I had an article published in the January issue of Dealer Marketing Magazine which has generated several emails, phone calls and text messages to me by dealerELITE members. I thought it would be appropriate to post the original, unedited version of the article I wrote, which was cut down quite a bit to fit in the space allocated by the magazine. So here it is, a story about a leader in the auto industry who had a big and lasting impact on me when I was in my early 20's in the car business...
When I first created the Automotive Digital Marketing Professional Community and Network it was dedicated to a car guy named Thomas Lesard...
Tom was a giant of a man, who was also my boss from 1982 to 1984 while I worked for the De La Fuente Automotive Group in San Diego, CA.
Mr. Lesard taught me many profound lessons about how to run a car dealership. My first General Manager position was thrust upon me when I was 25 years old and had been in the car business for two years... Yeah, I know... Crazy, but there were many complicated circumstances that came together to push me into such a rare role for a 25 year old automotive retail newbie. There was an auto industry recession at the time and the dealer principal could not find an experienced GM to take over a store in El Centro, CA that sold 30 cars a month... But, he knew he could trust me and as he said at the time, "I know you are smart enough to figure it out when you get to El Centro..."
The dealership official name was "De La Fuente Imports, Inc." and the DBA was "D'Imports". The franchises the store had for the Imperial Valley of South Eastern California included Honda, VW, Porsche, Audi and Peugeot... All under one roof. The facility was located next to the Imperial Valley Airport just outside of El Centro, CA. There was a California Highway Patrol Barracks adjoining the property, which resulted in many interesting escapades involving me, my Porsche 911 demo, various CHP Officers (especially Officer Roland Pritchard of the California Highway Patrol) and a pristine stretch of asphalt that was an abandoned highway running through some of the most God forsaken desert I have ever seen, before or since.
Several months after I was sent to D'Imports as the General Manager, the De La Fuente Family hired Tom Lesard as their Vice president of the Automotive Division with the De La Fuente business empire, which was quite extensive and included banking, real estate development and companies in several other countries including Mexico, Costa Rica, Belgium and the Netherlands. Tom Lesard was somewhat of a legend because of what he had accomplished with several dealerships he owned in the Apple Valley of California. What impressed me the most at the time was the way he had pulled new and used vehicle sales from the population centers to his West, which were East of the Los Angeles metro region.
Shortly after coming on board with the De La Fuente organization Tom Lesard flew his highly modified, "hot rod" Twin Turboprop, pressurized cabin Beechcraft Baron private aircraft out to the Imperial Airport. He began repeating this trip about once every ten days. While at the dealership Tom would spend most of the day teaching me how to read financial statements in a manner that was part science and part art... The analysis process and quick ratios Tom taught me in 1982 are still relevant and I continue to use them to this day. His insights and the many hours he invested in mentoring, teaching and coaching me shaped the skill sets that would drive much of my future success in the car business.
In May of 1983, about 9 months after Tom Lesard started flying his plane out from San Diego to review dealership operating results and to coach me, Tom and I were having an early dinner at "The Buick" Restaurant in downtown El Centro. I took advantage of the moment to thank Tom for teaching me so much about running a car dealership and more importantly about managing people and getting the most out of my team. I asked him how I could ever repay him...
Tom was a giant of a man who had played college football... He scrunched up his NFL Linebacker of a face, leaned his massive shoulders forward to shift his 6' 4" towering torso towards me, as if to create a sound block... He started to speak to me so quietly it was almost a whisper... I had to lean towards him to hear what he was saying;
"Ralph, I have a very real and serious commitment I want you to make to me and swear on your life that you will execute... I want you to promise me something, and have absolutely no doubts in your mind that YOU WILL EXECUTE YOUR MISSION!"
He started to raise his voice in the middle and was getting pretty loud on those last 5 words... At this point he was glaring at me, eyes wide open and it seemed to me he was pissed off... I was already regretting my question.
I responded in the type of shaky, quivering voice a 26 year old produce guy from Buffalo would be expected to have when placed into a role I was sorely unqualified to be in;
"Uhhhh... well... ah, mmmm... ahem... I don't know what you are going to ask for, but as long as I don't have to sacrifice one of my baby girls, huh huh... I think I can handle whatever it is..."
Tom did not seem to find any humor in my lame ass attempt to be funny... He went on to say;
"Ralph, I have given you an education about running a car dealership that is worth far beyond what you could possibly understand at this point in your career... I am going to demand that you make me a promise to repay me by passing my gift forward to the future. After you have made your mark in the car business, you will have the opportunity to take some young person who doesn't know jack about the car business, under your wings and give to him the same type of coaching and guidance I have given you. When that opportunity arises, I want you to say a prayer and thank God that you have the opportunity to take the gifts you have received and bestow them on the next generation of leaders that come into this business..."
