AutoNation's Maroone comes out of retirement, buys 4 stores

Mike Maroone

AutoNation Inc.'s former COO Mike Maroone is coming out of retirement to re-enter auto retail.

Maroone, 63, who retired from AutoNation two years ago, has acquired four dealerships in Colorado Springs, Colo., from Serra Automotive Inc., of Grand Blanc, Mich.

Combined, the stores sell about 6,500 new and used vehicles a year, said Joe Serra, president of Serra Automotive Inc.

It's a "unique deal," said Serra, 57, because Serra will hold a minority stake in the stores.

"I bought back in as a minority owner. I have a smaller percentage," Serra told Automotive News. "Mike's the captain of the ship. Mike's had some exposure and experienced things I have not, and I want to learn from that, and hopefully I can benefit him and his organization as well."

'Maroone' on signs

The stores in the transaction were formerly known as Front Range Honda, Al Serra Chevrolet North, Al Serra Chevrolet South and Al Serra Volkswagen.

The stores are being renamed Mike Maroone Honda, Mike Maroone Chevrolet North, Mike Maroone Chevrolet South and Mike Maroone Volkswagen.

After the sale, Serra Automotive Inc. has 32 dealerships across Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, New Jersey and Colorado. It is ranked No. 20 on Automotive News' list of the top 150 dealership groups based in the U.S., with retail sales of 31,133 new vehicles in 2016. It is not connected to Serra Automotive Group in Birmingham, Ala.

Growth plan

Serra said his decision to sell the four stores to Maroone is a strategic part of his growth plan.

"It was a good opportunity for me," Serra said, noting that his father bought the stores in the late 1980s. "One of my partners was looking to retire, and the market is strong now on the sales side, so this was my chance to take advantage of that and still have ownerships of the stores. It gives me some capital to keep growing."

Serra said he plans to acquire two more franchises in Michigan in a deal that will close in early August.

"We're working on deals all the time," said Serra. "My driving force is to find opportunities for those in my organizations who deserve it. I allow my partners to buy in. I want people to have the same opportunity I had."

Long history

Serra, a second-generation dealer, has known Maroone for about 30 years, he said. The two met as part of a 20 group when they were both Chevrolet dealers.

"I had Al Serra Chevrolet in Grand Blanc (Mich.), and he had a store in Florida, and we went head to head. It was a lot of fun," Serra said. "We learned early on how to admire and respect each other."

Maroone, also a second-generation dealer, was one of the nation's largest Chevrolet and Oldsmobile dealers and operated top-performing Dodge, Jeep, Ford and Isuzu franchises during a 23-year career before selling his family business to AutoNation in 1997.

Name came down

Maroone's father started the family business in Buffalo, N.Y., before moving to South Florida. AutoNation kept the Maroone name on its South Florida stores until early 2013, when it moved to brand most of its stores with the AutoNation name.

That branding strategy was necessary, Maroone and AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson said, to allow the digital transformation now unfolding. But when the Maroone signs came down, it marked the end of 58 years of the name on dealerships.

Was that bittersweet? No, Maroone told Automotive News in 2013. Instead, it was about getting to his vision of the next chapter of retailing.

Serra said he and Maroone had developed the idea for Driver's Mart, a chain of used-car superstores, in 1997. Then Maroone joined AutoNation USA's new-car operations as president that year. AutoNation was owned by Republic Industries Inc. at the time.

Maroone went on to be a key architect of AutoNation's retail blueprint before he retired in April 2015 after 15 years as president and COO.

"This was a perfect opportunity for Mike to re-enter retail. These are four great stores," said Serra. "We'll be partners. I'm excited about it."

You can reach Jamie LaReau at jlareau@crain.com -- Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jlareauan

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