Mary Rice, 43, The Dealer
She may be part of a family legacy, the third generation at the helm of the south’s first Toyota dealership.
But Mary Rice, 43, has made it her own, using her real estate sales experience and her internet marketing savvy to transform operations and launch the 58-year-old business into a new era.
Mary was raised in Greensboro, attending Greensboro Day School. She grew up around car dealerships, with her father, aunt and grandfather Garson Rice all running dealerships for a variety of brands.
Garson was an important US figure for the Japanese automaker, founding Rice Toyota in 1965 and helping to build Toyota’s brand across the southeast. Mary’s father later took over leadership of the business, and the family spent many years traveling with other dealership owners as she grew up.
“Toyota is really unique because when you go to meetings, you normally bring your family,” Mary says. “We didn’t know any different and all the other dealer kids and people who worked in dealerships, like general managers and operators, their kids were there too. It was really fun.”
She didn’t imagine she would go into the dealership business. She wanted to work in marine sciences. She studied coastal ecosystems and fisheries management at NC State.
Her studies took her to the coast, where she interned for a land management group doing soil percolation testing for septic tanks. She met a real estate agent associated with one of her projects, and started thinking maybe she’d prefer a job she could do in air conditioning instead of in a field getting bitten by bugs.
While still finishing college, she took night classes with Century 21 Sweyer & Associates in Wilmington, where she learned the ins and outs of sales.
“I started out with nothing,” Mary says. She made 100 cold calls a day, hunted down listings other agents let expire, and knocked on doors of people trying to sell their own homes. She came up with clever retorts for folks who questioned her young age. She worked relentless hours.
“I was used to my family selling. I was used to working all the time,” Mary says.
As a millennial, she felt comfortable communicating online. She built a sleek website with the help of a Wilmington marketing firm, Sage Island. They turned her on to what was then a burgeoning field of purchasing key words, so her site would appear at the top of search engine results when people were looking for local real estate online.
She was quickly getting more web traffic than the top realty firms in the area. “I just got a ton of leads,” Mary says.
She became the exclusive agent for a new home builder. But when the housing market softened in the mid-2000s, Mary looked for other income. Armed with what she learned marketing her own business, she started working with small businesses on email marketing, social media and web design just to keep her name circulating in the community.
When the home builder’s business ended, Mary’s new marketing skill set brought her back to Greensboro.
Her dad tapped her to develop the Rice Toyota website. She wasn’t thrilled by what Toyota was offering as far as website design options. An internal Toyota internet marketing class she attended fell short of what Mary thought the business needed.
“I’ve never in the world thought I was going to work for Rice Toyota,” Mary says. But she thought she might be the person who could make the changes Rice Toyota needed because her internet marketing skill set didn’t exist at many automotive dealerships at the time.
The project turned out to be incredibly complicated. It required more than just a new website. It required a fundamental shift in how cars were sold. It was an incredibly difficult transition, and Mary sometimes bore the brunt of her colleague’s frustration.
When she stopped running newspaper ads, “I thought they were going to burn me.”
“That was tough…It was the biggest professional challenge,” Mary says. “I think the chances of me failing were much greater than I ever considered.”
Rice Toyota’s long-time general manager encouraged Mary to attend the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) Academy to learn all aspects of running a dealership. She became Rice Toyota’s general manager in 2014.
She went on to work with on a NADA group with other dealers who helped and supported each other’s businesses.
“If you are underperforming in a category, we dive into why,” Mary says, who now is the group chair. “The men in that group taught me everything I know.”
By 2020, she was leading the business – which meant the difficult decisions fell to her as COVID-19 spread.
She had been traveling overseas that year, and knew what the implications might be as the virus spread to the United States. She quietly started to work on the contingency plans.
In March, just as the country was going into lockdown, Mary was at the hospital waiting to have a caesarean to birth her three-pound, two-months premature daughter, Magnolia. She was also on the phone fighting to keep her team employed.
“All these people were deciding whether to shut down their dealerships or not. And I said, ‘Don’t. Don’t you dare let someone shut this store down….I’ve already done all the math. This is how long we can stay in business. This is how long we can keep everybody employed. Do not lay off one person, here’s the money.’ I could go six months and us not earn one dollar and keep everyone employed and pay them their average wage,’” she says. Mary had long lists of project, training, and alternative work the staff could do if there were no customers.
“I had a wonderful team and I didn’t want to start rebuilding that team.”
The business never shut down. Mary worked from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for months, constantly updating health and safety protocols to keep the staff safe and the business running.
In 2022, Mary officially was named dealer principal of the business, now called Toyota of Greensboro.
“I know that what I’m selling is the right product for the consumer. I know it’s a good product. I believe in it and I believe in this company, that they’ll take care of the consumer. So I feel good about what I’m selling and what we’re servicing,”
She’s also ensuring that the business keeps giving back to the community. The dealership supports community college programs and apprenticeships, introducing students to an automotive career path, getting them paid and trained for free.
It’s part of her legacy – lifting up her neighbors with quality jobs.
“You don’t have to go to college and you can come to a Toyota dealership and you can have an amazing career. And that’s really unique, and it’s one of the last great industries in this country that allows people to do that. I don’t know that there’s that upward mobility in many businesses,” Mary says. “It doesn’t matter if your family’s been in poverty, for three generations, you can break it here.”