Sunday, October 9, 2016

Interview with Jenell Ross, CEO of Bob Ross Auto Group

At the age of 27, Jenell Ross started running her family's business, Bob Ross Auto Group, founded by her father, Robert P. Ross Sr., then later, spearheaded by her mother, Norma Ross. Faced with leading the company after the death of her father and during a gruesome recession, she’s overcome the most deleterious of challenges. In fact, Bob Ross Auto Group thrives and sustains because of a signature premise- placing an emphasis on its employees' intrinsic value, a founding principle of her father which has transpired into a family legacy.

Being CEO and a woman of color, Jenell Ross represents a small demographic within the automobile industry. It was a delegation her father was familiar with upon graduating from the first class of the General Motors Minority Dealer Development Program. He embarked on a path of the few including purchasing Davis Buick and Mercedes-Benz in Centerville, Ohio in 1979, making it the first African American Mercedes-Benz dealer in the world.

Lean In Women of Color: Did you always know you would run your family's company or what events led to taking over Bob Ross Auto Group?

Jenell Ross: I always worked for the company throughout middle school, high school, and college. When I had the opportunity during my school years, special projects, term papers, and etcetera would focus on the automobile industry. This enabled me to learn more about the industry.  I would never have imagined my father passing away at the early age of 62 which led to me assuming the day to day operations under my mother as president when I was only 27 years old.

Lean In Women of Color: What would you say was the key to Bob Ross surviving the economic downturn here in Dayton?

Jenell Ross: During that time, it was extremely necessary to engage the entire management team as well as the employees to assess the situation because we had to make some major changes to the organization to ensure longevity. Our employees brought different ideas to us ranging from where we could cut expenses, to introducing different avenues of revenue to help offset car sales which were not going as well as we anticipated. It was a collaborative effort from everyone.  It was evidence to our team that it was a viable place to work and a viable entity. They were interested in wanting to help maintain and grow the organization.

Lean In Women of Color: Can you describe what it is like to lead in an industry that is majority comprised of men?

Jenell Ross: The auto industry is a predominately white male industry. Being a 27-year-old African-American Female automobile dealer was definitely an anomaly. It will be 19 years this July since my father passed and there have been several instances of me being the only person of color and woman in the room. I have always viewed this as an opportunity to educate others that even though I might not look like them I am still capable of doing the same things they do, accomplish the same goals and have the same level of success. It’s definitely been an interesting road. I will definitely say there is still a lot of opportunity for women and minorities in our industry. Unfortunately, I have gotten used to being one of few women and or minorities in the room. However, there are more initiatives being focused on women and minorities in our industry. There is a new conference that is focused on women in the automobile industry- Women and Automotive. In fact, I spoke with them this morning. It’s comprised of workshops, panelists and keynote speakers that will provide best practices for attendees along with mentoring opportunities. The automobile industry understands that women are influencing the majority of all buying decisions.

On the corporate side, several automobile manufacturers have internal organizations for women and minorities along with programs to assist with women and minorities becoming automobile dealers. There still is work to be done but the National Auto Dealers Association along with the National Association of Minority Auto Dealers are organizations that are striving to increase the number of women and minority dealers.

Lean In Women of Color: What sort of obstacles or challenges have you faced which led to your business strategies today?

Jenell Ross: Due to the recession, the Dayton economic landscape changed drastically. The last GM plant closed in 2008 due to the bankruptcy of Delphi. These were game changers for our community who had been so heavily dependent on this industry. With these losses, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base along with the healthcare industry emerged as the region's largest employers.  I do feel the Dayton Region has done well to diversify itself in a short amount of time but automotive retail hasn’t rebounded to pre-recession levels.

Many auto manufacturers were reducing their dealer counts but surprisingly we did not lose a large proportion of auto dealers in our region. This was a very trying time for everyone but it was comforting to know that I wasn’t on my own island because many of my father’s friends and my mentors had never been faced with such severe circumstances.

