Alexis Jacobs has proved there's plenty of room for girls in the boys' club

Alexis Jacobs pulled up to the starting line in her 1957 Chevy convertible, its metallic coat of copper paint rubbed raw in spots where it had been affectionately over-polished. A 17-year-old tomboy, Jacobs looked to the starter-a friend-at the Hyde Park Drag Strip in Newark. "It's a girl!" he yelled to the timing stand. "You want me to let her run?" Jacobs smiled. The girl jokes were nothing new. She'd heard them before and would hear them again throughout her career in the male-dominated car industry. Every jab would prompt that same response: a grin from Jacobs-and actions that proved she wasn't living in a man's world; this was hers, too.

Foot ready on the gas, white knuckles gripping the wheel, Jacobs waited for the OK to go. Then, she bolted down the quarter-mile strip for her first time trial, an individual race against the clock. Scary? A little. But not nearly as frightening as the thought of her father finding out and taking away the car. So once, she decided, would have to be enough.

More than 50 years later, Jacobs, now 70, confesses that she never did tell her dad, car aficionado William Jacobs, about that day. But his only child's auto adventures have undoubtedly made him proud.

William Jacobs founded the Columbus Fair Auto Auction in 1958. Based in Obetz, it consigns new and used cars from dealers, factories with lease returns, and lease and rental companies, and then sells them by weekly auction to other dealers. The company also runs a bank-repossession sale that is open to the public.

Alexis spent more than 20 years working with her father, eventually took over, and has turned it into one of the largest-and most innovative-auto auction businesses in the country. And outside of the office, Jacobs continues flexing her mental and physical muscles, excelling in another arena long dominated by boys: sport fishing.

"She's very well respected in the sport, and even in her business. And she's earned it," says Capt. Jon Burke, who's been captaining Jacobs' boats since 1991. "She's very intelligent, and she's wonderful with people. I haven't met many people who have ever said a bad word about Alexis."

Jacobs left Eastmoor High School early every Wednesday to answer phones for her dad. Then, she dropped out of Ohio State after only a year to return to work, learning almost every job on site.

The auction was exciting-not just the initial draw of the cars and their ever-changing designs, but also the people. She loved meeting new faces, building relationships.

Sure, being the boss's daughter meant she needed to work harder, stay later and get everything right the first time. "I pushed myself," Jacobs says, "because I really looked up to him and really wanted to do a good job."

After her father's sudden death in 1982, Jacobs began running the business, as she always expected she would. The company's accountant, however, said it would be in her best interest to sell. She would face too tricky an uphill battle as a woman, he feared.

Jacobs refused.

"That's the thing about being an Aries, you're very stubborn," she says. "I always wanted to run it, and I thought I could."

Before founding the auction, her father had owned a trailer court, smuggled alcohol as a bootlegger and taken bets as a bookie. "He was an entrepreneur," Jacobs wisecracks. But she didn't just share his dry sense of humor; she also shared his drive. Still, while her abilities didn't concern her, how others would react did. She would be the first woman in the country to run an auto auction.

"We had factory accounts with both Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler. I worried that maybe they wouldn't trust a woman to do it," Jacobs recalls. They told her: We do business with the business, not an individual. As long as the service doesn't change, everything will be fine.

Of course, customers knew her, and she knew the business. The quick-witted Jacobs handled occasional critics in her signature style. Once, for example, in a predominately male meeting, a member of the group was looking for someone to take notes, recalls auto auction CEO Keith Whann. "How about Alexis?" someone suggested. "If you want notes, take them yourself," she answered.

"She's always the picture of class," says Whann, who's been working with Jacobs since he started as general counsel 25 years ago. "(Being a woman) was no big issue for her. It was never something that would stand in the way." He calls her an industry pioneer. While some fear technology and change as they age, he says, Jacobs embraces it. (Most recently, she launched a smartphone app for auction shopping.)

But Jacobs says the real work is not in things, it's in people. "The only thing we have to sell is customer service," she often says, touting her father's mantra. From the time she took over, Jacobs dedicated her tenure to improving customer relationships. They spoil their dealers, she says, providing service they won't find elsewhere.

For example, after playing an instrumental role in odometer fraud legislation that passed in the late '80s, Jacobs hired Whann to be on-hand at every auction to answer dealers' questions about the new laws-a service they couldn't get anywhere else. Even before the odometer legislation took effect, they were policing clocked cars, calling previous owners and motor vehicle bureaus to check information. More recently, the company moved to a nearly paperless car sales system, making the purchase more efficient and less wasteful. And this year, Jacobs and Whann launched smart phone app VINdriven, which equips customers with all the data they need to buy a car at auction: retail and trade-in values, auction and loan pricing, vehicle records. With already 15 to 20 percent of their buyers online, the hope is to boost virtual sales.

"It's her high level of service and strong ethics that keep dealers coming back," says Larry Tribble, owner and president of Southern Auto Auction in East Windsor, Conn., an independent business similar to CFAA. "Dealers like going there."

