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How one man turned his college side hustle flipping cars into a $250 million-a-year automotive empire

It's one thing to work enough in college to cover your slush fund. It's another thing to turn a side hustle into a business that brings in $250 million a year.

But that's exactly what Jay Gill, CEO of Gill Automotive Group, did.

As the "Czar of Cars" discusses on CNBC's "Blue Collar Millionaires," Gill grew up in Fresno, Calif. working in a first-generation Indian family of immigrant farm workers.

"Most kids look forward to summers. I did not look forward to summers because we had to work," he says on the show. Tired of picking grapes and tomatoes and chopping cotton, he says: "I looked forward to going back to school."

With that mindset, he was admitted to California State University, Fresno in 1984. There, to make some money, he began flipping his classmates' cars. Especially towards the end of semesters, he'd see advertisements around campus posted by students trying to get rid of their cars. So Gill would buy them, then resell them to farmers in his community for a small profit.

"If I bought a car for $2000, and I just bought the car in cash, I'd turn around and sell it for $3,500," he tells CNBC Make It. He used money from his summers on the farm to make the purchases and didn't charge any interest when he resold them. But he was able to markup the price because in many instances, these farmers, family friends, would take five or six months to pay him back.

Jay Gill, CEO of Gill Automotive Group
Jay Gill, CEO of Gill Automotive Group

Through college, Gill would sell three to five a year, he says. When he graduated in 1988, he worked a brief stint in Silicon Valley as a processes control engineer, overseeing the manufacturing of computer circuit boards for the company Zycon, but he never felt settled in.

"I was the kind of guy that wanted to do my own thing," he says. "I was probably not cut out for the corporate world — you know the bureaucracy and everything."

Gill remembered that the automotive business had been lucrative for him. So in 1996, he took out a Small Business Administration loan of $208,000 and purchased a used car lot in downtown Fresno with $60,000 worth of inventory. His first company, Alpha Motors, was born.

"Obviously when you're going into a new venture, and it's your first business deal, you're always scared, and at the same time excited," he says, adding that he also wanted to be able to pay his loans back and establish good credit.

And he did. He paid that loan back in six years, but not before doubling up and buying a second used car lot just a year after the first. By 2003, he says he was making $1 million a year in revenue.

That's when he decided to get into the new car business. Gill set his sights on a Chevrolet dealership in town that hadn't been doing well. He felt that, with his upbringing in the farming community, he knew the market better than the owner, who he says was also out of touch with modern car technology and equipment.

"I exploited that," Gill tells CNBC Make It. They negotiated the deal for months, until agreeing on a price of $250,000.

Alpha Motors became Gill Automotive Group and the used car lots were dropped. "We built our business one customer at a time," he says.

Jay Gill, CEO of Gill Automotive Group
Jay Gill, CEO of Gill Automotive Group

Today, Gill has six dealerships and hopes to have eight to 10 in the next six months. He employs approximately 300 people. In 2014, when the episode aired, he made $140 million in sales. He expects to bring in $250 million in sales by the end of 2017.

Selling cars, he says, is a fiercely competitive business. In fact, Gill Automotive Group makes a lot of their profit selling after market products, like tires.

Some of his income, he has spent luxuriously. He still lives in Fresno with his wife, two sons and parents in a 10,000-square-foot house equipped with a gym, sauna, elevator and $100,000 sound system. Not to mention, there is a pool and a basketball court outside.

But in a demonstration of gratitude, he also bought his father an almond farm close by. "Instead of working for someone his whole life, now he runs his own," Gill says on the episode. The farm produces around 750,000 pounds of almonds a year and, apparently, because of large demand and good prices, they offer a much better marginal return than cars.

–Video by Luqman Adeniyi

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