Two years ago, newly widowed Lillie Biagas struggled with whether to sell a dealership that her late husband, a black man with a vision, had owned.
Today, the retired telecommunications executive runs the Cadillac store. Moreover, she just became the first African-American woman dealer in General Motors Corp. history to obtain five GM franchises in one location.
It took guts, a crash course on dealership management and GM bending the rules a bit for her to get where she is now.
Ed Biagas, Sr. bought the Fairway Cadillac store in Jenkintown, PA in 1993. In 2000, he died unexpectedly. Family and friends counseled Lillie to sell the store. But she wasn't sure, even as she attended a GM class on dealership succession.
Sitting in class, she began to reflect on her husband's career and all of the people he had helped. Throughout his 15 years in the industry, Ed served on and led numerous minority dealer organizations and was instrumental in creating dealership opportunities for all minorities.
And there were all of his employees and customers. “I knew he had touched lives, but I had no idea how many until his funeral,” she says remembering how there were 220 vehicles in the procession. “At that moment, it became clear — I knew I wanted to continue my husband's legacy.”
Excited, she could hardly wait to tell her oldest son, Ed Jr. who was the general manager for the store. So at a break she ran to a phone and called him to say she wasn't selling. She laughs when she recalls his response: “Now, mom, settle down — you're trippin.'”
Making the decision was the easy part. Now she had to convince GM she could run the store. “Initially, we weren't sure,” says Bryan O'Reilly, Cadillac Division zone manager for the Northeast region. “We wanted to look closely at it and learn more about her.”
Lillie didn't sit on her hands and wait for a decision. She immediately enrolled in the National Automobile Dealers Association Academy. Going back to school was an experience, she admits. “I remember sitting in class wondering ‘What the hell am I doing here?’” she laughs. But the move convinced GM officials to give her a shot. “That proved to us she had the desire,” says O'Reilly. “She got up to speed very quickly and wasn't afraid to ask for help.”
O'Reilly won't admit that GM bent any rules in allowing her to take over the store but does say the move was atypical. “She did take over one of our largest Cadillac stores and one that is very important for us in the Philadelphia region,” he says. “But we were able to maintain consistency, she had the family name and Ed Jr., her son was the GM, so it was a good decision. And, she is a dynamite lady.”
Lillie impressed the GM officials so much with her early handling of the Cadillac store, that they decided to give her control of a Pontiac-Buick — GMC-Oldsmobile store whose owner was selling.
“We had discussed the move with Ed before his passing, and it just made sense for us to proceed in that direction with Lillie,” O”Reilly explains. “She is fearless and takes a situation head on. She thinks it through and makes sound business decisions.”
Lillie, thankful to GM for the opportunity, says there is no looking back. “Instead, I have a vision of where I want to go.”