She is one of the nation's most prominent female dealers and could easily rest on her vast number of laurels. But Irma Elder, age 76, is not about to take it easy.
There she is, wearing a construction helmet and leading a group on a tour of her nearly finished ninth dealership — Jaguar-Land Rover Lakeside in Macomb County, MI.
The Elder Automotive Group, which she runs with her two sons, Tony and Robert, is investing about $15.5 million in an expansion program that includes the recently-opened Saab of Lakeside dealership next door to the Jaguar-Land Rover store on the northeast edge of the metro Detroit market.
“We're adding franchises and buildings because we're optimistic about the future of the Detroit 3, Michigan and the city of Detroit itself,” she says. “As the first female Ford dealer in Michigan, and a native of a small town in Mexico, I have been very fortunate and we're happy to be investing in this state.”
Irma Elder says she never dreamed, 24 years ago when her husband James' sudden death left her the sole owner of Troy Ford in Troy, MI, that she could or would become a dealer for each of the Detroit 3 and the top-volume retailer in the U.S. for Saab and Jaguar — as well as No. 1 or No. 2 for Aston Martin.
“Troy Ford was all I could handle,” she recalls. “My only dealership experience had been in Miami as a personal assistant to the legendary Chevrolet dealer, Anthony Abraham. I met my husband in Florida, and we opened the Ford store in Troy in 1967, 40 years ago. My three kids were quite young, and I was a stay-at-home mom at the time.
“Ford sales (representatives) really thought I was too inexperienced to take over the dealership when Jim died. Thankfully, then Ford president Don Petersen and the company's then CFO, Allan Gilmour, stood behind me.”
Both Petersen and Gilmour came to the opening of the new Aston Martin-Jaguar store in the Troy Motor Mall, and Elder is hopeful they'll both be at the opening of the new building for Jaguar and Land Rover next door to Saab of Lakeside.
Conservative she is not when it comes to choosing designs for her new dealerships. The Elders built a state-of-the-art building for Aston Martin Jaguar in Tampa, FL, where Robert is the general manager for that and a Saab dealership. Tony oversees the seven Michigan stores, which include Signature Ford-Lincoln-Mercury-Jeep in Owosso and Signature Ford in Perry, both near Lansing.
“With Jeep and Saab, we've become dealers for each of the Detroit 3. I think they all have bright leaders now and will survive, and what we've seen of their new products adds to my optimism,” Elder says.
The Elder group has applied for the new Smart car franchise in Tampa. It will require a dedicated building. Elder has no problem with that.
“We like to treat our customers well, and it's a fact that the newer the facilities, the better customers like it,” she says. “And so do our employees.”
Elder is the recipient of dozens of honors and awards and a role model for women in business.
The general manager of the top-selling Jaguar store in Troy, Molly Padovini, will be taking over as general manager of the new Jaguar store in Macomb. The Elder Group controller, Sandy Foster, has been with the group since 1984.
Says Irma: “My daughter, Stephanie, worked with us as a salesperson for five years and, like most women who have worked for us, was persevering and successful.
“There's no job in auto retail women can't do. We've had a service manager at Troy Jaguar store and she's as good as any.”
On the stickiest question facing suburban dealers — whether there are too many dealers — Elder sides with auto makers.
“There are too many GM, Ford and Chrysler Group dealers in the suburban markets,” she says. “But no one is ready to go to heaven, and it's a difficult decision for a lot of dealers. There have to be consolidations with the factories assisting.”
The Elder Group's strategy is to grow in franchises and new buildings, she says. “I fully intend to keep us expanding as much as possible.”