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Challenging the status quo: Rob Cochran shares entrepreneurial wisdom that drives him forward

At the tender age of 21, just five days out of his undergraduate education at Carnegie Mellon, Rob Cochran went to work at his father’s automotive dealership and prepared to learn the ropes at a measured pace, possibly augmenting his training with graduate school.

Little did he know that within five years, he’d be running the company – now known as #1 Cochran – transforming it into one of the top privately held businesses in western Pennsylvania and spending every day challenging himself to do what his commencement speaker had suggested: disturb the universe.

“During my time here, it’s safe to say that I was unaware of the lessons that were being instilled in me,” Cochran told an audience of budding disrupters at the Tepper School. He spoke as part of the James R. Swartz Entrepreneurial Leadership Series about his education, his experiences, and how he applied what he learned to navigate a traditional retail mainstay into a future that he predicts will see radical change.

“More than anything, this university motivated me to think differently – to push the proverbial envelope,” said Cochran, who earned degrees in applied mathematics and industrial management, graduating in 1987.

Under his stewardship, the company has grown from its original two dealerships to 24 new franchises representing 16 domestic and imported brands. But it happened in part due to a series of unplanned events.

His father had just borrowed $20 million to purchase a vacant department store where he planned to relocate the dealerships – a move that would drastically increase costs. Shortly after, his father contracted the first stages of what would turn out to be cancer that would be fatal just five years later, and his right-hand man retired. For young Rob, it was a baptism by fire.

“I was young. I was 21. I probably looked like I was 15. And I was responsible for people 10, 20, even 40 years older than me,” he recalled. All eyes were on him, and he knew it.

An old used-car salesman gave him a valuable piece of advice: “When you’re leading people, even if you are, it is not very helpful for you to act like the smartest person in the room.”

To get the employees to follow him, Cochran wanted to make sure they felt like they were contributing to the business’ success. He worked elbow-to-elbow with them six days a week, evenings, Saturdays – never wanting them to think he was unwilling to put in the hours they were.

“As the entrepreneur of a startup, which I essentially was at the time, there is no substitute for your presence,” he told the audience.

As the business grew, Cochran sought new ways to give his dealerships an edge over their competition.

“For me, the financial benefits of having some success as an entrepreneur have always been secondary to the gut-level feeling of impact, of a greater contribution to people’s lives, a feeling of congruence with who I am as a person,” he said.

He urged students to work on developing a balance between self-confidence and self-awareness.

“Great entrepreneurs need the fortitude, the stomach, a deep-held belief that pushes you to keep going,” he said. “You shouldn’t let anybody affect your dream. It’s yours. Keep it. Treasure it. Keep chasing it. Refine it as you go along. Take the feedback. Understand what’s logical, what makes sense, and what’s just noise.”

As car buying becomes a process impacted by online shopping, autonomous vehicles, ride sharing, and other disrupters, Cochran continues looking for ways to leverage that disruption to his advantage – the very essence of innovation.

“As an entrepreneur, we are always risking and always challenging the norm, and always challenging the status quo,” he said. “It’s an exhilarating ride. It’s one that offers no assurances or promises, but one that clearly has ripe opportunities.”