In Market: Perot and Iacocca: Two who made it

Lee Iacocca

We’ve lost two business titans this month. One was H. Ross Perot, who we write about on Page 14 of the July 15-21 issue of the Business Press.

The other was Lee Iacocca, the auto executive and master pitchman who put the Mustang in Ford’s lineup in the 1960s and became a corporate folk hero when he resurrected Chrysler 20 years later. He died July 2 in Bel Air, California, at 94.

Like Perot, he was an American business colossus who put his mark on everything he touched. In his 32-year career at Ford, and then at Chrysler, Iacocca helped launch some of Detroit’s best-selling and most significant vehicles, including the minivan, the Chrysler K-cars and the Mustang. He also spoke out against what he considered unfair trade practices by Japanese automakers.

During the peak of his popularity in the 1980s, he was famous for his TV ads and catchy tagline: “If you can find a better car, buy it!” He wrote two best-selling books and was touted as a presidential candidate.

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But he will be best remembered as the blunt-talking, cigar-chomping Chrysler chief who helped engineer a great corporate turnaround.

One local businessman who remembers Iacocca well is Allen Samuels, a car salesman who turned around a Dodge dealership in Tarrant County and went on to own multiple car dealerships.

Beginning with one North Loop Dodge store in North Richland Hills, the Allen Samuels Auto Group grew to multiple brands across the state of Texas. From DFW to Tyler, Greater Houston and Corpus Christi.

Samuels was general sales manager for a Chevy dealership in 1982 when he was approached to purchase a money-losing Dodge dealership in North Richland Hills. The dealership had never made a profit in 17 years. Generally, the business was losing about $75,000 to $100,000 a month. But Samuels got a good deal that would allow him to purchase the dealership, so he gave it a shot.

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He went up on a Sunday and noticed there were people all over Northeast Tarrant County, which was then booming. “I thought, ‘There’s something wrong with this story,’” he said.

The first month, the store only lost $12,000. The second month, the location made $20,000.

The turnaround was so pronounced that Samuels began getting calls from everyone at Chrysler – including Iacocca.

“He basically called me to see if I was cooking the books, which I understood,” said Samuels. “I wasn’t and he accepted that.”

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Samuels said the first day he came to the dealership he called everyone together and said there was going to be no more lying, cheating or stealing. “About 90% left,” he said.

Basically all that was left was Samuels and the bookkeeper. “She stayed with me for 37 years!” he said. He told the sales manager to bring customers in the door and he would close the sale.

That method worked because, eventually, Samuels sold his dealerships to his employees and they in turn sold them to a large auto group.

The Dodge dealership turnaround – occurring around the same time Iacocca was turning around Chrysler – led to Allen Samuels North Loop Dodge twice being named National Dealer of the Year by Dodge for its leadership in sales, community reputation and partnership. Samuels has been recognized as one of the top car dealers in the United States with his selection as one of the elite eight finalists for the TIME Magazine Dealer of the Year.

“Back in those days, Chrysler was coming out of that bankruptcy,” said Samuels. “It was a good organization then. They were ready to listen to new ideas.”

Iacocca sent Samuels a letter telling him how much he appreciated the work he did turning around that dealership.

Samuels met Iacocca several times over the years.

“He was a hell of a salesman,” said Samuels. “He did a lot for Chrysler and for Ford before it and for this country.”

Samuels attributes his own success to “working hard, a little common sense and meeting people.”

Samuels’ formula for success apparently still works. After selling his dealerships and moving to the Texas coast to retire, Samuels decided to get back into the car business in 2009. He chose Waco to launch a new FCA Chrysler franchise, Allen Samuels Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram. It is the number one dealership in Waco.

Since then, Samuels has acquired dealerships in the DFW area, (Allen Samuels Direct – with one in Euless and one in Fort Worth), Aransas Pass and Hearne, Texas; Oxford, Mississippi; Hutchinson, Kansas; Jackson, Tennessee; and Edmond, Oklahoma.

Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.