By Mike Turner
Irma Elder is no stranger to difficult times in the auto industry. After all, as many people familiar with the Detroit-area auto dealership scene know, she was essentially thrust into the business after her husband died in 1983.
Still, from a business standpoint, the past couple of years stand out in Elder’s mind.
“There have been good times and bad times, but I have never seen it like the last two years,” says Elder, 81, the face of Elder Automotive, which has 14 dealerships in Michigan and Florida. “It may not be the same thing for everybody, but believe me, it’s the toughest two years I’ve ever had in this business.
“Have you ever thought you were going to see General Motors declare bankruptcy? Have you ever thought you were going to see Chrysler declaring bankruptcy? They’re difficult times. And even though there has been unemployment in the Greater Detroit area, we’ve never seen the unemployment that we have seen in the past three or four years.
“I’ve thought to myself, why didn’t I retire a couple of years ago?” she adds with a laugh. “Instead, I added to our dealerships.”
Not that she’s letting the economic malaise that has settled over Michigan and much of the rest of the country sap her spirit. She remains indefatigably polite to visitors to her flagship dealership, Elder Ford in Troy, remembering personal details about them and asking about their families. She also talks in superlatives about her family, the lines of cars her dealerships offer, her fellow auto dealers, the cultural assets of southeast Michigan and Detroit governmental leaders - but at the same time stressing that she is no Pollyanna.
“I’m not talking about myself, because I always say I came in through the back door, but I cannot tell you how much respect I have for these dealers,” Elder says. “They’re good businesspeople. They have learned how to survive and how to work hard. Many of them have been in business for many years, so it’s been a family business. It’s an honorable profession, and many of them are incredible.”
Although she didn’t disclose specific sales figures, Elder says business has been particularly tough for her automotive group’s luxury lines. Today’s car buyers are more frugal-minded, she says. “Our best line right now is the Ford line,” she says. “Not only because it’s Ford, but because they have wonderful products. Their products are excellent.”
In addition to Elder Ford in Troy, the Elder Automotive Group consists of Jaguar of Troy, Saab of Troy, Aston Martin of Troy, Jaguar of Novi, Saab of Lakeside, Jaguar Lakeside and Land Rover Lakeside in Michigan, as well as Elder Ford in Tampa, Tampa Mitsubishi, Saab of Tampa, Jaguar of Tampa, Fisker of Tampa and Spyker of Tampa in Florida. Elder also has part ownership of Signature Ford in Owosso and Perry and Signature Lincoln Mercury in Owosso.
Elder says she has gradually given up control over daily operations of the dealerships during the past three to five years (“although I am always involved. I can’t help it,” she says). Her son Tony is president of the Detroit-area dealerships, while son Robert oversees the Florida operations. Joe Falzon serves as president of the Owosso and Perry dealerships.
Proud of What She Sells
Statistics bolster Elder’s observations about the strength of Ford, particularly in the Detroit area, where the company held 31.3 percent of the new-car market as of June, according to data and marketing firm R.L. Polk. The Ford Fusion, Escape and Focus were respectively the first, second and fifth most popular vehicles in the market.
Elder herself drives a Ford Taurus, as well as a Jaguar.
Elder Automotive, which employs about 400 people among its various dealerships, has responded to the tough market by cutting costs.
“We have done an incredible amount of belt-tightening,” Elder says. “That has been a must. We do not like to let employees go, but perhaps if anybody leaves we’ll not have them replaced. In some cases, we have changed the way we do things. We may have somebody do two jobs or maybe 1 Ã½ jobs.”
Elder says there is a possible silver lining to current consumer behavior. “People are paying their debts and they’re not using their credit cards as much as before and they’re saving more,” she says. “On a personal basis - not thinking about what’s good for business, which is it’s probably much better if they spent their money - I think it’s good if people have a more solid footing and are more secure with their finances.”
Although she singles out Ford as a strong performer, Elder says she is bullish on all the brands her dealerships offer.
“All the lines that we have can compete with any of the Japanese or any of the European cars,” she says. “They all are wonderful brands. It’s just the timing - we have to get more employment all over the country for people. And I think we’re beginning to see it.”
Elder also says she’s hopeful that cash-starved, financially teetering Saab, the Swedish manufacturer that GM sold in 2010, will eventually get its finances straightened out. “Saab is a terrific car,” she says. “It’s a wonderful car. It’s just that they have to survive.”
Elder also has high hopes for Jaguar, another line that is in a bit of flux. Ford sold Jaguar, along with its sister Land Rover nameplate, in 2008 to Tata Motors, India’s largest automaker.
“(Tata Motors Chairman Ratan Naval) Tata happened to come to Detroit when he first took over,” she says. “He spent a couple of hours with us, and I was very, very impressed. It’s going to take them time until they build the right cars, and obviously it’s not the same as it used to be. The cars that we are driving now are fabulous. They’re wonderful cars. They’re the last that were designed by Ford Motor Co., but Tata is coming up with wonderful products, too.”
Elder, whose walls are adorned with memorabilia recognizing her and her company’s support of charitable organizations, expresses the same sort of optimism for Detroit as she has for automakers.
“One of the things that makes me very sad is that the Greater Detroit area is great and has a lot of promise, but so many of the interviews and shows that have been made about Detroit do not really portray the spirit of the people of Detroit,” she says. “There are so many wonderful things, but it seems to me like they put so much of the negative. They don’t portray the wonderful Opera House, or the wonderful Museum of Modern Art. There are so many wonderful things in Detroit, and the wonderful spirit of the people that are here. Mayor Bing is doing a great job, and I hope that he’s going to bring it back. There are so many people working to do the right thing.”
Improvements to the school district are key to the city’s turnaround, Elder says. Former GM executive Roy Roberts was appointed in May by Gov. Rick Snyder to serve as Detroit Public Schools emergency manager - a move Elder applauds.
