Local News

Wednesday, Jul 02 2014 07:03 PM

Mehnga Sanghera stressed honesty, hard work in expanding local car dealerships

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    Mehnga Sanghera, in a photograph from about 1950

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BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

Everyone knew when Mehnga Singh Sanghera was in the building.

The owner of Sangera Automotive Group spoke with a booming, confident voice. He backed it up by building a successful group of auto dealerships and projecting an aura of leadership that attracted employees who, once working for him, couldn't imagine leaving.

"He was always interested in what I was doing," said Bill Smith, a service and parts director who's worked at Sangera for 17 years. "I never had an owner who cared like that."

Sanghera died June 26. He was 88. A private service was held Tuesday.

Sangera Automotive Group occupies several acres along Gasoline Alley Drive in the Bakersfield Auto Mall. The business is comprised of Mercedes-Benz of Bakersfield, Sprinter of Bakersfield, Sangera Volvo and Sangera Subaru.

Sanghera (he spelled his businesses "Sangera" for easier pronunciation) traveled from his birthplace in the Punjab region of India to the U.S. at age 22 to attend college at UCLA. He lived in garages and worked whatever jobs he could find -- including washing cars and walking pets -- while earning master's degrees in horticulture and business.

He didn't let the obstacles of being new to the country stop him from achieving his dreams, said son-in-law Damon Culbertson, president and general manager at Sangera.

"(Sanghera) wasn't like so many people who make excuses in their life as to why they can't be successful," he said Wednesday.

Sanghera was working at an L.A. upscale men's clothing store in the early 1960s when he met Bill Murphy, who at the time owned the largest Buick dealership in the country.

Sanghera told Murphy something like, "Bill, you're worth a million bucks but you don't know how to dress," according to Culbertson.

Murphy wasn't used to people talking to him like that, especially someone new in business. He was impressed.

He offered Sanghera a job selling cars for him, matching his salary at the clothing store.

Sanghera was straightforward in his response: He told Murphy he thought all car dealers were crooks.

His honesty and sales skills worked. Murphy had intended to purchase just a few items, but by the time he left Sanghera had sold him a wardrobe of sports coats, slacks, work suits, neckties and socks.

Murphy made several more attempts to hire Sanghera, who eventually agreed on the condition Murphy help him buy his own business if he was successful. A deal was made.

Sanghera worked for Murphy the next seven years, and Murphy kept his word when he helped Sanghera open a car dealership in Lompoc in 1969. Three years later, Sanghera, his wife, Hardev, and their three daughters moved to Bakersfield.

He started his auto business in Bakersfield in August 1972 when he bought out Ed Fant Buick Mercedes-Benz on 24th Street. Mike Payne, a Sangera employee since 1975, said Kenny Buller was the head technician at the business at the time and Sanghera kept him and his expertise when he bought the company.

Payne said Sanghera was the type of boss who recognized and rewarded talent. As the owner, he didn't hesitate to pay compliments when his employees performed well.

And he told his employees to keep the customer's best interests at heart: Don't lie to them to make him money.

The Sangera business grew. There were changes over the years, with dealerships separating and moving to different locations. In January 2000, company operations were reunited at one site at the Auto Mall.

Culbertson said the business has employed thousands of employees over the years. Sanghera achieved a reputation for success both locally and abroad.

He was generous with his wealth, and during numerous trips back to the village he grew up in he donated to hospitals. He made anonymous donations both in the U.S. and in India.

People traveling from Punjab to the U.S. were told to look up Sanghera for work, or help.

It was during a 1963 vacation in India that Sanghera met his future wife. They were introduced by friends and immediately took to each other.

"He saw me and wouldn't leave me alone," Hardev (Athena) Sanghera said.

Mehnga Sanghera didn't waste any time. The two were married within a year.

In addition to his wife, Sanghera is survived by three daughters: Melanie Sanghera, Joti Culbertson and Raji Sanghera, all of Bakersfield.

A celebration of life will be held July 24 at Bakersfield Country Club. The family encourages friends and those whose lives were impacted by Sanghera to attend.

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