The current economic struggle in the automotive industry – particularly with General Motors and Chrysler cutting back the dealer base – had me thinking about a meeting I once had with super-dealer Hoot McInerney in 1993 at his dealership, Star Lincoln Mercury, in Southfield at the corner of Telegraph and 12 Mile Roads.
I knew McInerney, but I was surprised by the simple, spartan nature of the office I soon found myself in – seated across the cluttered desk of McInerney.
Hoot McInerney is a legend in the car business. The son of Irish Catholic immigrants, McInerney grew up in Detroit, educated by nuns, and found work as a porter at a car dealership in the city. He had the very humble duty of scrubbing and cleaning out new and traded-in vehicles and droving them wherever they needed to go. He literally started on the ground floor of the car business and, by developing savvy personal relationships through unbridled moxy and community involvement, ended up owning 13 dealerships and grossing over $100-million per year in sales.
McInerney gained celebrity status in the car business and in Detroit. He hopped on his personal jet to fly down to Lakeland, Florida to catch Detroit Tiger Spring Training games. He played golf in the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in Palm Springs. He had personal relationships with Presidents of the United States. He donated a $250,000 organ to St. Hugo in the Hills Church in Bloomfield Hills. He built a home on the eighth hole of the Bloomfield Hills Country Club which virtually stretched the entire length of the par-5 hole, complete with fountains and televisions in each of the 17 bedrooms which rose out of the floor at the touch of a button. The Big-Three chairmen and CEO’s, and Toyota officials, each paid their respects to “Hoot” because he sold virtually every type of car manufactured – and lots of them – at his various dealerships.
I had called McInerney to ask him advice, just as I had a handful of other business leaders and executives when I was 27 years-old. I was considering which direction to take my career in and seeking for ways to leverage my position as a member of the media, which gave me undeserved access to movers, shakers and experts in every field and, presumably, valuable information and networking power.
I asked for appointments, which each of them granted, presumably because I was the producer for their friend J.P. McCarthy – Detroit’s morning radio legend. Each of the business leaders socialized with McCarthy were frequently interviewed by J.P. on his powerful morning news-talk show.
Crain Communications chairman Keith Crain; Heinz Prechter, the CEO of the American Sunroof Company; public relations guru Anthony Franco; Bill Kast, a German industrialist and political fundraiser; and Governor John Engler were among the potential mentors I visited and queried.
I’d asked each of them the same question: If you were my age, in my position, what would you be thinking? What should I be thinking?”
It was McInerney who gave me the most colorful and demonstrative advice. It was a parable, of sorts.
“You want to be successful?” Hoot asked me. “Invent something that people need to buy, use, throw away and buy again. Something people need to use over and over again.”
Then he slid a piece of scrap paper across the desk and tossed a plastic ink pen toward me. “Do me a favor. Write down your answers to the questions I ask you. Don’t tell me what you write.”
I grabbed the pen, poised it on the paper, and listened.
“Write down a number between 1 and 10.”
I thought of a number and wrote it down, concealing the paper with my left hand.
“Okay, write down a flower.”
I did so.
“A piece of furniture.”
I scribbled a word.
“Pick a color.”
Again, I wrote my answer.
“Okay, said McInerney, looking at me through his thick glasses. “your answers are: 7…rose…chair…and…blue.”
I pushed my paper to the middle of the desk. On it were written the words “7, rose, chair, blue.”
McInerney nodded but did not smile. To him it wasn’t a trick – it was a fact:
“People think alike. We all think alike. Remember that,” McInerney told me. “We all think alike.”
Hoot McInerney was more than double my age and earned over 3,000 times my yearly salary. And yet we thought alike!
August 2, 2009
Originally printed in the Talk of the North