Jenell Ross, 50
President, Bob Ross Auto Group
Location: Dayton, Ohio
Education: B.A., sociology, Emory University
What drew you to the auto industry? I was fortunate enough to grow up in an automobile retail family. My dad became a dealer when I was 4 years old. Coming to the dealership after school, weekends, it just was a part of my life. My dad was selling Buicks here in Dayton, Ohio, in the early ’60s. Two of his very good customers went to the owner of the dealership at the time, Mr. Robert Shannon, and said, “You have a really good salesperson there. Are there any opportunities for him to advance?” General Motors was coming out with their first Minority Dealer Development Academy. My dad had the opportunity to be in the first class in 1972. My dad’s first dealership he purchased from the gentleman that he had worked for in high school. It was a Buick-International Harvester-Opel dealership in Richmond, Ind. — where my parents are from — in 1974. He had the opportunity to purchase a larger point, which was a Buick-Mercedes-Benz store in central Ohio. And we’ve been located here for almost 41 years.
First automotive job: When I graduated from college in 1992, I became the customer relations manager. My dad’s exact words were, “You just graduated from college. We need a customer relations department, and I need you to figure it out.”
Big break: I just feel very fortunate to make an unfortunate situation [with my father’s death] into a positive one. For us to still be a very viable entity for our community and our industry and still provide a wonderful opportunity for our team members. We still have several people that are on our team that worked with my dad. That says a lot, since he’s been no longer with us for the last 23 years.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? When my father passed, my mother became the president, and I became dealer principal. Having him pass at such a young age of 62, and me, being 27, it wasn’t necessarily on my time frame. The biggest challenge is stepping into his boots, not shoes, because he accomplished a lot in the automobile industry and outside of that, and just feeling that I didn’t want to fail based upon all the obstacles and hurdles that he had overcome. And unfortunately, my mother passed away from breast cancer 10 years ago, and that’s when I became the president. In 2010, I established the Norma J. Ross Memorial Foundation, which provides education and awareness to breast cancer and to breast health, to help those who are not in the position to pay for cancer screenings and mammograms and offers financial assistance for those along their journey and for aftercare. A part of that is Pink Ribbon Driven — which my goddaughters came up with — which is our trademarked logo. In September, $50 out of every deal goes to the American Cancer Society. In October, $75 of every vehicle sold goes into the Norma J. Ross Foundation on behalf of the customer’s name.
You’ve been in the industry 28 years. What has been the most surprising change you’ve seen? The lack of diversity across the board from automotive ownership. There [are] approximately 1,265 minority-owned dealerships out of close to 19,000. There [are] only four African American women dealers in the country. For me, that’s an opportunity to educate them, to let them know that I don’t have to look like them in order to do what they do. As someone who has grown up in this industry and seen years in the ’80s that had much more minority representation than, possibly, as we see it right now, it is disappointing to not see more — considering the amount of buying power that minorities bring to the table.
Describe your leadership style. Coming in at 27 and understanding at that point most everyone on our team was older than me — some had been in the industry as long as I had been alive — I had to look at what they bring to the table and why they were a part of our team and what that could do for me in terms of helping me to learn and to grow. I am very hands-on, but I do let them take control of their departments. We have a very open level of engagement and communication. Even though I only have three buildings with close to 90 people, I can’t be involved with all of them every minute of the day to know that they’re doing what is expected of them. I have to rely on them that they’re taking ownership of what their roles and responsibilities are.
— Jackie Charniga