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All In The Family.

With Norma Ross at the helm, Bob Ross Buick overcomes tragedy to maintain growth and press toward the future

BOB ROSS BUICK HAS A CORNER, LITERALLY AND figuratively, on the Dayton car market. Located at the intersection of Loop Road and Far Hills Avenue (State Road 48), the eight-acre Centerville, Ohio-based dealership, which sells Buick, Mercedes-Benz, GMC and used vehicles, comprises five buildings. Together with two other dealerships, it forms an auto mall. State Road 48 is the main artery leading from downtown Dayton to the surrounding suburbs. The 40 North exit of I-675, another major roadway, is nearby.

Situated in the heart of GM country (there are 63 GM franchises in the area and a Delco truck assembly plant), Bob Ross Buick was built by the late Bob Ross Sr. The CEO had been the No. 1 Buick dealer in Ohio for five consecutive years. In 1995 and 1996, he received Best in Class for Buick and in 1995 earned the Five Star Award for GMC. Then, on July 6, 1997, he suffered a fatal heart attack.

Upon his sudden death, his wife, Norma, took over as president and CEO. His son Robert Jr., 37, and daughter, Jenell, 30, became co-vice presidents, with Robert Jr. taking on the role of manager of fixed operations and Jenell that of dealer/operator.

"It never occurred to us to sell or combine the business or walk away from it all," says Norma. "We were very certain we weren't letting anything slip away."

Norma Ross says she tried to create team spirit among all her employees and to promote opportunities for them to work closer together and help contribute to the dealership.

"My father's death brought people together and we got stronger," says Robert Jr., whose sentiments are echoed by his sister, Jenell.

Just one day after her husband's death, Norma, Jenell and Robert Jr. had to come together as a united front to prove to their employees, customers and auto representatives they could continue the legacy of excellence and prosperity Bob had left behind.

For nearly the past three years, they have proven they are more than up to task. Based on customer and employee satisfaction, location, expanded advertising and repeat business, the dealership is soaring to new heights. A strong product mix and surging economy haven't hurt either.

Last year, Bob Ross Buick grossed $88.5 million on the sale of 3,622 vehicles--an 18.6% increase from the $72.4 million of 1998, despite the devastating GM autoworkers strike in 1998. Mercedes-Benz sales increased 42% from 1997 to 1999, and for 1999, Mercedes-Benz records for sales, gross profit and units were shattered. They project a 10% to 15% sales increase for 2000.

"The Rosses have been able to maintain a momentum of continuous growth," says Danny Aden, Mercedes-Benz market manager for Ross Motor Cars for the Chicago region. "They've done very well and are building a very solid foundation for the future."

In addition, the Rosses lost just one manager (he relocated to another region) out of 128 employees after Bob's death. In fact, seven employees have worked for the Rosses for more than 20 years. They currently employ 130.

"Dad always fostered [the philosophy] that we're only as good as our employees," says Jenell. "When any leader dies, this is the biggest time when people leave ship. We didn't lose anyone. They are very loyal and helpful employees who helped us make the transition."

Today, the Rosses are focused on expanding operations, gaining market share and attracting and retaining qualified employees. Since 1997, they have opened a fourth pre-owned truck lot and a fifth building for new-truck operations. They also began holding open house for their Buick customers where they could learn more about their cars and the dealership and its staff. They are also in the process of upgrading their Website (www.bobrossauto.com) for e-commerce capabilities.

Because she has maintained continuous growth despite personal challenges, and stabilized operations through technology and innovation, Norma Ross, CEO of Bob Ross Buick, has been named the 2000 BLACK ENTERPRISE Auto Dealer of the Year.

A LEGACY IN THE MAKING

The evolution of Bob Ross Buick began when Bob became a car salesman in 1962 for Shannon Buick in Dayton. He distinguished himself by qualifying for 10 years for the Buick Sales Master Club. But the entrepreneurial bug soon hit when he was selected to participate in the very first class of the prestigious General Motors Minority Dealer Academy in 1972. Bob was the first graduate of the program to be approved as a dealer.

In 1974, with his own funds and financing from Motor's Holding (the financial arm that assists dealer candidates from General Motors in the purchase of dealerships), Bob purchased Vivian Buick, Opal and International Harvester Trucks in his hometown of Richmond, Indiana, just an hour west of Dayton. He had worked for the dealership as a car jockey as a preteen. With this purchase, Bob became the first African American dealer to own and operate an International Harvester franchise.

"At first it was challenging--being blacks--because blacks didn't have too much opportunity," says Audrie Ross, Bob's brother, who was fleet sales manager for 15 years. "After three or four years, people started coming around."

