Most retail titans have a long list of mentors. Most include the traditional advisers: parents, teachers and former bosses.
But others are unexpected. McLarty is chairman of McLarty Cos., a fourth-generation family-owned dealership business in Little Rock, Ark. He was Clinton's first White House chief of staff and an adviser to Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.
Despite a lifelong friendship with Clinton, McLarty's mentor sat across the aisle.
"It was George H.W. Bush," McLarty told Automotive News. "Obviously, I supported Gov. Bill Clinton when he ran against President Bush, but I had the privilege of working with President Bush through presidential commissions he'd appointed me to."
Bush taught McLarty the power of building relationships to achieve goals. McLarty said Bush was "masterful" at establishing trust to form "one-on-one relationships."
McLarty's two other famous mentors are former Chrysler boss Lee Iacocca, whom McLarty met at age 25, and Walmart founder Sam Walton, whom McLarty met early in his auto retail career. Iacocca taught McLarty how to market a vision. Walton taught him the power of deference.
Walton "had remarkable insight into his employees, whom he called his associates," McLarty said. "Other retailers laughed at that, but it was a sign of respect. He had ordinary people doing extraordinary things."
That also dovetails with McLarty's view that, while auto retailing is a "tough business," he needs to hark back to what his parents taught him: Don't lose your humanity being competitive.
Perhaps surprisingly, Lithia Motors Inc. CEO Bryan DeBoer does not consider his legendary father, Sid DeBoer, founder of the Medford, Ore., dealership group, as his mentor. "Sid and Dick Heimann, who was Sid's operational partner, were bosses, not so much mentors," DeBoer told Automotive News.
When it comes to his mentors, DeBoer said, "I think about a gentleman named Jerry Taylor, who was one of our board members. I think about [board member] Maryann Keller, who was wonderful and still today, we talk often."
Taylor held a variety of executive roles at Applied Materials Inc., a manufacturer of semiconductor equipment, from 1984 to 2000. He was a director at Lithia in 2000-07. Keller was a Wall Street analyst focused on the auto industry for 28 years and has been on many companies' boards.
DeBoer also said the late Oregon businessman Sam Davis taught him to always ponder, "What are you trying to accomplish in life and what are you trying to leave this world with?"
Rick Ford says his mentors taught him about the car business "at a deeper level."
For example, Buz Post, a former dealer in Texas, taught Ford how to "create loyalty" in employees. Post paid modest salaries, but had dedicated employee allegiance, said Ford, CEO of RFJ Auto Partners Inc. in Plano, Texas. Ford said Post earned that employee devotion through his ability to inspire and his interest in helping people grow in their careers.
Another was Maroone. He coached Ford on organization and time management when Ford worked for AutoNation.
"Even today, whenever I have big, difficult decisions I'm wrestling with, I'll call Mike to get his input," said Ford. "He has no interest in our company, but he's willing to give me the time and that feedback because he's always there to help."