If you look at the number of minority women dealers today, you wonder, can this be real? They are miniscule — barely a ripple.
In 2008, there were 929 women dealer principals in the U.S. ranks, says the National Assn. of Minority Automobile Dealers.
The numbers are plunging. In July, the National Automobile Dealers Assn. reported 792 women dealers. Several were forced out of business because of the economy and manufacturer dealer eliminations.
Jenell Ross, owner of Bob Ross Buick GMC and Ross Mercedes-Benz in Centerville, OH, received the continuation letter General Motors Co. sent to dealers it wanted to retain after its bankruptcy.
“I never had the feeling it wouldn't be us,” Ross says.
She inherited the dealer role after the 1998 death of her father, Bob Ross. In 1979, he became the first African American Mercedes dealer in the U.S.
“We are celebrating 30 years of having the Mercedes brand this year and 35 years as a Buick dealer,” Ross says. She sold her Hummer franchise 2008 after six years of representing that brand.
Ross and her mother, Norma Jean, CEO of the dealership group, are active politically and in civic groups. Brother Robert Jr. is a group vice president.
Ross echoes what many others believe about who was cut and who stayed among minority or rural dealers. “It plays into location. Minority dealers are generally not in great locations.”
But she is.
“We're in a highly visible traffic area off I-675 with excellent customer service and sales,” says Ross. For that she gives thanks. However, the group reduced staffing 20% in the last year due to the economic meltdown. “Consumer confidence is slowly starting to rebound,” she notes.
Irma Elder, CEO with the Elder Automotive Group in Michigan and Florida, is another woman and ethnic minority dealer to survive this year's cuts.
When asked why there are so few minority and women dealers, Elder says it's primarily lack of opportunity.
“Dealerships are typically family-run businesses that get handed down to children. So it's lack of opportunity, more than anything, that prevents entry,” she says. “There are not that many open dealerships for women to go into.”
NAMAD President Damon Lester says groups like his need to recruit more and create public awareness campaigns for women.
“Historically, the auto industry has been male-dominated and most women entered the field as a result of a spouse or male relative passing away,” he says.
The few women who entered the system otherwise went through industry dealer development programs.
Elder inherited the family business from her husband James, a Ford dealer who died in 1984.
She had a choice — she would she watch her income shrivel and not be able to support her three children, or step up to the plate and run the show? Basically, she had homemaker skills and had worked in a Florida dealership as an assistant in earlier years.
She greatly expanded the business. The modest owner of a $450 million automotive empire down plays her success.
“Life throws curves at all of us,” Elder says. “Life threw me a curve. I made the choice to take over the dealership. I was able to survive.”
And so did her children. Sons Tony Elder and Robert Elder now run the dealer chain as co-dealers. Daughter Stephanie worked in dealer operations, but now raises a family.
Elder's impact on the industry, especially for women, has been huge, says younger son Robert, who operates the Florida arm of the family business.
The group comprises 12 dealerships. A luxury plug-in Fisker Automotive Karma EV launches late this year in Elder's Tampa, FL, location.
Elder, born in Xicotencalt, Mexico, and raised in Ciudad Victoria, became the first female Ford dealer in the Detroit area.
If she's carved a path for other women, it's perhaps because she set a pattern for survival for minorities showing the fact that she was a woman and could maintain and grow the business, Elder says.
She doesn't pay attention to cultural labels — minority, Hispanic, etc.
“We're told it's a man's business. I think it's a business for people who like to do it,” she says.
She thrived and so did her business. “The automotive business taught me to be competitive. I wasn't before.”
Her story is legendary.
In Michigan, the Elder group operates Jaguar of Troy, Jaguar of Novi, Jaguar of Lakeside, Aston Martin of Troy, Land Rover of Lakeside, Saab of Troy, Saab of Lakeside, Elder Ford, Signature Lincoln Mercury Jeep and Perry Ford.
In Florida, there are Jaguar of Tampa, Aston Martin of Tampa, Spyker of Tampa and Saab of Tampa.