Five years later, in 1979, Bob and Norma purchased Davis Buick and Mercedes-Benz in Centerville, Ohio, and he became the first African American Mercedes-Benz dealer in the world. Following up on his success with these dealerships, Bob purchased a GMC truck franchise in 1981.

Bob's last expansion was the completion of a new GMC facility and renovation of the Buick dealership building, which houses a state-of-the-art new-car delivery area. A Mercedes showroom (separate from Buick) opened in 1986, and a Mercedes services and parts department was added in the early 1990s.

"Bob's biggest goals were to improve the dealerships he purchased, make them look attractive and expand to what you see today," says Audrie.

His business successes were highlighted by his many accomplishments. He was president, vice president and director of the Dayton Area Auto Dealers Association, a member of the board of the Dayton Chamber of Commerce, a member of Buick's and GMC's Dealer Council, a member of GM President's Dealer Advisory Council, a member of the National Association of Minority Auto Dealers and a member of the Mercedes-Benz Dealer Council.

His legacy affords his family and staff an opportunity to continue his successful entrepreneurial journey.

While Norma admits she never envisioned running her husband's operation, she has always been involved in the business, whether as a behind-the-scenes advisor, consultant or public relations spokesperson. She was no stranger to the management staff, and maintained an active presence at the dealership. When her husband died, she says she never entertained the thought of selling the business or closing up shop.

"I began conducting administrative meetings with key management, and continued my participation on community boards to increase the dealership's community presence," says Norma. "I also sought continuous guidance from a former auto dealer friend, Barbara Wilson, and also conferred regularly with another dealer friend, Jim Bradley, as well as my son."

Even as a teen, daughter Jenell was involved in the family business. She filed paperwork, ran errands and answered phones on school breaks. She also pitched in during summer vacations from high school and college.

After graduating from Emory University in 1992, Jenell became an official employee, and was assigned the task of developing the customer relations department, which she oversaw for five years.

"My duties ranged from scheduling a service appointment, calling a customer to verify their satisfaction with service to attending meetings for the dealership," says Jenell.

She was instrumental in the dealership winning Customer Satisfaction Awards from Buick and GMC.

When her father died, she was in the process of completing an MBA at Wright State University, but postponed her studies to help with the transition. As part of it, Jenell attended and graduated from the National Automobile Dealers Association Dealer Candidate Academy, a preparatory program for aspiring auto dealers, which her brother had graduated from in 1992. She also attended dealer meetings and training seminars available to dealer principals with mother Norma. For her business acumen, Jenell was recognized as one of Dayton's "40 Under 40" outstanding young business professionals.

"Jenell is a whole lot like her daddy," says Rita Fannon, the secretary for the used-car division, who was previously Bob's secretary and worked for Davis Buick and Mercedes-Benz before Bob bought the dealership. "He was very sensitive to his personnel's needs, yet he knew how to be firm if he had to be. Jenell knows how to deal with customers and employees. She has a very good business sense."

As fixed-operations manager, Robert Jr. oversees the parts, body shop and service centers of the dealership. Their Buick and GMC operations share a parts, service and body shop, while the Mercedes-Benz division functions with its own service and parts departments. In addition, Robert Jr. leases and sells used luxury automobiles as the owner of 21st Century Auto Leasing.

"People can go to Sears or Kmart auto centers--there are so many players in the market," says Robert Jr. "We really do have to put our best foot forward in continuing to be there for people. Fixed operation is an opportunity where we can continue to meet their needs and continue to earn their business in a lot of ways. I need to make sure we promote fixed sales as much as we do selling. This will be key to continuous growth and keeping an edge and presence in the market area."

THE TASK AT HAND

Under the leadership of Norma, a former elementary school teacher and curriculum consultant, along with her children, the dealership has taken on new initiatives and expanded existing ones.

"I've tried to create a situation where people could feel part of the organization, where they can put forth their best effort, where they can feel comfortable and appreciated and state their concerns," says Norma. "Bob tried to promote an open-door policy, which we continue. I purposely schedule monthly meetings where people can share information and feel like they're informed. We publish a newsletter. And in terms of making sure people understand their job description and feel they're given assistance to achieve their given tasks, we give ongoing evaluations."

In an effort to increase its presence in the fleet market, the dealership is working on receiving minority certification so that it might compete for set-asides offered by government and major corporations, says Freddie Jones, manager of fleet market development and minority affairs.

