When Irma Elder's husband died unexpectedly, the humble housewife and mother of three recalls having two simple options: sink or swim. Suddenly a widow in her 50s, the Xicotencatl, Mexico native took control of the Troy Ford dealership and transformed it into the Elder Automotive Group. Irma Elder's a mighty strong swimmer.
As the face of one of metro Detroit's and Michigan's largest networks of automobile dealerships, Irma Elder's life story and business acumen have become legendary.
Yet the unassuming owner of a The Elder Automotive Group contends, unconvincingly, that she's scared of reporters.
"I'm afraid of everything, but what can I tell you," she said.
Elder's life story is well known to many: Born in tiny Xicotencalt, Mexico, and raised in Ciudad Victoria, she moved to Florida with her family as a teenager speaking little English. She later married James Elder and took over the reigns of the then-Troy Ford dealership in 1983, following her husband's death, becoming the first woman to own a Ford dealership in the Detroit area.
The changes she made started with a simple renaming of her dealership to Elder Ford. With the Dec. 21, 2007, acquisition of Jaguar of Novi,and the more recent acquisition of both the Spyker and Fisker franchises in Tampa, Florida; Elder Automotive now has 11 dealerships selling the Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Jaguar, Land Rover, Aston Martin, Spyker, Fisker and Saab brands in Michigan and Florida.
It was difficult making the transition from housewife to business owner, but Elder said she simply "did what had to be done," and she drew from her experience as a personal assistant to a Miami auto dealer.
"Also, I contend that you cannot be married to a man for 20 years and not know anything about his business," she said.
It didn't take long for Elder to discover her competitive side.
"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."
These days, Elder divides her time between Oakland County and a winter home in Miami. Sons Tony and Robert run the family business, yet Elder says she enjoys working too much to stop.
"I've been kind of stepping back and letting them run things. But I'm not going to retire. And I don't think they want me to retire."