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Lisa Copeland and the Fiat invasion

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Surely you've noticed them. Truncated cars buzzing around Austin streets in eurozone colors such as espresso, mocha latte, verde chiaro and rosso brillante.

A year ago, virtually no Fiats could be found in Austin. Now they are everywhere. Thanks to one woman: Lisa Copeland.

Also credit the Fiat of Austin sales force, and Nyle Maxwell, former Round Rock mayor and proud owner of the nation's No. 1 Fiat dealership.

Still, the urban-style Fiat store in the Domain — blessed with an informal air not unlike that of the nearby Apple Store — might not have set a new record of 100 sales in one month (April), had it not been for manager Copeland.

The San Jose, Calif., native, 46, grew up in suburban Dallas, daughter of Bruce Colesgrove, a high-tech entrepreneur of Iroquois descent, and Susan Barnett Colesgrove, a retired clinical psychologist of Irish heritage. In high school, Copeland led cheers and marched on the drill team while showing horses in her spare time. (She still keeps two equines at her Georgetown home.)

"I'm not really athletic," Copeland says. "But I was always very competitive. Not about myself, but about the teams I was cheering for, or my horse-show teams." That competitiveness helped this fashion school graduate to break into the car biz, even if by accident.

"I wrecked my car and had not been paying my car insurance," she says. "Bottom line is that the insurance company wouldn't pay for my car. My future husband said: ‘You should get in the car business. I bet you can sell cars.' Back then, if you sold cars, you got a free demo."

Copeland's father endorsed the plan.

"Dad wanted me to figure it out for myself," she says. "It's that figure-it-out mentality that helped me find each new chapter. If more parents made their kids figure it out, the world would be a better place."

Copeland became the first woman hired to sell cars at the largest Chevrolet dealership in the country.

"They were pretty mean to me," she says. "They didn't want girls in the '80s in the car business."

Co-workers went so far as to slip a baby alligator onto her desk. "What they didn't know was that, from a little girl, I was terrified by alligators," she says. "I just flipped out. I closed the door and said to myself: ‘I know what they are trying to do, but it's not going to happen.'"

After a year, Copeland headed out to California, where she got a job with the first Hyundai dealership in the nation, specializing in management and finance.

Longtime boyfriend James Copeland, who now runs Austin Mortgage Associates, proposed to her at Pebble Beach.

"A bird flew up. It had a conservation band around its leg," she says. "It turned out to be symbolic. He said: ‘I'm our here for a reason. I want you to come back to Texas.'"

They've been married 24 years and have two children who graduated from Texas A&M University.

In 1988, Lisa Copeland signed up as finance manager with Maxwell's original Taylor dealership, which has grown into four outlets selling Chrysler, GMC and Fiat vehicles. She quit once she became a mother. That didn't mean she left the business world altogether. She studied up and earned securities and insurance licenses while starting Austin Mortgage Associates, which at its peak produced $100 million a year in residential mortgages.

Time to rest? No, ready for good works. She and Dell executive Robin Goad created the Project 19 Foundation. It celebrated the 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed to women the right to vote, by encouraging women to run for office.

"We were at a point where we had some success as a business," Copeland says. "It didn't matter which party you were in. Both Republicans and Democrats need women."

Encouraged by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Central Texans partnered with the White House Project, a nonprofit that advances women in business, politics and media. They met celebrities and took their message national.

"Prior to that, we were chattel," she says of the days before 1920, when the amendment was ratified. "We had let our daughters know — and everybody know — just 90 years ago, we were property."

She wasn't done with good works. She served on the boards of YMCA of Greater Williamson County and Round Rock Serving Center (a food pantry), while co-founding with Round Rock City Council Member Kris Whitfield a group called W.I.N. (Women Impacting the Nation) that helps the children of fallen soldiers. Copeland was recently honored by the Girl Scouts as a Woman of Distinction and writes a blog about how women shop for cars.

When her children reached a more independent age, she returned to the car business with Maxwell, managing sales for three stores.

"Meantime, this whole Fiat thing was swirling," she says. "They wanted us to write a proposal to get the Austin ‘point' (the group that gets the dealership). We knew in our gut it was the right car in Austin, Texas."

A snappy dresser who once owned an apparel boutique in the La Frontera shopping district, Copeland was attracted to the brand's fashion sense — Gucci designed a $28,000 model — and its philosophy.

"The whole premise behind Fiat is to revolutionize the industry," she says of the pert cars that usually run about $15,500. "Italian buyers are not price-driven; they are style-driven."

Copeland has teamed with some other sharpies, such as RunTex's Paul Carrozza, to market the cars as part of a green lifestyle in increasingly urban Austin. The Domain store does not sit behind some huge, treeless expanse of concrete. Most of the cars fit right in the showroom.

"You have to experience the brand," she says. "You are out in the Domain shopping for shoes. You want shoes. Or do you want a Fiat?"

Half her dealers — and half her managers — are women. As in Apple shopping, one is not overwhelmed with the Fiat choices. There are two models: A hatchback and a convertible. They come in six trims. Copeland's store has sold more than 700 in just more than a year.

"In all my years in the car business, I've never been so energized," she says. "The No. 1 thing people say is they like the experience. No pressure. I don't want someone to take a Fiat out of here if they don't love it."