Paul Styer’s first job out of law school was working as in-house counsel for a real estate developer in Sacramento, California. It was a bit of an odd job to take after graduating, but Styer was eager to learn. He worked on legal issues pertaining to buying and developing property, and getting use permits and property entitlements. Ultimately, his inexperience caught up to him, and his mentor Mark Sewell asked him to work for his small firm in the same city. That firm eventually became Sewell, Krueger, and Styer.
In the mid-eighties, Sewell wanted to retire, so Krueger and Styer split the business and the clients. The pair decided to let their clients choose who they wanted to represent them, and one of them happened to be Willis Johnson—Copart’s founder.
Suddenly, Styer was the sole practitioner in private practice at his own firm. Though it was a daunting task, he put his strong work ethic to the test. At the same time, Johnson was busy crafting business plans of his own. A competitor, Insurance Auto Auctions, had gone public and wanted to buy Johnson out. That got his wheels turning. Johnson didn’t want to sell his multilocation, self-service wrecking yards and auto-dismantling business, so he had an idea: take his company public, too.
Copart’s founder needed a lawyer who could help him make going public successful, and Styer jumped at the opportunity. Styer says it was tough being in private practice as the sole practitioner, claiming he wasn’t really good at developing new clients. “Although I thought I was a pretty good lawyer, and I gave good advice, I wasn’t really a good businessperson to grow my practice,” Styer says. “So when I got the opportunity to work for Willis at Copart, it was an easy decision. I knew him, liked him, and he was (and is) a very successful man. It was a great opportunity for me to break out and do something more, not just as a lawyer but also as a businessperson.”
Styer joined Copart as in-house counsel in September 1992. Copart went public in March 1994. While preparing to take the company public, Styer hit the ground running in meeting with investment bankers, retaining lawyers, and becoming proficient in being able to make big decisions for the company. “It was definitely a very long and steep learning curve,” Styer says. “I came in 1992, not really knowing much about big public companies and public financing. When we went public in 1994, it was off to the races. I found out that I had the personality of a dealmaker. I was more of a negotiation, deal-making type of lawyer, and that’s what was needed in those days because we were high-energy, fast-paced, and making acquisitions one after the other.”
Today, Styer is the general counsel and senior vice president at Copart, and he’s helped build the company with more than 185 locations in ten countries. The company auctions cars for insurance companies, dealers, fleet operators, banks, charities, municipalities, and other sellers. Copart recently expanded to India and Brazil, and has plans for China.
Regulations are the trickiest part of expanding into foreign markets, and Styer has to worry about red tape and other bureaucratic roadblocks that can slow down and impede expansion outside the United States. Styer’s team also looks at “the car park,” looking at how many cars are in that country and the auto insurance regulations.
When Copart went into Brazil, it was at a time when Brazil’s middle class was expanding and buying more cars. “We thought it was a good opportunity to get into that market early and seize it,” Styer says. He foresees more expansion into continental Europe and is excited to see how markets in China and India will progress.
As a leader, Styer looks for people who embody the Copart philosophy of hard work and honesty. “Everybody has stories about being ripped off in the car business,” Styer says. “That makes it even more important that we are a company that operates with transparency, honesty, and a strong work ethic.” With those values, his team helps build the company vertically and horizontally.
In the next five years, Styer envisions the business expanding into services like auctioning undamaged, high-mileage cars and taking on more services for Copart’s sellers. He’s also grown his legal staff from two to nine people since a recent move to Texas and, being a good general counsel, he knows when to outsource and how to develop legal specialty experts.
A great organization is all about efficiencies, and Styer leverages the value of in-house versus consulting. “I try to do the best I can to hire people who are smarter than me, so that when I leave, the company will be better off,” he says. And under Styer’s leadership, guided by strong values, Copart is headed in the right direction.