The last year has been eventful for David Fischer Sr., to put it mildly. At the same time as he was working as U.S. ambassador to Morocco, he was dealing with an offer to buy large chunks of his family business, the Troy-based Suburban Collection, by the Lithia Motors dealership chain.
David Fischer Sr. on juggling an ambassadorship and a life-changing deal
Fischer, the chairman of Troy-based Suburban Collection Holdings, talked with Crain Communications CEO KC Crain about that April 2021 deal to sell most of the company's dealerships, his experience in Morocco and why diversification really mattered for a company that once sold Studebakers and Oldsmobiles — brands that no longer exist — that grew to encompass 33 automotive franchises. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Crain Communications is the Detroit-based parent company of Automotive News.
KC Crain: I've had the privilege of knowing you for quite some time ... We were walking down Woodward, maybe it was Dream Cruise. Maybe we were coming out of dinner. But I remember you told me your father had your family's first dealership somewhere near where the restaurant Phoenicia is today.
David Fischer: We opened on Maple Road for 10 months, (then) moved down to the Woodward Avenue corner — Woodward and Bowers — and built their first and only Oldsmobile dealership right there. Across the street. ... we sold Studebakers in what is now the Phoenicia restaurant, and it's better served serving the Lebanese food.
So, I mean, that's 1948, we've got Oldsmobile, Studebaker. When did you go into the family business?
I joined the family business in 1968. And we had the (store) on Woodward Avenue. In 1973, we moved to Troy. My father moved his Oldsmobile dealership; my uncle moved his Buick dealership. We were next to each other on Maplelawn. And we stayed there until I bought my father out in 1978, and he moved to Florida.
Did you always know you wanted to go into business with your dad?
No. I thought I wanted to go in the advertising business. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do ... it would have been great fun. ... And I decided that it was a great opportunity to work with my dad, and I've always loved cars.
And you know, when you're in the (dealership) business, your kids wash cars, they do parts, they collect debts. I had done all that. My first official job at the dealership was writing service orders. ... It's a great way to learn the business and the customers. I have customers today that I dealt with back then I'm still dealing with their families.
So you go to work with your dad, and you guys moved the store, you buy him out. How many brands did you have at that point?
We had Oldsmobile.
You seem to come off as quite the entrepreneur always finding new ways to do a deal or find a deal. Well, what was that first turning point with Suburban going from the Oldsmobile store? How did you go to two to three to four?
What happened was twofold. We would train people, we would get them ready, and we had no place to promote them. And secondly, I was losing customers to other brands. Because we didn't offer small cars. We didn't offer minivans. We didn't have what they wanted. So I had to either lease them a car through an independent company, or find that product myself. And we chose to grow the business. As it turns out, it's a good thing that we did, because you can't buy a Cutlass today. You can't buy a Toronado today.
You were buying new franchises. What was that turning point in business where you said, "I've got this model, I figured it out, I've got a platform, and I can just keep adding points to this business"?
You know, I think what happened is that you learned how to do it after the second or third store ... And you empower the people, you get the best people you can, and you work with them. You decide what you're going to do, how you're going to do it, how you will keep each other informed. And then it's about what's available, and how do I pay for it. And we tried to grow a little bit every year. So when we sold to Lithia, a few months ago, we had 51 facilities of some type, and 33 different independent franchises that we were selling.
When you look back at all the challenges you had, what were some of the biggest hardships you guys faced?
Well, there's a wonderful memory of a fellow by the name of John Rock, who was a General Motors vice president, who had become a dear friend. And I was with John at the General Motors building the day he made the comment, "I feel like a cowboy and someone's trying to shoot my horse." We have lost more franchises, everything that's gone but Mercury, we had. Saturn, Hummer, Oldsmobile. Pontiac.
When you have a franchise, you've got a dealership (and you learn it's going to close), there are a couple of hundred people that you know who work there that are there supporting their families, a big ecosystem.
People, land, building, investment. And, and all of a sudden, someone decides that for economic reasons for them, it's going to go away. And it may have been a good decision. But it's still painful for all of us there. I remember, you know, when Oldsmobile went away, at this point, we had, I don't know, nine or 10 other franchises, but when Oldsmobile went away, it was it was truly a wake-up call that this world was changing. And we better be thinking about where we're going.
So just one day, somebody makes a decision and your world goes upside down.
Well, there's been a couple of big ones, but (Oldsmobile), and the day that some of the credit companies went broke, and all of a sudden you had floor planning in the morning, and at our height, we might have had 7,000 to 10,000 new cars in stock. We pretty much own the rest of the stuff, but you might have $300 million or $400 million in floor planning. And and they call and say hey, we're not here anymore.
So how do you bounce back from that?
You look around, and it's not unlike when you lose somebody, the rest of the world goes on. And you have a choice to make. And the choice was, we have to go forward. And so how do we go forward? We go forward in the best way possible, with the right attitude. We know we have to fix this. And that is your goal. And, that's what you work on full time till you get it fixed.
You just recently got home, back from Morocco, having served as an ambassador, a very important post at a very important time. Sounds like an amazing opportunity but an amazing responsibility as well.
I can tell you, when I was asked if I would serve, I was given a couple of opportunities, and Morocco was my favorite. It's America's oldest ally and goes back to 1777 and the Barbary Coast pirates. We formalized (a peace and friendship) treaty in 1787, in perpetuity, and it is America's oldest treaty client. It's amazing.
You're over in Morocco, you're serving your country. And at the same time, this massive deal is happening with your business, a business you spent decades building and it hits a certain point, and somebody knocked on your door and said, "We're interested in acquiring your business."
We've had people come by and ask, you know, on and off for years, but there were two things happening. We had a discussion about the Abraham Accords (peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates) ... So there was a significant diplomatic action going on. And a discussion of what could happen in the business, what would happen with Suburban, would we accept their offer? And they both wound up going into December.
I'm guessing you weren't getting a lot of sleep?
Well, no, because you have to decide, you know. I've done this all my life. And it was sometime last year, I realized at 74 I wasn't going to live forever, which came as a shock (laughs). And, and so you're thinking a lot about your future, your family's future. And we have a couple of other things we do: We're still a tier-one supplier to General Motors, Ford, Nissan, on the services side. And we're in the accessory business with General Motors and Ford, in 14 or 15, states. So we have a good-sized ongoing business that we kept. But trying to decide the fate of the automobile business, we decided actually, right around Christmastime, and which was a couple of weeks after the Abraham Accords event in Morocco. And so when I came home, the end of January, we signed a document with Lithia.
And it was thought-provoking: It's truly, "What are you going to do the rest of your life? What's best for your family?"
Your son is running the business while you're gone ... Those are big conversations and family visits.
There's a lot about how do you best serve your employees and what's next and best for them as well.
Now that you're home, sold the business, what does Ambassador Fischer do now?
Well, we're taking a breath, really. Jennifer and I always seem to have a couple of construction projects going on. And (former) Ambassador (John) Rakolta, and his wife, Terry, Jennifer and I actually just returned from the Middle East. We joined Jared Kushner and Rob Greenway, who had worked for the government, he's our very capable executive director of the Abraham Accords Peace Institute. And so we were back in the Middle East, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Bahrain and Morocco, building relationships on an economic level, to go forward and put some meat on the bones of the Abraham Accords. ... We're finding talk works. Even during the difficulty between Palestine and Israel, there were day-to-day conversations among these nations. ... We didn't have that before.
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