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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 12, 2015 6 years ago

Engines on

Elder Automotive Group is not a huge force in the car dealership world. But size is not everything.
by: Michael Hinman Tampa Bay Reporter

Robert Elder learned the car business sitting around his kitchen table, growing up just outside Detroit. In 1983, his father James Elder, who founded Elder Ford, died.

That left a leadership void and a questionable future. Then the Ford Motor Co. did something unusual: It gave Elder's widow, Irma Elder, the chance to run the dealership — the first time that ever happened at Ford.

The younger Elder remembers those times as a 12-year-old, seeing his mother slave over accounting ledgers and contracts at the kitchen table.

“It wasn't easy for her,” Elder says. “All the other dealerships would poach her employees, telling them they can't work for a woman, and she'll never succeed. When my father died, we had 97 employees. By the time my mom took over, we had just 38.”

Elder Automotive Group, now with nine stores in Michigan and Florida, and a total of 387 employees, remains small by industry standards. On the Gulf Coast it operates Elder Ford of Tampa on Florida Avenue, near the University of South Florida; a Jaguar dealership on Fletcher Avenue just off Interstate 275; and a Spyker location down the road from there. The Tampa-based company had $268.3 million in sales in 2014.

The size allows the firm to stay nimble against bigger competitors. Larger groups like Reeves Import Motor Cars and Courtesy Automotive Group are in the same neighborhood as Elder Ford, for example.

One new agile approach at Elder: The firm joined forces with insurance giant Allstate to open a franchise near the dealership, employing six people.

Robert Elder also expands only when there's a market downturn, when some dealerships struggle to pay bills. That's what attracted Robert Elder to Florida in the first place.

After opening the Jaguar dealership in 2002, Elder picked up a struggling Saab dealership on Florida Avenue. He was in the process of turning that dealership around when the Swedish car company went bankrupt.

The economic crash had taken another victim, however, as well. Ernie Haire Ford, a long-established dealership just a block from where Elder operated his Saab dealership, went bankrupt, leaving its Ford distribution agreement and land on both sides of Florida Avenue available.

Being nimble and small again allowed Elder to stay opportunistic and grow.

“I like to turn stores around, but we have to be very deliberate about what we pick up,” Elder says. “Many dealerships, and many companies, make the mistake of focusing too much on expanding, and not about scaling their business. You can't leave the customers out. The expansion has to be good for them, not leave them out in the cold.”

That's one of many lessons Elder learned from his parents. Irma Elder, who died last September, was a role model for her son.

“She was from Mexico, and when she had become an American citizen, that was one of her proudest moments,” Elder says. “She loved being an American, and whenever I felt like I couldn't do something, she would remind me that the last four letters of 'American' spells out 'I can.'”

Follow Michael Hinman on Twitter @BizTampaBay

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