Dealer Recalls Great Car Guy

Jim Moran died at 88 on April 24. He had a common Irish name, but this Jim Moran was a very uncommon man.

Earl Stewart

June 1, 2007

5 Min Read
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Jim Moran died at 88 on April 24. He had a common Irish name, but this Jim Moran was a very uncommon man.

He was the founder of the JM Family, which is made up of several companies, the largest being Southeast Toyota. It distributes new Toyotas to all the dealers in the Southeast. His company was just ranked the 18th largest privately owned firm in America. He was a multi-billionaire.

I first met Jim Moran at a meeting for Pontiac dealers in Ft. Lauderdale over 40 years ago. Jim had recently moved down from Chicago where he had sold Courtesy Ford, which he built to become the largest Ford dealership in the world. Previously he had done the same with a Hudson dealership.

Jim grew up in Chicago. His parents were poor but he worked hard at various jobs. He saved his money until he could buy a Sinclair gas station in 1939. He began selling a few used cars from that site. Soon he bought a small Hudson dealership.

Jim moved to Florida in the early 1960s because his doctor told him he had cancer and a short time to live. He found out his doctor was wrong. So Jim got back into the car business.

First he bought a small Pontiac dealership in Homestead. He sold that for a nice profit and built the biggest Pontiac dealership in the U.S. in Hollywood, FL.

He set his sights on his next project, which was to be the first Volkswagen dealership on Miami Beach. Back in the 1960s, a VW franchise was the most profitable franchise around. VW turned him down.

So he took the $100,000 he had planned to invest in the VW dealership, and bought a distributorship for a Japanese car brand that few people back then had even heard of: Toyota.

Some will say Jim Moran was plain lucky. Nobody wanted a Toyota distributorship in the 1960s. The quality of Toyotas at that time was terrible and big American cars dominated the market.

He may have been lucky, but he was also smart, worked hard and focused on success like no one else I've ever met. Beyond this, he was blessed with charisma and the ability to find, train and motivate great people to work for him.

He built a network of dealers to sell Toyotas in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and North Carolina.

He also built a support structure for the dealers including a finance company, insurance company, car accessory company, JM Lexus (the largest Lexus dealership in the world) and a port preparation company. His other companies are now nationwide and service all makes of cars.

I like to think I had a special relationship with Jim Moran. We were both “just a couple of Pontiac dealers” when we met. I bought my Toyota dealership in North Palm Beach/Lake Park in 1975. Those were the “wild and wooly days” in the car business.

Jim Moran was an advertising genius as well. His marketing and advertising techniques were copied by the Japanese to increase the sales of Toyotas in the rest of the U.S., when they realized Southeast Toyota was outselling every other region.

Jim invented the “Toyotathon.” Top management at Toyota had huge respect for Jim Moran, whom they called “Moran san.” He coached them on styling and designing Toyotas to suit American taste. He often flew to Japan in his private jet to meet with them.

Jim Press now is the highest-ranking American in the Toyota organization and the only non-Japanese member of Toyota's board of directors. Early in his career, he was sent to work for Jim Moran at Southeast Toyota while he was being groomed for top management.

That is how Toyota regarded Jim Moran, and how he affected the company's success here.

The tributes pour in for the late, great Jim Moran. Most paint him as perfect, a man for all seasons and all things to all people. They note his charitable contributions, his family, and all the good and significant things he did during his life.

Because I knew Jim longer than most and knew him early in his career, I have a different perspective. Back in those days, the rules of the game were a little looser than they are today. There were fewer laws and regulations. It was the wild, wild West when it came to marketing cars.

Jim Moran was blessed with incredible talents and was the most competitive man I have ever known. He was the Tiger Woods of the car business.

Like all great performers, he loved doing what he did better than anything. Yes, anything. Everything else in this great man's life was secondary to his becoming the biggest and best Hudson dealer, Ford dealer, Pontiac dealer, Lexus dealer or Toyota distributor.

Underneath the smooth facade was always the rough, tough Chicago Irishman. I don't believe it is possible to be the best in the world at something unless you are blessed — or is it cursed? — with this kind of focus and ambition.

The last time I talked with Jim Moran was when he phoned me about 18 months ago. He had heard that I had just recovered from colon cancer surgery. He called to ask how I was doing and to wish me well.

He reminded me about his doctors in Chicago 40 years ago telling him that he had cancer and as few as six months to live. He congratulated me on my dealership's sales increases since opening a much larger facility.

Then he said: “Earl, I've been telling you to build that new dealership for the last 10 years!” We both laughed.

I am proud and lucky to have known Jim Moran. I learned so much from him. He had a greater influence on my business life than anyone, except for my father.

Earl Stewart owns Earl Stewart Toyota of North Palm Beach in Lake Park, FL. This article originally appeared on his blog:

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