Al Maroone, the son of Lebanese immigrants who founded a dealership group that became a major building block of megaretailer AutoNation Inc., died Wednesday at his Florida home. He was 98.
Maroone, who grew up in a poor section of Buffalo, N.Y., with six siblings, purchased a small Ford dealership in nearby Middleport in 1955, pooling money borrowed from his father's life savings, his sister's pension and his father-in-law's remortgage. Maroone focused on ways to differentiate his dealership from competitors and eventually expanded Maroone Automotive Group in Buffalo and into South Florida.
By 1997, the dealership group operated seven stores generating $700 million in annual revenue, and Maroone was running the business with his son, Mike Maroone, when Florida businessman Wayne Huizenga came calling. Huizenga, a legendary entrepreneur who built Waste Management and Blockbuster Video into behemoths by acquiring a string of mom-and-pop businesses, was applying the same strategy to auto retailing.
Maroone Automotive became part of Republic Industries, AutoNation's predecessor, in a $200 million stock deal. Mike Maroone eventually became the longtime COO of AutoNation, which grew into the largest dealership group in the country. Mike Maroone told Automotive News that his dad agreed to the deal for his son's sake, to give him a chance to help build a national platform.
After the sale, Al Maroone, then 74, stepped away from the business. He focused much of his effort on charity work, including supporting the Cleveland Clinic's expanding outpost in South Florida, and he went on to become a part owner of the National Hockey League's Florida Panthers.
In 2013, AutoNation took the Maroone name off stores in South Florida and replaced it with the corporate moniker as part of a national branding strategy. Al Maroone told the Sun-Sentinel newspaper that he felt no sadness about the move.
"I've had my name on the building for just short of 60 years," he told the newspaper at the time. "I've had my day in the sun."
Mike Maroone recalled his father as someone who routinely worked to cast a light on others throughout his career.
"What he enjoyed most was helping people be successful," Maroone said. "He took great pride in the number of people that were developed in his organization that become dealers, general managers and department managers. His long-term view was that people make the difference and everyone wants to be successful. It's up to us to show them how to do it."