The backbone of every dealership, a well-run parts-and-service division enhances the bottom line, McInerney says.
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.
“He’s the ultimate sales guy, and someone that I was glad to know and have on our team. His dealerships performed very well. But he worked for what he got. There’s a lot of hard work behind what you see today.” — Lee Iacocca, former Chrysler 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).
The best customers, McInerney says, are families, as they often need multiple vehicles.
A personal friend, Hoot routinely sold cars to Ford when he served in Congress. “He was a great athlete,” McInerney says of Ford. “He was a real simple man. He had no airs whatsoever, and he wasn’t a great public speaker, which likely hurt him when he ran against Jimmy Carter. But he didn’t look back after he lost that election. We were a pretty formidable force on the golf course. He had the smoothest swing.”
There were other politicians Hoot either met on the golf course or in the clubhouse — he belongs to Oakland Hills County Club and Forest Lake Country Club, both in Bloomfield Township; TPC of Michigan in Dearborn (where he has locker No. 1); and Bloomfield Hills Country Club. There’s also a long list of celebrities he’s played with, including Jack Benny, Joey Bishop, Kirk Douglas, Jackie Gleason, Burt Lancaster, and Mickey Rooney.
“TPC is a great course,” McInerney says. “When Jack Nicklaus was designing it, he needed more money. So he went and saw (former Ford Chairman Red Poling). Well, Red is a known fiscal conservative. So when Jack said he needed more money to finish the course, Red looked at him and without blinking, said, ‘You know, Jack, this may be the first 16-hole course you ever design.’ Naturally, Nicklaus got the 18 holes in under the original budget.”
Although McInerney sold thousands of cars and trucks over the years, it was his King Air plane that won him the favor of mid-level managers at GM, Ford, and Chrysler. “I got my first plane in the mid-’70s and, boy, was I popular,” McInerney says. “The car guys would fly with me to play golf, but the real advantage to me was that you had them for a few hours on the plane with nothing to talk about except business. I did a few dealership deals without ever having my feet on the ground.”
The first dealership was a Chrysler store in Detroit near Northland. The dealership, which today is run by McInerney’s brother Jack, opened in 1963. Prior to that, Hoot spent years honing his craft, first running errands and shouting out the box scores as a young boy before eventually rising to the position of general manager.
“I always got a kick out of hanging around a dealership,” he says. “I got 25 cents for the weekend (in 1936), and we were open on Sunday. And it wasn’t just cars that were sold back then. We sold Ford fertilizer and Benz oil. I could drive a truck by the time I was 10 or 12 years old, and I could operate the switchboard. So you can see I had a real passion for it. Still do.”
While he had two stints in the U.S. Marine Corps. — 1945, leading up to the end of World War II, and 1950-51 during the Korean War — he never saw combat. Apart from two months at Wayne State University, he toiled away at car dealerships. He toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer, but because he didn’t know anyone in the industry, he didn’t want to be relegated to researching case law for the rest of his life.
The trick to selling cars, McInerney says, is getting people comfortable. Push, but don’t be pushy. Make eye contact, but don’t stare. Shake a hand firmly. Look people in the eye. And no matter what, don’t let a customer leave without inquiring about his or her family.
There were other secrets, as well. One was to find dealer locations near car factories, because most of the workers were offered discounts. That worked especially well in Detroit before the industry began to expand outside of the state. Service work was another major element of revenue, especially when quality began to suffer in the 1970s.
“We used to do a $100,000 a month in warranty work,” he says, “but now the quality is so good that we’re lucky to do $10,000 (a month). We used to have upward of 20 mechanics at each of the dealers, and — if you can believe this — welders. But now we have three or four mechanics (per store) and no welders.”
McInerney is careful not to favor one car brand over another, but he says one of his favorite people in the business was Henry Ford II, affectionately known as “the Deuce.” By hiring strong leaders — recall the Whiz Kids after World War II — Ford and his team saw the company through recessions, rising regulations, and global competition. It was Ford who suggested that McInerney buy a plane to improve his bottom line.
“You really have to make quick friends with people, especially today, because people are so busy.”
“So by the time I could afford my own plane, I already knew hundreds of people. Was I nervous about meeting people like Jackie Gleason the first time? Sure. But that quickly went away once you realize they’re like anyone else. But Bob Hope was special — just the nicest guy — and so funny,” says McInerney.
Because he mingled with presidents — and, truth be told, few knew he and Gerald Ford were longtime friends — McInerney says he was continually asked to call the White House. But it got old, quickly. After too many requests, he finally gave out the telephone number and told people to call and leave a message. “I remember when Steve Wynn had the Golden Nugget (in Las Vegas), and he kept asking me to call the White House for him because he wasn’t sure he could make it work. I kept telling him that someone would call him back, and they did.”
If McInerney has a fault, it’s that he’s too generous. “If he gets 100 calls a day, 99 of those calls are for charity,” says Jack McInerney. “He loves doing it. He and (former WJR host) J.P. McCarthy were great friends. They were always raising money for charity, whether it was Focus: Hope, [the] Capuchin Soup Kitchen, Gleaners — I mean, there’s literally dozens of charities he’s touched.”
Hoot raised money for various causes making bets on the golf course, as well. Several years ago, he was playing with motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel in Macomb County when a bet broke out for $100 a hole on the back nine. When the round was over, Knievel owed $700. “The guy broke more than 30 bones over his career, so I had an advantage,” McInerney says, “but we were pretty evenly matched with 14 handicaps. We had a group called the Bogey Busters, and we played all over. I wish I could still play like I used to. My handicap’s up to 18 today.”
Former TV newsman Bill Bonds, a close friend of McInerney’s, says the car dealer’s fame precedes him.. “I’ve been fortunate to have been all over the world, whether it’s Paris or London, New York, Los Angeles, and it’s happened like 20 times,” Bonds says. “People will come up to me at the airport and say, ‘Are you Bill Bonds?’ And I’ll say, ‘Yes.’ And then they’ll ask if I know Hoot McInerney.
“It was telling that so many people knew him. Did he tell you the story about Evel Knievel? I was playing with Hoot. On the last hole, I had a 3-foot putt to make, and Evel comes over and says he’ll give me $100 to miss the shot. So I let Hoot know, and all he said was, ‘Typical.’ Boy, that was a lot of fun. And Hoot gave all the money to charity.”