Skip to main content

My Career in Auto Retail: Accounting to a Dealership Career 



Regina Purnell headshot

Regina Purnell has a huge responsibility. As the Chief Financial Officer for the Great Lakes Auto Group, she oversees the financial planning, reporting and financial risk management for 10 dealerships across three states, leading a team of more than 125 employees.

Purnell also manages strategic business initiatives and acquisitions – not a small task for this quickly-expanding group. Since 2016, Great Lakes Auto has acquired 10 franchises and broken ground on two new dealerships. 

Path to the dealership 

Nearly three decades ago, Purnell was not anticipating – or even aware – of accounting careers within automotive dealerships. After working as a senior accountant for George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Purnell was recommended to a Ford Motor Company training program for comptrollers.  

In the early 1990’s, Ford established a management trainee program to train accounting secretary treasurers/business managers to support minority dealers. Purnell is a native of Mississippi and a graduate of Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, Miss. where she earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Purnell was recommended to the program by fellow MVSU alum John A. James, a minority dealer who had recently acquired Magee Ford in Magee, Miss. 

Unfortunately, before Purnell even started, the program was cancelled. The program coordinators realized that classroom curriculum could not replace in-house dealership training and experience. 

Now with hindsight and 27 years of industry experience, Purnell is not surprised by the outcome. She said, “When you are studying a company, everything is perfect on the books. But the actual dealership is where you get real experience. It’s much different.”

Purnell did get the real experience. Despite the program’s unexpected closure, Purnell started her dealership career anyway, beginning as a payables clerk for Magee Ford. She worked her way through the accounting roles in the dealership, and her hard work and talent was recognized by Mary Morris, a visiting forensic accountant hired by Ford for an audit. Morris recommended Purnell for a promotion to office manager at Magee Ford and, a few years later, referred Purnell to an open position at a Wisconsin dealership. 

Purnell credits her success to Morris’ mentorship and advocacy, among other mentors, and has actively paid forward the legacy. She seeks out young people with potential, especially women and people of color with the hopes of cultivating interest in automotive accounting careers. 

“There are a lot of qualified people capable of working and succeeding in this industry, however, they must be given the opportunity,” she said. 

Fostering the next generation

Purnell is in the process of launching a summer internship program at Great Lakes Auto Group for minority high school and college students to introduce them to automotive retail and accounting positions. The Great Lakes Auto Group has also partnered with Saint Martin de Porres High School’s corporate work study program in Cleveland, Ohio to introduce dealership career opportunities to students. 

Developing culture of gratitude for employees 

Of course, there is a lot of hard work between entering the business and having a successful career as a CFO. Purnell said of her early career, “I was like a sponge, the work was challenging, however, the more responsibility I was given, the more knowledge I gained.” 

Purnell has held every accounting role in a dealership, which has prepared her for the variety of challenges she faces in her current role. It also gives her a better understanding for the people who work on her team. This often means being flexible with her employees’ scheduling and entrusting them to get the work done.

“I know what it’s like to be a parent. I know what it’s like to have a doctor’s appointment for a sick child,” Purnell said. “Employees have to feel that they’re in a safe environment that genuinely cares about them and is willing to work with them when situations arise.”  

This cultivated culture is especially important for dealership employees who work in the office, many of whom prioritize flexible work schedules and an employer who understands the diverse needs of today’s workforce. 

Purnell advocates for her team through weekly meetings with the auto group’s management team, where she reviews the forecasts and financial goals set by the department managers. This not only holds sales and service teams accountable for their goals, but it also provides the management team real- time analysis of what is required and what has been recorded in the accounting office.

“It’s all about respect and communication,” Purnell said. “I feel that managers should have respect for office personnel. These positions are critical to the success of the dealership. It is the goal of the accounting office to produce accurate financial information in a timely manner.  

Purnell’s advocacy and leadership extends beyond her auto group. She is the vice chair of her NADA 20 Group for controllers, where she challenges her peers to provide opportunities for people with different backgrounds. 

“I feel that it is my responsibility and obligation to ensure that opportunity is provided to all interested in seeking careers in this industry in hopes that we can create a diverse work place, that is a reflective of the customers we serve and our communities,” she said. 


   NADA Show 2025

The Auto Industry Event of the Year
New Orleans | January 23-26, 2025


Add to Calendar 


Learn More
Cookie Icon Update Cookie Preferences