Dealer Irma Elder is an icon of the auto industry.
A woman who reluctantly inherited her late husband's Ford store, she then went on to build a dealership network consisting of 12 stores with 400 employees in Michigan and Florida.
Elder is active in many philanthropic and charitable endeavors, and a winner of Ford Motor Co.'s Salute to Dealers, a program that honors outstanding philanthropic efforts.
She runs the Elder Automotive Group with sons Tony in Michigan and Robert in Florida. Ward's interviewed her during a restaurant lunch that was periodically interrupted by fellow patrons stopping at her table to wish her well.
This is an edited version of that interview.
Ward's: You took over the dealership business when your husband, James Elder, died in 1984. At the time you had little experience in the business. How did you do it?
Elder: It was trial and error. Ford was wonderful to me in giving lots of moral support. The fact we've survived is even more amazing. I've always said life throws you a curve; what matters is what you do with it.
Wards: How did you make the business grow as it did? It's nearly a $500 million operation. How many dealerships did you have when you took over as dealer in the 1980s?
Elder: There was only one, the original Ford store here in Michigan. It was really teamwork with my family and Ford. For women to stay in this business a long time, it's survival. I had worked in a Florida dealership as an assistant to the dealer, Anthony Adams, for seven to eight years in the 1950s and 1960s. So I knew a little about the car business.
The three kids were wonderful. My daughter Stephanie drove her younger brother to school. Both boys, Tony and Robert, worked in the car wash and other parts of the dealerships.
Ward's: You've described yourself as shy. How does that trait affect you in this fiercely competitive business?
Elder: I've surprised myself. At first, I told my father I couldn't do it. He told me, ‘You have to do it.’ Luckily, I had a flair for numbers. I would sit in the living room at night with financial sheets spread all over. I learned the business.
Ward's: As CEO of Elder Automotive Group, how do you stay involved?
Elder: I track the numbers every day. The top challenge is bringing in customers and getting approval from banks for consumer credit. That's still a big issue. I split my time between Michigan and Tampa.
Ward's: How would you characterize the dealer closings by primarily the domestic auto makers? Are minorities having a tougher go of it?
Elder: All dealers are going through the same problem and suffering the same from the economy. It's not just minorities. Many people lost their dealerships and had sleepless nights. It's very heartbreaking. Dealers today have a tremendous burden. It's a unique business. You have to risk your livelihood every day. We've seen this with the closing dealers.
Ward's: How do you think auto makers handled the dealer cuts this year?
Elder: Chrysler, General Motors, Ford have all learned from the foreign companies, such as Toyota and Honda, and now want smaller dealer bases. It's a very difficult business. The dealer ends up with 1%-2% profit on their bottom line. I'm not saying it's not a profitable business, but it's determined by numbers. It has to be run well, with the right people in the right places.
Ward's: When did Chrysler Group LLC discontinue the Jeep brand with Elder, and how did that set with you?
Elder: That was in April-May. Jeep was a small percentage of our sales, so it was a minute part of our business. I feel badly for the other dealers — GM, Ford and Chrysler — who dedicated a lifetime to their businesses and had to shut down.
Ward's: Your ethnic heritage is what?
Elder: My parents are Syrian. They moved to Mexico to start a small business in dry goods, then a grocery store in Miami. I say I've had three cultures behind me: Syria, Mexico and American. We moved to Miami when I was around 15, and I didn't speak a word of English.
Ward's: What's next for you and the Elder Automotive Group?
Elder: Well, we have a new Ford store launching in Tampa soon.
Ward's: What do you want your legacy to be?
Elder: Being a good person, living a good life. In the end, what you leave behind in the world is your family and friends. That's it.