When you think of a car salesman, you probably don’t picture a guy like Anthony Panarella. You might instead imagine a middle-aged, overweight gentleman in a sports jacket with a crooked bowtie who’s prepared to tell you anything in order to take your money (and send you off his lot with a clunker). In fact, a 2013 Gallup poll found that only 9% of Americans regarded car salesman as honest and ethical—just barely ahead of politicians (8%).
But Panarella, 35, president of Nissan of New Rochelle in New York, is fighting the stereotype. “The perception of the car business is that it’s not a guy who’s in shape who sells to you,” he says. “It’s a guy who never gets up from his desk. But I want to change that perception, because dealing with a person who’s in shape makes the customer feel a lot different than dealing with a guy who’s got his shirt out of his pants and his belly hanging over his waist.”
Panarella began training with weights as a right fielder for his high school baseball team in Tottenville, a town on New York City’s Staten Island. “We had a pretty intense program with a strength coach,” he says, “and we won the city championship two years in a row. Now, with my car business, it’s a matter of, ‘How am I going to stay in shape and not get caught up in the daily rat race?’”
The answer to that question lay in good habits that had long been established since his days as a youth athlete. Unlike so many other young guys who participate in sports, Panarella never stopped being active even when he laid down his glove upon graduation. After college at St. John’s University, he entered the car business, got married, and had three children—twins (a boy and a girl) who are now seven years old and a daughter who’s now three. Panarella ran a dealership in Ozone Park, Queens, for seven years until this past August when Nissan offered him a franchise in New Rochelle. He now lives in nearby Riverside, Connecticut.
“Staying in shape is so important for the business,” says Panarella. And in more ways than one. “There are two types of customers, the internal and external. The internal are the employees who are with me every day and the external are the customers who come in to buy a car or get it serviced. If I take care of the internal customer, it will trickle down to the external customer.”
With 53 employees under his direction, Panarella feels pressure to lead by example. “I’m not only responsible for those individuals but for their families as well. If I’m not able to come to work every day with the energy to perform and keep these guys motivated, I’m letting them down.”
And high energy is a must. Panarella “runs back and forth” between his sales and service departments all day, and even takes time to show cars personally. It’s a 12-hour grind—from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.—six days a week.
Here’s how he makes it work: Panarella gets up at 5:15 and, three days per week, immediately heads to the gym. He starts with 15–20 minutes of stretching and then works on the elliptical trainer for 30–40 minutes of cardio. “Then I work three body parts,” he says—usually shoulders, biceps and triceps in one session, and legs, back, and chest another. Panarella keeps the weight light and the reps high, usually in the 15–25 range, for three to five sets.
“I’m not trying to lift what I did in my high school days,” he says. “But I want to stay in shape and look good with dress clothes on.” Body-weight training plays a big role, including dips and chinups, which Panarella says train the muscles while keeping the risk for injury low.
After lifting (the entire workout, stretching and cardio included takes around 90 minutes), Panarella returns home for a simple breakfast of egg whites and then races to the office.
“It’s hard in this business to say, ‘At 2:00, I’m going to eat,’” says Panarella. “So ‘Eat when you can but eat right’ is my philosophy.” Lunch and afternoon snacks are usually provided by a restaurant near the dealership, where Panarella says he’s made so many special requests for meals that the owners have begun pondering adding a special health section to their menu. “I ask all the time for grilled shrimp over Romaine lettuce, or a mixed salad.” Panarella also snacks on mixed nuts and blends up protein shakes in his office kitchen.
With that said, he’ll be the first to admit that he’s not a fitness robot. He loves pizza and he’ll gladly cheat on his diet if someone is ordering out for one. And Sundays are family time, where Panarella spends as much time with his kids as possible and joins the family for pasta—although he always requests that his portion be the whole-wheat variety.
His discipline and attention to detail have allowed Panarella to maintain 7.5% body fat at 172 pounds, and he’s still athletic enough to play ball. In fact, for the last three years, he’s played in baseball games arranged by the New York Mets organization for their sponsors. “You get to be a Met for a day,” he says, including getting to wear a uniform. Teamed with other businessmen, and a few all-stars like Daryl Strawberry and David Wright, Panarella has been able to live out a childhood dream. “Last time, I went three for four with a double. I drove in two runs. It was a nice day.”
But nowhere is fitness more valuable than in his business, where he says it’s not only made him a better manager, but has also had a positive effect on his team and their health. “Many of my employees are already on the Anthony Panarella kick as far as the chicken and salads. It builds morale and they express that to the customer who walks in. It’s that first impression that matters. When you walk in and meet a salesperson who’s healthy and positive, I think that helps tell the story of how the business is being run.”