Perseverance, a strong support system, and a sharp sense of humor have helped Irma Elder, the CEO of Elder Automotive Group, succeed after a tragic baptism into executive life. Her husband James Elder died suddenly in 1983, leaving Mrs. Elder to raise her three children and run the family business – a Ford dealership in Troy, Michigan. She grabbed the reins, became the first woman to own a Ford dealership in the Greater Detroit area, and pointed the company toward growth. Elder Automotive expanded from one dealership to a portfolio of outlets that includes Saab, Jaguar, Aston Martin, and Jeep. Her company, which spent the past 13 years as a top 10 firm in the Hispanic Business 500®, slips to No. 30 on this year's list amid a tumultuous 2006 for the U.S. auto industry. But she insists that U.S. consumers will return to buying domestic autos.
You went from homemaker to CEO after your husband died. How does anyone begin to take on such a challenge?
My motivation was survival. I had to support myself and my family, and our source of income was our dealership. I had to keep it from going broke and support my family. I had no other choice. Well, it was either that or let my relatives pay all of my bills ... but that wasn't going to happen.
Did you have to convince others in the company that you could do the job?
I'm still convincing people that I can do the job. It's just a fact of life.
Did you want to run the company the way your husband did, or did you implement new ideas?
I was a widow with three children who didn't know what was going to happen from day to day. So, as I still say to this day, ignorance is bliss. You'll jump right in there if you don't know any better. I was scared, but I didn't have time to be scared. I made the decision to learn every day as much as I could. ... And you can't be married to a man for 20 years and not know anything about his business.
What challenges did you face as a Hispanic female CEO in the 1980s?
I had obstacles and I still do. There's discrimination and there's patronizing, but so what? You can sit there and be upset about the patronizing and the discrimination, but it doesn't do you any good to spend so much time thinking about the negatives. I had to think in a positive manner.
Who served as your role model while taking on such a task?
My parents told me, "Do not give up under any circumstances." When times were tough, I'd call my mom and tell her "I cannot do this." She would say, "I'm saying the rosary for you, you'll be fine." Then my dad would get on the phone and say, "I don't want to hear anything; you have to do it for you, your family, and your future."
What significant changes have you seen in the industry over the past 20 years?
Thirty years ago, the perception was that [the United States] was the place where everything we built was the best. Now, the public has shied away from domestic cars. But American-made cars have improved tremendously, and I'm appalled that we haven't been able to project that to the general public.
The U.S. auto industry has taken its lumps this year and Elder Automotive revenues slipped in 2006. What's the company's focus moving forward?
I have a lot of faith in GM and Ford doing well, and that will ultimately benefit us. As dealers, it's good for us to diversify, getting other makes of cars to add to the group that we have. And, sometime in the future, we may diversify into other businesses, too. But I don't think we'll ever abandon it completely.
Do you have any plans to retire in the near future?
Retirement? I can't see myself sitting in a rocking chair and watching the sunset. I always say my kids will kick me out when it's time. A reporter recently asked my son if I was going to retire soon and he said, "She keeps retiring, but we keep calling her back." As long as I can be effective for the company, I'll be there.
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