“I think having Roy Roberts in charge of the school district is a very good move,” she says. “I think he will be great for the schools. You cannot have people moving to the city of Detroit unless you have good schools. That would be the first priority. And then there’s safety. I think the mayor is trying to do everything he can. There are times when it seems like an impossible job. But I think slowly but surely he’s progressing.”
From Shy Housewife to Role Model
Elder knows a few things about perseverance. She was born in Mexico to Syrian immigrants and moved to Florida with her family when she was a teenager. “I came here at 15 and couldn’t speak a word of English,” she recalls. She later met and married James D. Elder, and they set a goal for themselves to buy an auto dealership.
“My husband didn’t have a dealership when I first married him,” says Elder, who worked as a personal assistant for a Miami auto dealer before she was married. “And we decided that we wanted a dealership. So we made a considerable effort to save every penny we had to have enough money to put down on a dealership.”
That dealership turned out to be Elder Ford of Troy.
“Although he was the dealer, my husband and I saved money together to get it,” Elder says. “The Elder family’s dealership is this one here. This is the first one, and it’s the one that allowed us to do everything else. He had a wonderful reputation and was a very honorable man. I have always been very proud to be Mrs. James D. Elder Sr. first and foremost and then Irma Elder.”
When James Elder died in 1983, Irma Elder faced a decision: sell the business, or step in and take over the reigns of the dealership. The tough economy of that time helped her decide. “As it turned out, that was a time in ’83, ’84 when business was so bad that nobody was going to pay anything for this business,” she says.
So, in her early 50s, the mother of three (in addition to sons Tony and Robert, Elder has a daughter, Stephanie Battershall, who lives near Grand Rapids and serves as a consultant to the family’s automobile business) suddenly and unexpectedly become an auto dealer - and embarked on a road to self-discovery.
“You learn from every experience you have,” Elder says. “It’s like trial and error. When I took over the business, I was incredibly shy. I was a housewife, you know. I didn’t show it, but I was very shy. I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned is that I was very competitive. I never knew that I was competitive. We used to play cards, and I didn’t care if I won or if I lost. We didn’t play for any great money or anything, and if I lost, it wasn’t a big deal. To my surprise, I realized how competitive I was. I had worked before, but my whole theory was that I was going to be a mom and housewife, and that was going to be my great claim to fame.”
Now, after overseeing the steady expansion of the family’s auto-dealing enterprise, her legacy is that of a successful and savvy businesswoman. Not that initial success came easily. She recalls private moments of doubt.
“When my husband died, we were almost broke,” Elder recalls. “We had put everything into the business. When I decided to become a dealer, I would do things in the daytime and then when my kids went to bed, I would work again. But I would tell my mother and father that I can’t do this. My father said, ‘I don’t want to hear that. You have to do it, and that’s all there is to it. There’s no ifs or buts.’ And my mother would say, ‘I’m praying for you and it’s going to be fine.'”
Eventually, Elder came to her own realization. “There’s nothing else you can do other than go do it,” she says. “Quitting did not enter the picture.
“The minute the decision was made, that was it - you have to survive.” Elder says. “People say, well, you’re a woman. Well, you don’t think like a woman. You’re going to be a dealer - it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. That’s where I am - I’m a dealer, and that’s the way I think. I made my mind up from the very beginning that I will always dress the same way - dress like a lady. I never wore slacks to the dealership - not that there’s anything wrong with it. But I wanted them to know that I was very serious about remaining a woman - but a woman in the automobile business. It should not matter. If you can do it, that’s all that should matter.”
At the time she took over the family business, Elder was the first woman to own a Ford dealership in the Detroit area. “And I must tell you, Ford was wonderful,” Elder says. “Ford did not say no. Ford just said we will help you as much as we can. If you need us, call on us.”
Although women in the auto-selling business are no longer a novelty, they are still far outnumbered by men. According to data compiled by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization devoted to expanding opportunities for women, 19.1 percent of auto dealerships were owned by women in 2010.
Even with the support of Ford officials and her family, Elder says her road to success was far from smooth. “Believe me - there were many a night when I didn’t think I would make it,” she says. “I was ready to give up, but in the morning I got up and came to work and I faced a lot of the challenges that every dealer faces. You hire the wrong people and you can get into trouble, or you have too many used cars in your lot or you don’t have the right product. Those are things that you have to learn to overcome.”
And overcome she did, gradually building the automotive group into one of the largest in the country through a string of acquisitions.
“I don’t think there’s anything that I wish I would have done differently, but I made a lot of mistakes,” she says. “And I used them as a learning experience. I’m still making a lot of mistakes. We grew too fast in some areas. In the last three years, we didn’t expect the market to drop like that. And we added a Ford dealership in Florida and we added another Jaguar dealership here. The Jaguar/Land Rover dealership on the east side are dealerships that we just added I think four years ago. So maybe we tried to grow too fast. But I never dreamt that the economy was going to turn like this. I thought that it was going to keep going the same way. I could beat myself for not knowing better, but then I learned that the banks thought the same thing, otherwise they would not have loaned as much money as they did.”
Learning to accept and overcome setbacks is among the advice Elder offers to others who are embarking on careers.
“You have to keep on learning,” she says. “Learn as much as you can about your business, No. 1. Don’t get discouraged. It’s going to be tough. It isn’t easy sometimes. But you can do it. Have faith in yourself. If something doesn’t work out, it’s not the end of the world.
“And do something that you like to do. I don’t think there’s anything worse than spending every day hating your job. Enjoy what you’re doing. Have honesty and integrity. Whether you’re a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant or whatever, like what you do. Learn how to manage money, because unfortunately it’s so important. It is important in your business, although not as much in your personal life.”