"This is a most challenging market and opportunity," says Jones. "Most dealers haven't pursued this market." According to Robert Jr., Ohio is one of the strongest states with minority set-asides for fleet sales, generating contracts worth $16 million to $17 million each year.

Expanded advertising has also contributed to record sales in the past two years, says Glenn N. "Skip" Ross, Bob's nephew and president of Ross Communications Group, and director of advertising.

"Uncle Bob was restrictive in advertising, but since Norma and Jenell took over, advertising has been one of the keys to our success. We've done more electronic advertising, such as television, and we're revising the Website, which is where the future is."

For added exposure, which it's hoping will translate into more sales, the dealership accepted an offer in February to sign on for two years as the exclusive auto dealership sponsor of a new AA baseball team in Dayton--the Dayton Dragons. Bob Ross Buick is the only minority-owned and-operated sponsor.

"This is a good hit," says Robert Jr. "The community is embracing it and it is giving a shot in the arm to downtown. For us, it means I can offer service specials on the back of tickets, and we can track where the money comes from. We have a tie-in."

A major challenge, says Robert Jr., is keeping in step with sales and service volume and demand for business. In the past five years, due to the expansion, the Mercedes-Benz dealership has doubled its volume, which has caused a capacity issue, says Jenell. More expansion may be needed. In April 1998, due to rapid growth, the used-car and-truck operations were split.

Norma and Jenell say its difficult managing their time. Keeping to schedule sometimes proves futile, as does keeping track of the volume of paperwork, says Norma. Other challenges include acquiring qualified workers and maintaining profit margin. The rewards, they say, are exceeding the needs of customers and being recognized for their efforts.

"Perhaps the most satisfying aspect for me as a parent is being able to witness the dedication my two children have toward continuing the business," says Norma.

A LOOK AHEAD

As with other BE 100s companies, Bob Ross Buick is quickly making the transition from Old to New Economy practices.

"We are open to acquiring other dealerships down the road, including other manufacturers, locally and and elsewhere," says Robert Jr. "This is truly a new day. We have our own style, our own brand of management and our own interpretation of the market. But some things we do just as Dad did--like personally handing out paychecks on Friday, which gives us value to our employees."

In an effort to keep pace with technological changes in the industry, monthly interactive training is now done in-house via video, rather than sending employees off-site.

Although plans are in the works to update the Website so that customers can purchase vehicles online, Robert Jr. says the Web has not been as strong as point-of-purchase for new-car sales.

"We continue to use the Internet for informational purposes--our hours of operation, products, services and history," says Robert Jr. "We are in the process of developing a structured, defined e-commerce unit. There is no substitute for a retail franchise, but you have to incorporate technology, such as e-commerce and making purchases via online auctions, hand-in-hand."

Jenell says the Website has become an integral part of their daily business life.

"Much of our communication from the manufacturers comes by way of the Internet," says Jenell. "Our Website has afforded us the opportunity to expand our products and services to better serve a broader audience. As does everyone else, we are constantly updating our Website to provide the latest information and technology in order to compete with other automobile dealers."

The family also has a commitment to addressing issues unique to minorities in the business, as well as encouraging young people to enter the industry. In particular, they say the number of minority applicants in the technician and marketing areas has dwindled. Norma says she frequently talks to young people to give them a realistic view of what opportunities exist in the industry and what's involved in owning a dealership. Jenell, Norma and Robert Jr. participate in the Dealer 20 Group, a close-knit group of car dealers, to stay in contact with her father's friends and cohorts in the industry, among them Jim Bradley, Porterfield Wilson, Peyton Wells, Al Johnson and Don Tinsley.

"We talk about the numbers, what market conditions are and share ideas," says Jenell. "This lends reassurance and serves as a means of support. It's evident that those in the business longest are those who remain in contact with one another."

As vital members of their community, the Rosses instituted The Ross Foundation in memory of Bob Ross Sr. It will issue scholarships to area youth and support other community projects. It has received nearly $30,000, including $10,000 from GM.

With a loyal staff, dedicated customers and a commitment to preserving and sustaining the legacy of Bob Ross Sr., Bob Ross Buick is definitely poised for the future. Its founder's entrepreneurial journey continues through the next generation.

"Looking back on my father's death and where we are now, it really proves that you can make the best of a situation when something bad happens and move forward," says Jenell. "We want to maintain that steady growth without losing sight of where we've been and where we're going."

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Author:GALLOP-GOODMAN, GERDA
Publication:Black Enterprise
Geographic Code:1U3OH
Date:Jun 1, 2000
Words:2678
Previous Article:Getting In Gear.
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