This whole conversation was one of those truly ethereal moments that I believe most of us have at various points in our lives... I inherently realized exactly what Tom Lesard was talking about... I also felt a sense of spirituality that outweighed my minds attempt to apply logic and reasoning. Tom was looking into my eyes as if he could see into my soul... He maintained his lock on my eyes like some sort of Klingon tractor beam... I could not look away... He went on to say:
"You are the fifth young car guy I have taken a personal interest in... With those two baby girls you have, I am sure you made good use of the $2,000 a month raise I gave you six months ago. The reason I did that is because Roque (the owner) knew you were so eager to prove yourself, that he took advantage of you. He sent you out here from San Diego, to this hell h*** of a cockroach infested, insecticide drenched piss poor excuse for a town, at a fraction of the pay that anyone else would insist on getting to do the job you were assigned. And the alternatives to you would have most likely robbed him of much more than they would have been getting paid...
I don't tolerate that approach to using people who are eager to please, and never will. It seems like a sin for a multimillionaire to pay his most loyal people that are making him rich, less than what is needed to support their family at a decent standard of living... Despite the fact that your housing is paid for and all your expenses are covered by the dealership...
Don't you ever forget what I did for you, and promise me that in the future when you see a good man or woman getting screwed by a pay plan that was concocted by somebody a lot shrewder and more treacherous than them, you will do whatever you can to make it right... OK?"
I nodded and simply said "Yes sir"... Tom took a sip of his iced tea (no alcohol within ten hours of flying) and went on to explain;
"Here's the way it works... You are the fifth person I have taken under my wings and mentored. I am committed to helping five more people become successful before I retire. I want you to feel an obligation to mentor and coach at least as many people in your career as I have. You have the advantage of starting at a much younger age."
"If for any reason i cannot complete my commitment to mentor and coach ten people... If I die prematurely or for any reason cannot complete my mission to pay it forward ten times over... Then YOU must complete my shortfall, on top of your own... You got that? Because that is the way this deal works between you and I, as well as between you and the people you mentor!"
By then, the whole scenario was seeming pretty weird to me... I was thinking religious cults and wondering what i had gotten myself into. We finished our meal, left the restaurant and I drove Tom back to the airport, watched him climb into the cockpit of his plane while thinking how small his briefcase looked next to this hulking giant of a man.
A month later, Tom Lesard asked me to pack my family up, move back to San Diego and take a GSM job at our dealer group's Kearny Mesa Subaru dealership... Within two months, as he had promised, I was moved back to Kearny Mesa VW where I had started my car sales career less than 3 years earlier. At the age of 26 I was the GSM of one of the top 5 volume Volkswagen dealerships in America, which was also the #1 sales volume Peugeot dealership in the country.
On a rainy day in November 2003, one of our Finance Managers, a beautiful young woman who had moved to San Diego from Hawaii, came to the sales tower and shared her situation with me... Her father and brother had flown from Honolulu to Los Angeles on their way to visit her, but had missed their commuter flight from LAX to San Diego. We were discussing her options, such as me lending her an all-wheel drive VW Quantum Syncro, rather than her driving the blue 1969 Chevy Camaro she owned which was terrible on rain slicked roads... Tom Lesard had come down from the corporate office on the second floor and walked up to us as we were talking about the situation. Tom asked what was going on, and when he heard the Finance Manager tell her story about her father and brother being stuck at LAX he said;
"C'Mon, we'll go fire up my plane, and be at LAX in less that an hour. We'll pick up your dad and brother and have you all back here in Kearny Mesa in time for dinner..."
She asked if it was OK to fly in the rain and Tom flashed that big Cheshire cat grin of his, which kind of made his eyes squint shut and flared his nostrils. He described with much pride and bravado how he flies in far worse weather than the benign cloud cover and rainfall with little wind that was coming down at the time. He went on to tell her about his recent investment in all new avionics, plus that he was instrument certified... I remember thinking to myself "What a great boss to be working for..."
Later that evening, I was still on the desk a couple hours after our scheduled closing time, trying to make a late night last deal of the day. It was a dark and drizzly night, rain coming straight down. The desk phone rang, which seemed odd for that late at night and I answered. It was Nelly Timothy, our corporate controller... She told me that the Kearny Mesa General Aviation Airport security team had called her. She was on the emergency contact list Tom Lesard had filed with the airport. They called to tell her that Tom had crash landed his plane in a grassy field between two subdivisions in Tierrasanta, near the airport.
