Written by Shala Hainer Tuesday, February 14 2012Irma Elder, CEO, Elder Automotive Groups
Irma Elder knows a thing or two about overcoming adversity. Born in tiny Xicotencatl, Mexico, she moved to Florida as a teenager with her family, at the time speaking only a few words of English. She learned the language, earned a high school degree and then later married James Elder. After his death in 1983, she made the difficult decision to trade in her role of housewife for that of business owner as she took over her husband's car dealership, becoming the first female Ford dealership owner in the Detroit area.
The Elder Automotive Groups has blossomed under Elder's leadership becoming a $450 million automotive empire and encompassing 18 franchises such as Saab, Aston Martin, Ford, Jaguar and Lincoln. It also has dealerships in Michigan and Florida. The business consistently earns a spot in the top 25 of Hispanic Business Magazine's Top 500 Hispanic-owned Corporations.
Although her two sons have taken a more prominent role in the company, Elder continues to remain actively involved in the business. Her daughter also consults for the company.
Womenetics: You succeeded your husband as the CEO of Elder Automotive Group. How did he prepare you for the responsibility of running such a large company?
Irma Elder: I do not think anyone prepares others. They learn and sort of prepare themselves. I suppose you can say that he prepared me because from the beginning, we made a decision that we would save money and work toward having our own business. He handed me the checkbook and said, “From now on you are in charge of paying our bills and saving as much money as possible, so we can go into our business, and I will work.” I guess that was, in a way, training me.
Womenetics: What kind of challenges did you encounter as not only the first female Ford dealership owner in the Detroit area, but the first Hispanic female owner?
Elder: The challenges were more than I ever imagined. So many people did not want a woman to be in charge. My general manager left and went to our competitor and ended up taking every one of our salesmen with him. I was left with only two rookie salespeople.
To this day, I just don’t know how I survived. But first I credit God, and secondly, my parents and siblings who were so supportive. My father said, “You can’t quit. You are going to do it.” My mother said, “I am saying the rosary for you; God is going to help you.”
Next the Ford Motor Company did not say, “You cannot run the dealership.” On the contrary, they said, “What can we do to help you?” Then there were my friends; without my women friends I would not have been able to make it.
Womenetics: When you took over the business, were you planning to expand the business to where it is now? If not, how did that vast expansion come about?
Elder: When I took over when my husband died, the only thing I wanted was to survive with the Ford dealership that we had. We were almost broke, and that was our only source of income. It was very, very difficult. My only thoughts were that I must survive.
Womenetics: With your sons helping run your group of car dealerships, do you feel extra family pressure to grow the business and keep it successful?
Elder: I have pressure to grow the business and keep it going, but it is from me. I do not know what happened, but I am very competitive. It's something that I never knew about myself, and now times are very tough. I am doing my best to survive and to be able to hand the next generation a viable business.
I decided to extend the business because I wanted to diversify. I thought when times are bad for one brand, they are better for another brand. One brand will support the other and keep everything going.
Womenetics: What made you decide to expand your dealerships into Florida as well as Michigan? How difficult is that to manage?
Elder: I was living in Florida when I met my husband. My family lives in Florida, and even when my husband was alive, he wanted a dealership in Florida. When Jaguar offered me a franchise in Florida, I said yes!
Womenetics: What have you learned from succeeding in a male-dominated industry?
Elder: I look at myself as an automobile dealer, neither as a woman or a man but as an automobile dealer, and I have learned that women are as capable of running a business as men. Being Hispanic gives you a different perspective on the variety and diversity of people, especially women. I don’t care who you are or where you come from or from what country or the color of your skin. I believe we all love, hate and protect our families like a tiger protects its cub. We are very much the same.
I am very careful to remain always a lady and to always learn as much as I possibly can so that I will never be surprised by something new or something unexpected.
Womenetics: What one business decision do you look back on and wish you could change, and why?
Elder: There are a lot of business decisions that I made that I wish I could change, but you can never look back. You hire sometimes the wrong people, and you keep them too long, but I can’t look back. I can only say that I did the very best that I could.
Womenetics: You make a point to reach out to charitable organizations. Why do you have such a strong commitment to philanthropy, and how does that affect your bottom line?
Elder: It does affect my bottom line especially when things are not going well. But I believe we should share what we have with other people. I’m especially sensitive to charities that involve children and the elderly because they are the most vulnerable people.
Womenetics: What advice would you give to young women, particularly minority women, who want to step up and lead a company?
Elder: Learn as much as you possibly can about the business that you are involved with. Try to respect everybody that works with you or for you or that you work for, no matter if they are a man or woman. Try and enjoy what you are doing because I don’t think you can give it your all if you are not enjoying your job or the particular profession. Also, don’t think that you are better than anybody else, and don’t allow anybody to think that they are better than you.
Based near Atlanta, Shala Hainer has been writing and copyediting since 1995. Beginning her career at newspapers such as the Marietta Daily Journal and the Atlanta Business Chronicle, she most recently wrote and edited articles for several nonprofit organizations before purchasing a flower shop in 2006. She earned a bachelor’s in communications from Jacksonville State University.