Other peers obviously regard her as highly. Jacobs is one of only three female presidents the National Auto Auction Association has had, serving from 1995 to 1996. It's a big honor, Tribble says, given to the most respected members of their industry. The group also recognized Jacobs for her forward-thinking marketing, naming her Pioneer of the Year in fall 2011.

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Vibrant blue marlins-paintings and figurines of them, anyway-are whipping their tails in Jacobs' office, ready for action. Glass trophies touting her as the top lady angler of billfish tournaments line shelves. Filling in gaps are framed photos of her in shorts and T-shirts, standing beside fish twice her size. (There are a few golf shots, too, but that game has suffered since she found fishing.)

"When you see those fish jumping and carrying on and think, 'I can get it to the boat, I can get it to the boat,' it's an adrenaline rush," she says.

Her lifelong love of the water turned competitive on a just-for-fun deep-sea tournament hosted by boat manufacturer Hatteras in the late '80s. Jacobs reeled in her first game fish-a 200-pound blue marlin that many a sport fisherman aspires to catch. "We laugh all the time about who got hooked-the fish or Alexis," says Burke, Jacobs' boat captain, who was with Jacobs on that trip. He was impressed with her determination from the start and isn't surprised at the respect she's earned in the fishing world.

"You don't see a lot of women in this sport have as much fun and as much success as she's had," he says. "That's impressive. She has shown that women can compete and win just as much as the guys."

Seven months after her first catch, Jacobs bought that very demo boat and named it Reel Obsession. She's bought five more since, and they get bigger each time, she laughs. Her current boat is a 68-foot Hatteras she keeps in Hilton Head, S.C. She's traveled from Florida to the Caribbean to Costa Rica to compete in more than 100 tournaments, catching 105 marlin and a few hundred sail fish. Although she's never won a tournament (she's finished the top female angler several times), Jacobs came close once, with her biggest catch to date. It took only 31 minutes to reel in a 730-pound, nearly 18-foot blue marlin during a tournament in the Bahamas. But the fish was disqualified due to an unexplained gash in its side. (No, she didn't mount it. "That would need to be a pretty big wall," she says.)

During a fight, Jacobs is all business, Burke says. When she touches the reel, she's on her own until she can get the fish close enough to pull in. He's watched her battle marlins for more than four hours. "She's a warrior," he says. "She's a competitor. But she loves to have a great time." And Jacobs never gets caught up in the business of being seen, Burke adds. She'd just as soon hang with the crew than other yacht owners.

That, she says, or go shopping. "I am madly in love with fashion," Jacobs says. "We kid all the time when the fishing guys ask me where I'm going. I tell them, 'I'm not going to tag and release. This stuff is coming home with me.' "

Her style is just as varied as her taste in the art she collects in her Gahanna home, which she shares with a bichon dog and two tabby cats. She's as comfortable in Jimmy Choos and Manolos as flip flops, and readily admits to her shoe addiction. (She owns enough pairs to wrap all the way around her closet, where both shoes and clothing are arranged by color-a visible sign of her organized nature.)

But Jacobs, who is single, also gives a significant amount to the community. "That's a sign of her personality and her ethics," Tribble says. "It's hard for people to give back nowadays, and she does it willingly." Her charitable passions have focused on supporting youth and education, including causes like Nationwide Children's Hospital and Charity Newsies. She formerly sat on the boards of the Salesian Boys and Girls Club of Columbus and the Ohio State University Foundation.

More recently, she's dedicated attention to the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, supporting Growing to Green and serving as Hat Day chair in 2011.

She also donates scholarship money to Columbus College of Art & Design and was instrumental in helping build the Design Studios on Broad, says Laurie Beth Sweeney, vice president of advancement at CCAD. "Her business savvy is incredible, and she translates that into her philanthropy," Sweeney says. "She's very wise about sharing her success with other people."

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It's a Wednesday morning at Columbus Fair Auto Auction. Cars fill 10 lanes of a long, narrow garage-like space. Each lane buzzes with its own auctioneer. Their voices echo off the concrete in a well-orchestrated concert of chaos as bidders subtly fight for each prize.

In a bright yellow blazer and heels, her short gray hair blown out and styled, Jacobs walks effortlessly through each lane, making eye contact with every driver before she crosses in front.

She has a queen's way about her-quiet, conservative, noticed. Her comfort is obvious. And so is the respect from the mostly male crowd clamoring to get a good look at the next car up for bid. People wave to her. Smile. Nod. Say hello.

Jacobs leans over to joke above the noise, "Don't wink, blink or nod."

On this sale day, CFAA will move 1,500 to 1,600 cars. It's fewer than in recent years, Jacobs admits, citing the economy and the recent tsunami in Japan, which temporarily halted car production.

But since Jacobs took over, CFAA has quadrupled in size. Her father almost sold part of their 100-acre property to developers, never thinking they'd actually use it all. But they have-along with another 80 acres down the road for their body shop.

Over the past few years, Jacobs has cut back on her hours to spend more time on the water. But mention retirement, and she'll tell you she has as much passion for cars now as she did at 17.

"I've always been excited about cars," Jacobs says. "I've love everything about them. I think that is probably what drew me here, and it just kept me going."