I am not sure I remember accurately what happened right after that... I saw all manner of fire trucks and emergency vehicles flying southbound past the dealership on Highway 163 with lights on and sirens wailing... Phone call after phone call...
I told one of my guys to take lock down the showroom and pull the chains because I was going to the site of the crash. I drove my demo to about 2 blocks from where Tom had crashed, before I ran into the police and fire department cordons... Got out of my car, left it parked in the street, started trotting through people's backyards to try and get closer to where the emergency vehicles were clustered... I was stopped by a cop and started blabbering that I was looking for my boss's plane. He explained that survivors had been taken to Scripps Memorial Hospital, and the coroner was handling the fatalities. I felt sick... I was hyperventilating, sweating profusely, my clothes soaking wet from the combination of rain and perspiration. The cop asked me where my car was, and told me I better move it before it becomes a hazard and causes an accident.
I drove back to the dealership where several of us stayed late waiting for word from Nelly, Tom's wife or anyone on who had survived, who had died, etc. As it turned out, Tom was the only one of the four who lived long enough to be hospitalized. His plane hit the power lines near the airport when his landing gear was lowered while on approach. Something had malfunctioned with the airport's Radio Frequency pilot triggered runway lights, so he had been attempting to land without the marker lights on the sides of the runway. Tom crash landed the plane into an open field between homes near the airport. According to witnesses that lived in the nearby homes, none of the 4 people in the plane appeared to be injured by the impact from the crash landing. Tom had managed to land the plane, despite the damaged landing gear, then slid a couple hundred yards across the grassy field and through a fence... There were quite a few witnesses from the nearby homes. They said that as Tom opened the cockpit door and it swung upwards, the plane's fuel tank in the wing opposite from Tom's side exploded in a fireball that engulfed the cockpit. He either leaped or was thrown by the force of the explosion outside of the cockpit.
Tom had second and third degree burns over 80% of his body. His lungs were burned as well... He was able to hold a marker and wrote "Yes" when the doctors asked if he would like to be taken off of life support.
The next day, all of us at Kearny Mesa VW endured the painful trauma of watching the wreckage of Tom's beloved Beechcraft Baron being slowly drive past the dealership on a flatbed tractor trailer truck. It was surreal... So many of us who worked at the dealership standing in the front of the showroom as the flatbed truck with what was left of Tom's plane slowly drove past the dealership at no more than 5 MPH.
Here is the FAA Crash Report: BEECH 56TC Air Crash
The air crash with the BEECH 56TC happened on 11/11/1983 at 2238 in SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA, USA, causing Destroyed damage to the Airplane. More details on the accident below:
Aircraft details on BEECH 56TC Air Crashed in 11/11/1983 at 2238 in SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA, USA, causing Destroyed damage to the Airplane:
TOTAL: 4 Fatal Injuries
Every day for the next few weeks, I found myself looking out the side of the showroom, over towards Kearny Mesa Subaru, where our dead Finance Manager's dark blue 1969 Chevy Camaro was still parked. Eventually, I had the locksmith make keys for it and parked it out back behind service. About 9 months after the plane crash, her mom called from Hawaii and asked if we could sell the Camaro and send her the proceeds. We figured out a way to get a duplicate title and took care of it. I seem to recall getting about twice what the car was worth from a wholesaler that always had a big crush on her. He said something about restoring the Camaro and keeping it.
We all moved on... The De La Fuentes brought in Steve Wilhite to replace Tom Lesard. If Steve's name sounds familiar, it may be because Steve Wilhite went on to become VP of Sales for VW of America, then VP of Marketing at Nissan before becoming Carlos Ghosn's right hand man as Senior VP of Marketing for Nissan Global in Tokyo. Wilhite then returned to the US a few years ago to take the role of Shief Operating Officer (COO) at Hyundai Motor America, Inc. after Finbarr O'Neill had left to become the CEO of the Reynolds and Reynolds Company, where I was working at the time... Along the way Wilhite has brought me in, or recommended me on several exciting projects as an Automotive Consultant... But, I never forgot Tom Lesard and am still working on the 15 people I must help become successful in the car business to cover my ten and the 5 Tom still owed at the time he crashed his plane. I keep losing count.
So... Now you know why ADM Professional Community is dedicated to Tom Lesard and why I am so motivated to speek, write, coach, guide, mentor, assist, prod and cajole people to do better in their roles within the auto industry...
Thank you Tom...
30 Years later, it is still the best assignment I have ever had in the car business!
I know that nobody misses Tom as much as his family, but here it is, more than 25 years after he died in a tragic plane crash and I am still making a conscious effort at keeping the promises I made to Tom... Such is the lasting impact of true leaders! -- Ralph Paglia