I just saw the news posted by Elder Ford of Tampa’s General Manager Terald Hopkins that Irma Elder passed away early this morning. She was one of my favorite interviews while I was a reporter for Ward’s — in part because she possessed a sharp wit and a keen eye for business while maintaining a generous and caring spirit. Her story is one of the more remarkable tales in the industry.
Imagine a young girl, speaking only a few words of English, migrating with her Syrian family from Xicotencatl, Mexico to Florida becoming one of the most successful car dealers in history. It’s a story of formidable strength and internal fortitude. It’s a story of vision, inspiration and leadership. And it’s Irma Elder’s story.
A few years after moving to Florida, Irma graduated from high school and took several classes at University Miami’s nigh school while working during the day.
During this time she met and married James Elder. Together, they moved to Troy, MI and opened Troy Ford in 1967. Irma became a stay at home mom, raising three children, Robert, Tony and Stephanie.
But tragedy struck in 1983 when James died suddenly, leaving the dealership to his wife. Most people, even executives at Ford, expected — and wanted her to sell the dealership. Her only dealership experience other than being married to a dealer, had been a short stint as a personal assistant to a Miami car dealer, Anthony Abraham. In numerous media interviews, Irma has maintained that being married to a dealer for 20 years helped.
Along with overcoming a perceived lack of experience, Irma also had to deal with the normal sexist societal attitudes at the time. Women-owned dealerships were almost unheard of in the industry. Besides, she was a mother with three young children.
None of that stopped her. Overcoming all of the objections, naysayers and sexist attitudes in some corners, Irma fought to keep the dealership. Armed with a quick and sharp wit, along with a keen mind for business, Irma convinced Ford’s president at the time, Don Peterson and executive Allan Gilmour that she had what it took to be a successful dealer.
There were some tough times, though. She encountered pushback from other dealers — she was the first woman Ford dealer in Detroit, after all. Her manager quit and took most of the sales staff with him in the first month. Meanwhile, Irma spent hours studying the dealership business reports learning how to read them.
She stuck with it despite many nights feeling like she should quit.
Relying on a philosophy held by her late husband that one had to keep evolving, Irma focused on growing the dealership. Within a few years, she changed the name of the store from Troy Ford to Elder Ford. And then she began adding franchises.
By 2007, the single point Ford dealership had become a serious dealer group with more than 11 franchises in Michigan and Tampa, FL, generating more than $450 million a year in revenue. The Jaguar and Saab dealerships were the number one sellers in their brand at the time.
“I love a challenge,” she said. “It’s fascinating. In the automobile business, there isn’t one day that’s like the other one. And that’s very interesting in and of itself. I love taking care of the customers, and I love working with our people.”
She is survived by her sons Tony and Robert who run the family business,