She has evolved from an immigrant who could speak no English, to a shy housewife, to a tough businesswoman.
“I'm not in love with cars, I'm in love with the business world,” confesses Irma Elder, CEO of Elder Automotive Group of Troy, MI.
Since taking over the Ford dealership following her dealer husband's death in 1983, Mrs. Elder's business acumen has made her one of the most well-known and successful women in the automotive industry, expanding from one dealership, Elder Ford, to Jaguar-Saab-Aston Martin, also of Troy; Signature Ford, LincolnMercury, Jeep of Owosso (MI), Mitsubishi of Plymouth (MI) and Signature Ford of Perry (MI), Jaguar of Tampa Bay (FL) is scheduled to open in September.
Over the course of her life she has evolved from a Mexican immigrant who could speak no English, to a shy housewife, to a tough businesswoman.
Mrs. Elder was born in a small village in eastern Mexico. Later her family moved to the larger town of Ciudad Victoria. When she was 12 Mrs. Elder moved with her sister to Miami. Nuns at their parochial school taught them English during their lunch break. “The only thing my sister and I could say was, ‘We no speak English,’” she recalls.
Mrs. Elder graduated from high school and took night classes at the University of Miami, however she is the only one of her siblings without a college degree. She held several office positions, including a secretarial position at a dealership in the Miami area.
“My boss told me I was the only secretary he ever had that typed with a Spanish accent,” she says. It also provided her with valuable experience she would need later on in life. “Everything that had to do with business went through my desk.”
Around the same time she met her husband, James, at a party. He proposed a week later. They were married in six months. In the 1960s, they moved from Florida to metro Detroit. For the first 10 years of their marriage the Elders saved and eventually accumulated enough to purchase the Ford dealership in Troy in 1967.
“We went through the ups and downs,” says Mrs. Elder. “The oil crisis of '73, and we survived the '80s, which was the worst recession in the auto industry.”
The Elders had one child in college, one in high school and one in the eighth grade when Mr. Elder died. Although some people discouraged her, Mrs. Elder decided to soldier on, taking over for her husband at the dealership.
“For the first few months I sat on my family room floor and read financial statements,” she says.
Throughout the transition process, her parents were her biggest supporters.
“My father said, ‘Don't quit.’ My mother said, ‘I'm praying for you.’ I didn't even know if I could make it or not. But you learn.”
She attended Ford Motor Co. courses to learn more about running a dealership, but admits it was difficult at first to be thrust into such a prominent role.
“I was very shy. He (Mr. Elder) was the man of the house, I was the wife,” says Mrs. Elder of their traditional marriage.
But during this time she came upon an interesting self-discovery — her competitiveness.
Despite owning the largest Jaguar dealership in the nation, Mrs. Elder says she's not resting on her laurels. “I never focus on being the biggest kid on the block,” she says. “Nothing lasts forever and nothing stays the same. I don't strive to be the largest, just the best.”
As a female in the automotive industry, Mrs. Elder admits she has encountered sexism. She's never let it get to her.
“I don't compete with men, I compete with dealers. So much has been said about whether women belong in this business. It demands a lot of time and effort. Dealerships are like five businesses in one.”
Mrs. Elder credits her parents with instilling in her pluck and determination. “I have tremendous respect and love for my parents. They are my heroes. In my house there was no such thing as discrimination.”
“I don't compete with men, I compete with dealers,” says Irma Elder, CEO of the Elder Automotive Group.
Asked whether she provides opportunities for women Mrs. Elder replies: “They provide their own opportunities. Women are needed in the business. You open the door and they walk through it.”
However, she says women could take a cue from men in one aspect of the business.
“One of the problems women have is in the sales department. Women have not been taught to deal with rejection. Men, if they go on the football field and lose, they go back and win the next day,” she explains.
For a young woman starting out in the business she has this advice. “Graduate from college, get as many business degrees as you can, get a job selling, and when you are selling, educate yourself continuously.”
Mrs. Elder donates time and money to causes close to her heart. “I feel very much for children and the elderly,” she says.
In 1999 she won a humanitarian award for her volunteer work at the Ford Motor Co. Gold Heart Ball and has been appointed by Michigan Gov. John Engler to serve on the state's Jobs Commission.
This month she is the 2001 honoree of the Women's Automotive Association International's Fifth Annual Achievement Award Dinner chaired by Jacques Nasser, CEO of Ford Motor Co.