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Maverick Moran made waves, money -- and taught Toyota how to sell

Jim Moran stands in the Courtesy Motors showroom.
For Toyota, sticking with Jim Moran was never a tough decision.

Despite churning up the occasional muddy swirl of bad publicity for the image-sensitive Japanese corporation, Moran remained Toyota's man for the long haul. Toyota executives never flinched in their endorsements for the guy who basically was Toyota in five Southeastern states.

Why?

Because to reap profits and competitive advantage in America, all Toyota ever had to do was hang on as Moran skippered his yacht at full throttle through the waters of the U.S. car business.

As the independent distributor of all things Toyota to dealers in five states starting in 1969, Moran virtually printed his own money. And he so successfully penetrated the markets and pocketbooks of the Deep South and coastal America that Toyota could only stand back in awe.

In 1968, Toyota sold 72,000 vehicles across the United States. Last year, Moran's Deerfield Beach, Fla.-based Southeast Toyota Distributors Inc. wholesaled 415,000.

Moran enjoyed exclusive authority to set prices, determine product mix, dictate trim packages, create marketing plans and appoint dealers. He died in April 2007 with a personal net worth of $2.4 billion.

Toyota learned from it all.

Starting from humble origins in Chicago, Moran hustled and bootstrapped his way to become America's largest Ford dealer, largest Hudson dealer, largest Pontiac dealer and, ultimately, its largest Lexus dealer — in addition to running Toyota's southeastern U.S. business.

His why-not-try entrepreneurial instincts triggered new practices in auto sales. He was among the first retailers to embrace TV in the late 1940s. Early on, he developed the idea of offering his own extended warranties, car insurance and dealer financing.

MADE ENEMIES, TOO

But the power and wealth that followed spawned adversaries. For a time, Moran attracted lawsuits like flies to a netted marlin. In the early 1990s, Toyota dealers in Florida, the Carolinas, Alabama and Georgia accused him of running roughshod over their dealerships.

Some alleged he was intentionally causing them to fail so he could quickly assign their points to new dealers who would pay more. They accused him and his managers of racism and anti-Semitism. One dealer even accused Moran of forcing him to keep a prostitute on the dealership payroll for Moran's amusement.

Moran was prosecuted once for alleged income-tax evasion. He resolved that charge by agreeing to create an automotive school for troubled south Florida youths.

Dealers in North Carolina feuded with him for putting unwanted port-installed options onto the vehicles they ordered. Moran controlled his own port facility in Jacksonville, Fla., and made profits by installing such add-ons as body undercoating, racing stripes and floor mats.

The resulting legal proceedings temporarily threatened to strip Moran of his license to sell autos in North Carolina, which could have spelled the end of Moran's empire.

BIG RESULTS, BIG SUPPORT

That didn't happen. In every case, Moran sidestepped his troubles and came out smiling. Not one peep of consternation or word of dissent ever slipped from the lips of Toyota's U.S. management. Toyota continually showed its support.

And it had reason. In Moran's territory, customer satisfaction levels ran higher than Toyota's own factory-controlled U.S. regions. And Moran continued to serve Toyota as a kind of beta site for things the company needed to know.

Moran showed Toyota how to set up and run dealer advertising associations, how to sell extended warranties and even how to operate a port option facility, which Southeast Toyota had before Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.

Moran, who had hit on the idea of "certified used cars" as a Ford dealer in Chicago in the early 1950s, perfected the concept for Toyota, which now employs it across the United States. Moran operated his own captive finance company before Toyota and helped the automaker when it entered the business.

Jim Press, who recently stepped down as president of Toyota Motor North America Inc., said Toyota simply wouldn't be what it is today without Moran.

"We're still learning from Southeast Toyota," Press said the day after Moran died. "Jim left the company with a strong management team. We'll continue learning from them."

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com

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