Tuesday, August 8, 2023
EVANSVILLE, Ind. – Nearly 60 years ago, Robert Romain Sr. founded an auto retail and vehicle leasing operation called United Automobile Leasing Inc. in Evansville. Today, that business plus Professional Transportation Inc., Romain Automotive Group and Tri-State Aero are known as United Cos. and led by his granddaughter.
At the start of 2023, the holding company announced Amy Romain Barron had been promoted from vice president to CEO. She succeeded her father, Ronald Romain, who transitioned to executive chairman.
Romain Barron was recently honored as one of IBJ Media’s Indiana 250, a list of the state’s most influential and impactful leaders across business, philanthropy, the arts, government and not-for-profits. She shared what the honor means to her and how it feels to follow in her family’s footsteps with Inside INdiana Business.
You’ve been with the family business for more than 20 years. Tell me about that journey.
I always had an interest in being a part of the business, even when I was little and didn’t really know what that meant. I just always had an interest in what I saw my dad doing. I really didn’t waver from that. Going through school and college, that was just my plan.
I graduated from college in 1998 and immediately started in the business. At the time, we had three different businesses. I spent the first 10 years working in our automotive group and started out as our service department cashier and just worked my way around all of the different departments over those years. Everything from cashiering to selling cars, working on the service drive, working in accounting.
Looking back, I’m so glad that was my journey and that I really did have to start just like anybody else would to learn the business. In a family business, you have to be careful about not just giving opportunities to people because they’re family when they’re not ready for them. Until you do the job yourself, it’s very difficult to be in any type of management role. I did that for the first 10 years, and then I had my first child and took about a year off.
When I came back to work, I started with one of our other companies, United Leasing & Finance, and my journey was the same. For about 12 years, I did various positions within that company to learn sales, operations, credit, then ultimately moved into management there as well.
During that time, I had two more children. The time off gradually shortened because at that point I was more immersed in my career, and I was ready to get back. And that brings me to where I am today.
You succeeded your father as CEO. Why did he step down?
We have really intentionally worked on the succession plan of our companies. That’s something my dad and I have had a lot of conversations about over the last few years. He is 71 years old and has no real interest in truly retiring, but it just makes sense from a planning perspective to make sure we’ve got people and processes in place.
I took over as CEO in October 2022, and he moved into the role of executive chairman. We work very closely together. We always have, and we continue to do so. He’s been an amazing mentor and provider of guidance to me throughout my career, and I just feel extremely blessed that I’ve had the opportunity and experience to work so closely with him all of these years.
Most of his friends retired a few years ago, but for anyone who knows him, this is his passion. For business owners who start and grow their businesses, it’s much more difficult to step away. But we wanted to make sure that our employees saw a path when he retired.
I know other people in family businesses where the CEO of the company got sick or passed away unexpectedly, and they weren’t prepared. We’ve had lots of conversations over the years to ensure that we would hopefully never find ourselves in that position.
Your father remains with the company as executive chairman. What is that dynamic like?
I’m grateful I still have the opportunity to lean on him because we’ve always worked together to make decisions. It’s going to continue to be an evolution as we transfer some decision making to me more singularly versus having him involved in every decision. Right now, it’s working well.
My three daughters are at ages where we’re very busy with lots of activities. So I still want to be very present. I’m not an empty nester yet. Over the next couple of years, as that gets closer, I will probably step up even more in terms of my responsibility. I’m grateful that his involvement in the business has allowed me to still be a very present mom with my children.
You’re the third generation of Romains to lead this company. What’s that like?
I’m humbled. I hope I don’t ever take that for granted. In a family business, sometimes it can be a natural tendency to become a little bit entitled. My dad has pushed me just as hard (if not harder) as all of our other managers to make sure I’m doing everything that I need to be doing.
I’m very proud of the fact that these companies have been around since 1964. I have every intention that we will just continue to grow and develop them and hopefully be here indefinitely.
What are your challenges right now with United Cos.?
We have been fortunate. Because most of our employees are in the Midwest, we have not had some of the bigger challenges that other companies have in terms of significant wage pressures or remote work challenges. We were pretty much in office the whole time.
But certainly, just the economic environment that we’re in, we’ve had to adapt and make changes not only with our team, but also with our customers. You’ve got to have a good value proposition in your business because costs across the board are higher, interest rates are higher.
You must not only have a product that your customer wants, but you must deliver excellent customer service as well because a lot of people have put purchases off and waited for costs to come down or interest rates to go down. We’ve just had to be adaptable to stay relevant in the economic climate that we’ve been in these last few years.
What are your priorities right now with United Cos.?
We have a big initiative around employee development and engagement. Something else that I’ve learned through the pandemic was that retaining employees looks a little bit different today because unemployment is so low. There are lots of jobs available.
You hear employers talking about not being able to hire, especially skilled and qualified people. So making sure we’re doing everything we can to hold on to those good employees you want to have in your organization really has been a priority for a while.
Why is it important to invest in employee development and engagement?
While leadership is very important in an organization, at the end of the day, it’s the people you have on your team who really make your business great and successful. Something I learned from my dad very early on in my career was we want to have great people.
We want to be successful. We want our employees to be successful. Having the right cultural fits. Not only do they have the technical skill set, if you’re hiring an accountant, you obviously want certain skills, but you also want people with great attitudes who are interested in the same things that we are—growth and development and engaging employees.
What are your plans for United Cos. in the future?
Almost a year ago, we made an acquisition that brought on another local business into our portfolio, and I hope we just continue to grow. Looking at the businesses we’re involved in now, obviously, those would be a natural fit to have an acquisition where we could bolt on. But we’re also looking at spaces that we’re not necessarily working in today.
Acquisitions have been a little bit more challenging over the past few years. We’ve looked at a few that didn’t come to fruition, but we’re always looking for opportunities to grow. It’s really cool to see opportunities for your employees to do something today that we didn’t have as an option last year or five years ago. They get excited when they see the company growing, so we’re going to continue to work hard to do that.
What does it mean to you to be named one of IBJ Media’s influential business leaders?
When I was first told about it, I thought, no, I don’t fit. That doesn’t make sense for me to be in here. I look at our companies today, and my father predominantly, my grandfather, and all they have done to build these companies. While I’ve been a part of that over the last 20 years, I still tend to give most of the credit to the people before me.
Sometimes I do feel undeserving of something like this, but I’m trying to be more open. I’ve been involved with the businesses for a long time and should be really appreciative, so I certainly am. I’m very appreciative of the recognition.