 2010 edition of Torchlight.