Driven by auto industry and finding a cure
Ohio dealer Jenell Ross stays focused
DAYTON, Ohio -- A few minutes before 8 a.m., the clouds in the October sky hint at a downpour any second. But auto dealer Jenell Ross and her team of some 200 friends, family members and dealership employees aren't about to let the threatening weather dampen their spirits. They are among 10,000 people preparing to walk through downtown Dayton to raise money for the American Cancer Society's efforts in breast cancer research and education.
Ross, like other car dealers, would have a full schedule without spending time on charity. She's the president of her family-owned dealership group, with stores in a market that's still recovering from the recession. She is also chairwoman-elect of the American International Automobile Dealers Association. But this charity effort is dear to Ross' heart. In 2010, her mother, Norma Ross, then CEO of the Bob Ross Auto Group in suburban Dayton, died of breast cancer.
"Mom was on the American Cancer Society Board, so we were a supporter even prior to her death," says Ross, 42, clad in a pink pullover and black slacks. She is standing under a small tent and behind a table stacked with caps, T-shirts, pullovers, and pins. "We want to continue her legacy in terms of finding a cure. The walk is just one of the ways we are able to do that."
Ross, a second-generation dealer, became the group's dealer principal in 1997 at age 27 when her father, Robert Ross Sr., died. She operated the business with her mother until Norma Ross died.
Ross and her brother, Robert Jr., who is vice president of fixed operations, manage Bob Ross Buick-GMC and Mercedes-Benz of Centerville, started by their father, and Bob Ross Fiat, added in 2011. Her father was the first black Mercedes-Benz dealer in the United States, according to Mercedes-Benz USA.
Jenell Ross has been active with local and national dealer groups for 15 years. In 2001, she joined the AIADA board, representing Mercedes-Benz. She will take over the reins of the group in 2013, becoming the second woman and first black dealer to hold the top position.
Already, she's one of the association's most outspoken dealers on the issue of repealing the estate tax. In April 2005, she testified before a congressional Subcommittee on Tax, Finance and Exports, saying that when her father died, Ross' family received a federal tax bill of "hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Losing her mom meant the family had to deal with the estate tax twice, she says. "Working with AIADA to eliminate the death tax and what it can do to families and small businesses is something of importance to me," Ross says.
Despite the chill in the air on this October day, though, members of the "Norma Ross Pink Ribbon Driven" team, many wearing pink pullovers identical to Ross', are pumped. As the start time nears, the crowd near Ross' tent thickens. Some walkers browse the stacks of T-shirts, hats and other souvenirs for sale while others stand in line for free pink bracelets. Sale proceeds will be donated to the Norma J. Ross Foundation, which benefits local youth in education and the fine arts.
Ross poses for photos with members of her team. Then she yells, "Is everybody ready?" She leads the crowd through downtown Dayton past the State of Ohio Korean War Memorial and around mud puddles in Island MetroPark.
Ross: $40,000-plus raised
Like other dealerships in communities with strong ties to the auto industry, the Ross dealerships were hit hard by the recession.
Delphi Corp., which once employed about 10,000 employees in Dayton, shut most of its local plants or sold them after filing for bankruptcy protection in 2005. General Motors' Moraine Assembly plant, which built the Chevrolet TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy SUVs, closed in 2008.
Ross says sales at the Buick-GMC store slid about 35 percent during the recession. She sold two buildings that housed used-car operations, cut back on advertising and reduced headcount 10 percent.
Sales now are picking up. Through October, totals show combined new-vehicle sales for the Buick, GMC and Mercedes brands up 23 percent to about 563 units and used sales down 3 percent to 383 units, compared with the same period last year. The Fiat store sold 116 new vehicles through October. "Dayton is trying to figure out the new normal without having the presence of Delphi or an active GM plant," Ross says.
In 2010, Ross and her team of 30 walkers raised $12,000 for the American Cancer Society. In 2011, that grew to 50 walkers and $23,000. This year, she decided to pick up the pace.
Her goddaughters came up with the "Pink Ribbon Driven" slogan, and her advertising agency created a special logo: the familiar pink ribbon icon with line markings that mimic a road, threaded through a steering wheel. Ross decorated the exteriors of her stores with pink vinyl wrap and "Pink Ribbon Driven" logos. She wrapped a Fiat in pink and white.
After the walk, the Ross team packs up. Only a couple of T-shirts are left. The free bracelets are long gone. The sun shines brightly; rain never fell.
Pledges are still coming in, but the tally by early November shows that the Norma Ross team raised more than $40,000. Even without a final tally, Ross says, the event "was worth every minute."
You can reach Arlena Sawyers at email@example.com.