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A camera clicks and Hoot McInerney instinctively slips a hand into his pocket. “It tightens the suit, and you immediately look thinner,” he says, turning sideways to maximize the effect. “Frank Sinatra taught me that.”
McInerney, the middle son of Irish immigrants, began working at a Ford dealership on Detroit’s east side as a kid who would do anything to learn the business. He was 7 years old. “I would stoke the stove, sweep the floors — do anything, really.”
The year was 1936.
“I remember the bread lines,” McInerney recalls. “You never [forget] how vital it was to hold a job — any job. Lucky for us, Dad was a custodial mechanic on the Detroit streetcars, and Mom took care of us. We were lucky. Catholic school was $2 a month — per family.”
Over the years, McInerney amassed 25 car dealerships in metro Detroit and out of state — four in Hawaii, alone — before the travel became unwieldy. And that’s with a personal plane.
“Today, I have more planes than dealerships,” he says with a laugh. “No, it’s six dealerships, three planes. And all the dealerships are here. People think it’s just me, but I’ve partnered with my two brothers, two of my sons, and my son-in-law. There’s nothing like a family, in business, watching over things. Do you always hit a home run? No. … [sometimes] you strike out, too.”
At 81, McInerney still comes to the office every day. He’s of the breed that can’t accept retirement, especially with the shape of the domestic auto industry in recent years. He agrees with Ford CEO Alan Mulally — the two spoke prior to the unveiling of the 2011 Lincoln MKX at the Detroit auto show in January — that the dollar will eventually strengthen, providing the OEMs and suppliers more buying power to pay off loans, whether private or public.
“That’s what saved Lee Iacocca and Chrysler,” McInerney says. “The stock was a penny a share (in the late 1970s), but once the dollar went up, so, too, did the economy. Lee’s a great guy, but you need help sometimes. If you look smart, all the better.”
As for the future of the auto industry, McInerney says that personal transportation will always be needed. “Do I think Chrysler will make it? Yes,” he says, adding that Fiat and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne will make sure to introduce models that people want to buy.
“You’ve got to remember, Chrysler — and, to an extent, GM — lost ground because they didn’t have all the resources of their competitors, so the product line is not like it should be,” he reasons. “But I wouldn’t bet against Sergio. He’s a smart man, and he turned around Fiat when it was down. He’ll do the same for Chrysler.”
Because the Big Three automakers dropped a tremendous amount of their legacy costs over the last year due to union agreements and bankruptcy (Ford had enough cash reserves to ride out the downturn), McInerney says the domestic OEMs will come back. GM, Ford, Chrysler, and the unions all share blame for falling sales, he says, and now that they’re all working together, sales should rise.
He’s even betting on a Detroit comeback. “You’ve got a good mayor in Dave Bing, who understands that the way to turn around the city is to fix the schools, right-size the government, work realistically with the unions, and pick up the trash,” he says. “He’s really got to focus on getting younger residents, because they don’t have any qualms about the 1967 riots. That’s the key. Detroit is like no other city in the world — it’s big enough that all the top acts come here, and yet small enough that you can always get a ticket.”
McInerney is renowned for his generosity — he gave a white Lincoln Town Car to Pope John Paul II during his 1987 visit to Hamtramck, only to watch the pontiff sell it and donate the money to the church. “I was hoping he would use it, but he was smarter than me. He was a great friend.”
While McInerney is a popular and generous benefactor who has raised and donated millions of dollars to charity, it’s his business smarts that people gravitate to. “He’s a closer, no question,” says Iacocca, Chrysler’s former chairman.
When Chrysler introduced an Imperial in the early 1980s named after Sinatra, McInerney recalls visiting “Ol’ Blue Eyes” at his mansion in Bel Air, Calif. It was January 1981, just prior to the Bob Hope Desert Classic Celebrity Pro-Am in Palm Springs, which McInerney has attended for 30 years.
“Frank was trying to do Lee a favor, and the car was pretty successful,” McInerney recalls of the Imperial, which came in one color — light blue — to match Sinatra’s eyes. “I remember selling a few of them. They came with a leather case filled with all these cassettes that Frank had made. You know the songs. He was such a performer, and he really was the Chairman of the Board.
“But visiting with Frank was always fast and furious. I remember Gregory Peck was there, but there were people coming and going. I don’t know how Frank was able to manage that, but I guess he was used to it.”
McInerney, whose top desk drawer is stuffed with photos of celebrities he’s met over the years at the Desert Classic and other golf tournaments, has held his own on the links with icons of every ilk, including Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush (he never got a chance to play with Bill Clinton).
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