From Washing Cars to Running a Multi-Million Dollar Empire
Sometimes you have to be willing to get your hands dirty. It was a lesson I learned early in life.
At 12 years old, I was washing cars at my father’s car dealership. My brother and sister were there too, lending a hand in an effort to keep the family business afloat. In 1983, the automotive industry was suffering from the worst recession in decades. Times were tough, and our family struggled to keep food on the table. Then, my father suddenly passed away, and my mother -- a stay-at-home mom -- was forced to take a bold step.
Irma Elder became the first woman to run a Ford dealership in Detroit. On the day she took over the business, she went from being a mom to being a mentor to my siblings and me. The days that followed weren’t easy. She worked days at the dealership and spent her nights learning the ropes from Ford executives. In the end, she built one of the largest female-owned companies in the country, and laid a rock solid foundation that helped us build an automotive empire.
During those early days, my siblings and I learned the most valuable lessons of our lives -- and the secrets to sustaining a business that had nearly sunk all those years ago. We now run the Elder Automotive Group, which consists of seven dealerships in Michigan and Florida and generates nearly $350 million annually, and we sell some of the most coveted cars in the U.S. We are also one of a small group of dealers selected to partner with the insurance giant Allstate to offer insurance services.
Despite challenging economic waves through the years, we have overcome obstacles that all entrepreneurs face, and our family-owned business has stood the test of time. Here are a few of our secrets for survival and sustaining a business.
1. Have an “I can” attitude.
Our Mexican-born mother taught us that the key to success is to have an “I can” mentality. She always reminded us that you cannot spell American without the letters “I can.” After watching mom build the American dream, we now live by those words.
2. Identify strengths and weaknesses.
Ask yourself what you do really well and what your biggest challenges are. It’s key for CEOs to identify their personal strengths and weaknesses, as well as the strength and weaknesses of their team. Once you assess your current talent, you can ensure new hires have skills that complement your other team members.
3. Leverage new opportunities, and offer unique products.
In a market that’s constantly changing, businesses must be willing and able to adjust in order to be successful. In the car industry, the internet has been the biggest driving factor for growth in years. You must adapt with automakers and provide consumers with services they want, such internet capabilities in their vehicles. Ford has done a great job with this, providing customers with connected-cars, using apps like Ford Sync, Ford’s AppLink, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and FordPass.
4. Put aside your differences.
My siblings and I have been helping to run the family business for more than 20 years. We have very different personalities and, at times, have to put aside our differences. It’s the yin and the yang that makes companies so great. Businesses must embrace the unique skill sets and differences each key player brings to the table. Only then can you make your company truly successful.
5. Engage community members.
We pride ourselves on the charity work we do to make a difference in the community. Every month, we choose a local charity to support. We have also partnered with the nonprofit Replay Tampa Bay, an organization that collects new and gently used sporting goods for underprivileged kids who may not otherwise have access to equipment. On a national level, we participate in the campaigns implemented by Ford and Allstate. In 2015, Elder Automotive Group donated thousands to local charities.
6. Remain loyal to your brand, your employees and your family.
When our mother took over the dealership in 1983, she was the only woman to own a Ford dealership. Although she was confident she could run the business, no one wanted to work for a woman. More than half of her 92 employees bailed. The 41 remaining employees proved loyal to our family, reminding us that customer and employee loyalty should be at the heart of every business.