This is a story that ends, for now, in a shoebox. But it starts 61 years ago in a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., with a father who was the first in his family to go to college. That father worked endless hours at Ford Motor Co. and put everything on the line -- borrowing from his in-laws and borrowing against his Ford pension and his father's pension. Eventually, he pulled together $30,000 to buy a Ford dealership from a widow in Middleport, N.Y.
"The great American dream," Maroone said recently, during his only exit interview since his retirement was announced in January. "My job was to learn from my dad."
And that dream passed from one generation to another, from a disciplined father to a son who only ever wanted to be a college quarterback (until his first college canceled its football program) but instead ended up one of the greatest field leaders the dealer franchise system has known.
"One of the best retail operators I have ever come across," said Ford Motor Co. CEO Mark Fields.
When they write the book on Maroone's time at AutoNation, an 18-year career that officially ended with his retirement April 1, they could start with the names in that shoebox or leaders such as Fields.
Or they could start with a 13-year-old boy assigned to scrub the tech restroom of that Ford dealership. Al Maroone put his son to work and taught him the benefits of differentiating yourself from the competition -- insisting, for example, that a crew got up at 3 in the morning to shovel snow in a blizzard.
"The goal was for it to look like it didn't snow at Al Maroone Ford. His vision was to differentiate in appearance," Mike Maroone said.
The principle stuck.
One store 40 miles from Buffalo led to another store in an all-Hispanic community on the fringe of a Miami slum area in 1977, which led to the Maroone Auto Plaza farther north. The Auto Plaza exploded into a collection of nine stores, including one of the largest Chevrolet dealerships in the country. The year before the sale to Republic Industries (later to be named AutoNation), the Maroone Automotive Group was generating $700 million in annual revenue.
Mike Maroone spent his career differentiating himself -- separating himself in the retail world by working longer hours (he admits to 70-hour weeks for 18 years), paying attention to detail, continually building a better team, challenging that team, getting buy-in and accelerating his career at AutoNation where he helped the operation grow to the largest public dealership group in the country.
Maroone helped select and recruit AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson. The team clicked.
Maroone and Jackson "made each other better," Maroone said. "Jackson was uniquely qualified to be the CEO."
In turn, Jackson said Maroone helped drive "AutoNation forward relentlessly with passion and an infectious enthusiasm."
Together, they were the architects of AutoNation. In 2009, they were named to the Automotive News list of 50 Visionary Dealers.
And, as AutoNation's COO, Maroone developed a reputation for making a difference with detail.
"Anytime I called him to get insight into the market," Fields said, "he was always on top of the operations and could give me the lowdown almost immediately."
Maroone said that all happened because of the constant preparation. Talk to AutoNation's general managers and they will tell you that Maroone knew their numbers better than they did. Maroone prepared for quarterly operating reviews by examining a store's financials deep into the night and then quizzing his operators early the next morning.
"I wanted to learn as much about their business as I could," he said, "and then transfer that knowledge to other stores and hold them accountable to high standards."
Wisconsin dealer John Bergstrom said Maroone "brought all of us in the dealer network to a better business model with his hard work and his constant focus on taking care of customers and employees. If I were to pick a handful of industry leaders who have made a significant difference in the last 25 years in the automobile industry, Mike would definitely be one of them."
Pushing. Challenging. And then challenging a bit more.
But always differentiating.
Maroone "always pushed our company and me to think outside the box," said Cox Automotive President Sandy Schwartz. "And he had a dedication to improve the car-buying process."
So, after 18 years in the public space, and so many more in the private dealer world, what's the state of the retail world, and where do dealers need to look going forward?
Maroone said it is a fast-paced game with really big stakes. Customers are changing every day. They are more informed than ever.
"Customer experiences in other industries have raised the bar for auto retail, and our industry must improve," he said.
Which is exactly what AutoNation is trying to do with its digital storefront model -- a test process for making transactions more seamless online. Maroone was one of its architects, and AutoNation's approach may set the bar for future efforts.
And what about Maroone's future?
At 61, his career is not done. He says he'll take a few months off for a self-described "sabbatical," working with businesses where he has investments outside of automotive. Maroone and his family are still significant shareholders in AutoNation, but he won't join another public dealership group.
"AutoNation is a great company with great people. I didn't leave to go duplicate AutoNation," he said. "That's not my plan."
One thing is certain: He doesn't see himself in an "operating role."
"I need to debrief after a flurry of activity over 40 years," Maroone said.
Three things are certain: His mentors in the business include Jackson, former AutoNation chief Wayne Huizenga and, of course, his father, Al.
"He impressed upon me the importance of the human element," Maroone said of his father. "He taught me the value of talent and creating a winning culture where talent could flourish and grow."
Maroone's message was always the same -- routinely giving credit for his success to his team.
Said former Ford sales boss Ken Czubay: "The industry learned to serve the public better with Mike as a leader and role model for all of us."
Visionary retailer. Focused businessman. Great partner.
But, first and foremost, a relationship-builder.
And in Fort Lauderdale, the box sits. The tributes continue to pile up. Waiting for another career moment to be added.