Irma Elder, CEO of Elder Automotive Group and the first woman to own a Ford dealership in the Detroit area, has died. She was 84. I knew Irma very well from my days as Ford National Dealer Council Chairman. She was an amazing woman, and a terrific car dealer. She will be missed.
Elder was born in Xicoténcatl, Mexico, and came to the United States in 1946, “not able to speak a word of English,” she wrote in a biography sent to Automotive News in 2000.
After growing up in Miami, she moved to Michigan with her husband James Elder in 1963. She later took over the Troy Ford dealership he acquired in 1967, after his death in 1983, and built it into one of the largest woman-owned businesses in the country.
“There is a feeling that the automotive industry is a man’s business,” she said in an in-depth interview with Automotive News in 2008. “I’m not saying everybody does it, but there is some patronizing if you are a woman. That is a fact of life. I do not allow it to get to me. It is tough for everybody.
“We can’t cry and say, ‘I’m a woman’ or ‘I’m a minority.’ It’s not going to get us anyplace.”
The National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers awarded Elder its 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award in July.
Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford said in a statement: “Irma was one of our most respected and pioneering Ford dealers, as well as a great friend. She was relentless in her pursuit of success in business, philanthropy and community engagement. Her warmth and passion will be missed by all who knew her, including our team at Ford.”
Elder and General Motors CEO Mary Barra were honored earlier this year by the Michigan Women’s Foundation.
“Irma Elder built one of the most successful woman-owned businesses in the country and she was a role model of service to her community, her state and the country,” Barra said in a statement.
Today, Elder Automotive operates eight Michigan dealerships selling Ford, Lincoln, Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin vehicle brands along with stores in Florida selling Ford, Jaguar and Spyker vehicles.
The company, based in Troy, Mich., ranked No. 7 on the Crain’s Detroit Business list of largest auto dealers in Southeast Michigan, reporting revenue of $343.6 million in 2013.
Automotive News named Elder to its list of 100 Leading Women in the North American Auto Industry in 2000. She served on numerous business and philanthropic boards, including the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s Detroit board of directors, the Detroit Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Club of Detroit.
She received numerous awards, including Ford Motor Co.’s President’s Award and being named among Hispanic Business Magazine’s Top 25 Elite Women of the Year.
Elder had also been appointed to the Commission on White House Fellowships by President George W. Bush.