Lean In Women of Color: Your family’s story is remarkable and amazing. According to Black Enterprise, in 1974, Robert P. Ross Sr. purchased Vivian Buick, Opal and International Harvester Trucks in his hometown of Richmond, Indiana. Five years later, in 1979, your parents purchased Davis Buick and Mercedes-Benz in Centerville, Ohio, making them the first African-American Mercedes-Benz dealer in the world. Following up on that successful move, the Ross' purchased a GMC truck franchise in 1982.  What do you think led to your father embarking on such a venture even though there were few minority-owned dealerships at the time?

Jenell Ross: He had the dedication, drive, and determination to want to set out on a path that very few had traveled. My father did not go to college; he was high school educated. I think the success that he had is through the mentors and the people he had embraced early on as a salesperson at Shannon Buick which is now Reichard Buick GMC. The dealership referenced in Richmond is where my dad worked while he was in high school. He went back and purchased the dealership in 1974 from Mr. Vivian. That is something very rare for that time. His mentors were three individuals- One being Mr. Shannon who owned Shannon Buick at the time; the other gentlemen were Dr. Leo Lucas and Mr. Lloyd Lewis Sr.  They saw something in my dad and felt that he needed to pursue the opportunity that GM created which was the General Motors Minority Dealer Development Program. My dad was in GM’s first class. It was really these three individuals who saw something in him and went out on a limb. My dad had the will, desire and the keen sense of selling. 

Actually, Dr. Lucas was head of MESBIC which was a minority economic organization that was formed in the 1970s to help minorities get funding for their potential businesses. Dr. Lucas was responsible for my dad getting his original loan to purchase the dealership in Richmond, Indiana. To be honest with you, the loan that Dr. Lucas afforded my dad was only supposed to be for businesses in Ohio. Lucas went out on a limb to say, “If I give you this loan for Indiana…” My dad’s response was, “You will get it back. I’m going to do a good job.”

My dad’s former mentors are still very much family friends. Our families have remained friends over the last four decades.

Lean In Women of Color: How crucial is it to see diversity in business leadership?

Jenell Ross: It's extremely crucial. As our world continues to change, so do our businesses and our customers. Everyone wants to see themselves represented regardless if they are buying a vehicle, a refrigerator or whatever the case may be. As society continues to have multicultural growth, it's key to make sure we diversify ourselves from a racial or gender perspective until the ratios increase.

Lean In Women of Color: What sort of work ethic do you feel you've adopted from your father and which areas of business do you feel the two of you differ?

Jenell Ross: One constant that I learned from my dad is hiring good people is the key to our success. Without good people who understand your mission and vision, you're not going to be successful. You can't do it alone so you have to rely on the talents of others and the willingness for them to work as a team. This was evident when he passed because it's customary to have a high turnover rate of key employees when they are faced with the loss of the dealer. Fortunately, we had just the opposite. We lost no key employees and I attribute that to my dad. However, at the same time, our employees knew they had a great place to work and a good opportunity for them and their families. We always have made our employees feel that they are very much a part of our family. We believe in having a great team and having them feel empowered to handle the needs of our customers.

Somewhere we differ, would definitely be technology. My dad passed in 1997. In 1995, I along with another manager went to him with a proposal to develop a website. At this point in 1995, my dad still did not even have a computer on his desk. Our company always worked very closely with Reynolds and Reynolds who handles our day to day internal communications. Up until this point, this is how we handled our business operations for both servicing and selling our customers vehicles. When we told my dad that we wanted to embark on a website, he said that it was just a fad and eventually it will go away. I could not imagine what his thought process would be now when everything is so heavily dependent on a box, screen or tablet in order to function in every aspect of our business. He did reluctantly give us the go-ahead to build it but he did not believe it would be around in the future.

Lean In Women of Color: What sort of advice would you lend to developing women leaders here in the Dayton region?

Jenell Ross: The advice would be taken from both of my parents; my mother’s first career was in education. One thing they always said, “Learn everything you can about the industry and business that you want to pursue because no one can take the knowledge that you've obtained away from you. Knowledge is power.” The other thing is that “Don't let anyone tell you that you can't. Because there are definitely many people who never thought that we would sustain and be a viable entity in the industry. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something because we’re truly evident that, that’s not the case.”

This interview was provided by Lean In Ohio | Interviewed by Julene Allen


Post a Comment