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Advocate for minority car dealers pushes diversity

By Avis Thomas-Lester/Urban News Service
On June 30, 2016

Left to right: Damon Lester testifies before the
U.S. House Financial Services Committee.
Photo by the U.S. House Financial Services Committee

Damon Lester’s phone typically starts ringing at 7:30 a.m. And it keeps ringing until after 10:00 p.m.
 
Since taking the wheel of the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers in 2006, Lester has become the face of the group that advocates for dealership owners of color.
 
By 9:00 o’clock on a recent morning, he had spoken to a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration executive, a congressional staffer, a dealer and a prospective dealership buyer.
 
“Mine is definitely a 24-hour-a-day job,” said Lester (no relation to this writer). “Of the 18,000 new automobile dealerships in the United States, only 1,128 are owned by an ethnic minority. People of color buy 30 percent of the cars in this country, but own only about 6 percent of the car dealerships. So, there’s a lot to be done.”
 
Based in Largo, Maryland, the association was founded in 1980 to promote “diversity and inclusion in all aspects of the automotive industry,” according to its website. The organization lobbied then-President Jimmy Carter to assist minority dealers in the wake of the 1979 government bailout of Chrysler.
 
“Damon is very passionate and dedicated about representing NAMAD and all of its dealer members, vendor and manufacturer partners,” said Jenell R. Ross, president of the Bob Ross Auto Group in Dayton, Ohio.
 
Lester, 43, wasn’t particularly interested in the auto trade before he joined the association’s staff in 2002.
 
Born and raised an only child in West Philadelphia, Lester studied hard, played sports and sang in the First United Baptist Church’s children’s choir. He commuted by rail 90 minutes each way to Archbishop John Carroll High School, in the upscale suburb of Radnor, Pennsylvania, where he became familiar with wealth.
 
“I knew I wanted it for myself,” Lester said.
 
He worked part time at the Super Fresh grocery store in tony Wynnewood, where customers included members of the Philadelphia 76ers and singer Patti LaBelle. He enjoyed meeting celebrities.
 
Lester majored in accounting at Temple University.
 
His first accounting job was with black-owned Milligan & Company, LLC, in Philadelphia. Three years later, he moved to Gelman, Rosenberg & Freedman in Bethesda, Maryland, which audited the minority dealers’ association.
 
Lester joined the association in 2002 as vice president of operations. He became president in 2006, just before dealers got stung by the 2007-08 economic slowdown.
 
His “whole focus was trying to save as many members as possible” from losing their dealerships, said Jose Pozos, a past chairman of the association and owner of car outlets in Texas and Louisiana.
 
As the industry stalled, manufacturers shuttered economically challenged retailers. Thirty percent of minority dealerships folded, Pozos said.
 
“They would give you a financial buyout and thought you should be happy,” Pozos said. “But the dealers weren’t into it for that. They were into it for the entrepreneurship, the family legacy and the American Dream.”
 
As the economy reeled in June 2009, Lester asked for his board to visit Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s chief of staff, to discuss the financial fate of minority dealers. Obama attended.
 
The group asked Obama to order the Small Business Administration to lend directly to minority dealers, as Carter did. 
 
“The president listened to us, but in the end he didn’t give us what we were asking for,” Lester said. “But we were able to enter into a memorandum of understanding with General Motors” to address dealers’ financial concerns.
 
Todd Bullard, the association’s attorney, said the agreement included binding arbitration and wind-down payments of up to $1 million for dealers who lost their stores.
 
Dealers’ fortunes have improved. About 17.5 million new cars were sold last year. Dealers expect to match or exceed that in 2016, Lester said.
 
He is trying to add members. The number of minority-owned dealerships peaked at 1,805 in 2005, dropped to 1,156 in 2007 and bottomed out at 873 in 2011. On Dec. 31, America had 1,128 minority dealerships: 552 Hispanic-owned stores; 264 owned by blacks; and 215 Asian-owned dealerships, according to Lester’s organization.
 
Ford had 63 black dealerships out of 3,238; GM had 49 out of 4,245; Fiat Chrysler had 27 of 2,385; Nissan had 21 of 1,077; and Toyota had 14 of 1,245.
 
As he celebrates 10 years as president, Lester, the father of two sons, is proud of his association’s success in pushing diversity to the forefront of the auto industry’s agenda.
 
“It’s in their best interests to adopt diversity as a business imperative because they want to increase their market share,” Lester said. “It makes good business sense.”

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