Nick Lam, 25, was an international Chinese student who moved to the U.S. from Hong Kong in 2009. As a student at Stony Brook University in New York, Lam worked odd jobs as a 7-Eleven cashier and a Papa John’s pizza delivery boy to cover his college and living expenses until he could eventually start his own business, New York Auto Depot.
Lam purchased his first car so he could deliver pizzas. Unfortunately, he experienced a number of car problems that required frequent mechanical repairs, but on the upside, Lam gained a lot of experience in fixing and buying cars.
“In 2010, I purchased my first car. It was a Saab. It was a very crappy old European car from 2000. It cost me $5,000. I bought it in Pennsylvania at a small dealership. The car began having brake, engine and transmission problems. After half a year there were too many problems. I fixed it for $3,000 and sold it for $2,000.”
By 2011, friends and classmates (who were mostly Chinese) began to ask Lam to help them pick out and buy cars. Lam explained that in the Chinese tradition, when someone does you a favor, you repay the generosity by taking them out to dinner.
“More and more students needed helps with buying cars. By 2011, too many customers and friends were asking — and I thought this should be a business. I told them instead of buying me food, give me $300 for the car service. My company started the moment I started collecting money from clients.”
He started getting two to three clients per week. As his clientele grew, Lam brought on his first partner to help manage the business and in 2012, with no outside funding, he started New York Auto Depot.
Lam’s business initially acted as the middle-man between the client and the dealerships. They would help translate and negotiate on behalf of the clients to get the best deals as well as to inspect the cars to make sure they were in good shape. As business grew, New York Auto Depot evolved into a full-fledged dealership offering a wide range of cars.
Eventually a cycle started — Chinese students would buy a car from Lam, but when they had to go back to China after graduating, they would go back to Lam to resell their car.
Today, Lam’s venture has grown from two people to 8 full-time employees and over 50 volunteers. He says that he sells more than 400 cars a year at an average price of $30,000. Luxury cars in the $100,000 range and above account for 20% of his sales. One of the most expensive cars he’s ever sold was a Lamborghini Huracan, which retails at roughly $200,000.
In just the 2012 – 2013 school year alone, Chinese students in the U.S. purchased just under $15.5 billion worth of new and used cars, according to BBC.
In China, luxury cars can have markups as high as 250%, so when rich kids come to the U.S., they’re eager to take advantage of the great deals — if they have the cash on hand. Lam says almost all of his clients pay for their supercars in cash.
“As long as I help them save money, they’re going to choose me as a service.”
So far, Lam has done pretty well for himself — he’s been the proud owner of a BMW M3, a Porsche 911 and an Audi R8, which became his dream car after he saw the 2004 film “I, Robot”. He currently drives a Mercedes SLS.
While Lam is focused on his own business, he says that his true passion is helping young Chinese foreigners. He’ll sometimes help a client even if he makes no profit out of it. He also shows clients how to properly maintain their cars, shows them places to eat and gives them lessons on American culture.
“100% of our business is about helping Chinese students,” Lam said.