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July 09, 2009 - Image 19

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2009-07-09

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BUSINESS & PROFESSIONAL

entrepreneurs

A
Survivor
World War II

frontlines gave
future auto dealer
the savvy
to press on.

Art Aisner
Special to the Jewish News

Jeffrey and Mary Tamaroff at the Tamaroff Automotive Group showroom in Southfield

I is hard to imagine much that Mary
Tamaroff hasn't seen in nearly six
decades of selling cars. But the
steady decline of the American auto
industry has the 83-year-old uber-deal-
er wading through uncharted territory.
In June, the proud and semi-retired
founder of the Southfield-based
Tamaroff Automotive Group reluctantly
shuttered his Dodge dealership as part
of Chrysler's bankruptcy, despite mov-
ing 22,000 vehicles in a lucrative 22-
year span, plus another 100,000 in fleet
sales.
"We sold a lot of cars here and
thought that it might happen, but didn't
expect it," Tamaroff said recently after
all appeals were denied. "We didn't
have any warning at all."
Hardly how he expected to celebrate
40 years in business near the corner of
Telegraph and 12 Mile roads.
But he also has seen tougher times.
Personally, he said closing his flag-
ship Buick franchise as part of GM's
consolidation push two years ago was
harder. The dealership was, after all, a
life-altering success and tribute to his
perseverance.
Tamaroff now sells Honda, Izuzu,
Nissan and Acura. Like most in his
generation, Tamaroff said his business
acumen and personal approach were
shaped by his experiences during the
war years.
At 17, he lied about his age and
enlisted in the U.S. Army. Part patriot
and partly hungry for an opportunity,
the Detroit native and son of Russian
immigrants saw the Army G.I. Bill as his
meal ticket. He just needed to survive.
Tamaroff was among the infantry
divisions that swept across Western

Europe, liberating it from Nazi rule in
late 1944. He survived several combat
situations, including the famed Battle of
the Bulge, largely unscathed except for
shrapnel wounds to the knee.
After crossing the Rhine River,
Tamaroff knew the tide of the war had
turned in the Allies favor and he enter-
tained thoughts of a quick victory and
homecoming.
But those thoughts were short-lived.
In January 1945, Tamaroff and his pla-
toon were captured by German troops
while escorting an overnight mule train
of supplies.
He spent the remainder of the war
with 5,000 other Allied soldiers in a
prison camp outside Munich. Though
still sharp enough to rattle off the
names of comrades and the fine details
of business deals over the years,
Tamaroff prefers to keep elements of
his imprisonment to himself.
Forced marches and meals com-
prised of a slice of bread and watery
soup took their toll, he said. His body
weight fell to 140 pounds.
Though few then knew of Adolf
Hitler's Final Solution, Tamaroff kept his
Judaism secret. Upon his capture, he
distinctly remembers telling a German
commander that the "H" that appeared
on his dog tags — a way for Army
chaplains to issue proper last rites for
fallen or dying soldiers on the battlefield
— stood not for Hebrew, but heathen.
"I said I had no religion, was a god-
less infidel that no one respected. And
that gave me more standing than a
Jew," he said.
He laughs now, but Tamaroff agrees
it was the most important sales job of

his life.
"I became a fatalist after that experi-
ence," he said. "Guys died all around
me and I had to question how people
could be led down that path to do that
to others. But I knew I had the tenacity
to make it through tough situations."

Bold business

Regretfully, the pneumonia he contract-
ed from the camp kept Tamaroff from
enjoying the spoils of liberated Europe.
But the "early" return to the U.S. jump-
started the next phase of his life.
He earned a degree in mechani-
cal engineering from the General
Motors Institute in Flint, now Kettering
University, in 1949.
However, in a market saturated with
engineers, Tamaroff took his mechani-
cal know-how of automobiles and
combined it with a persistent charm to
carve a niche in used-car sales.
Business was good, Tamaroff recalls,
gloating about scores of deals and auc-
tion steals he made moving used cars
from three locations across Detroit until
the 1967 riots.
"It changed the area and atmosphere
forever; and I saw the handwriting on
the wall," said Tamaroff, who began
eyeing a particular strip of available
farmland in the young city of Southfield.
Tamaroff was eager to sell new
cars, but was rebuffed five consecu-
tive years before landing with Buick.
Ultimately, he pitched the notion that
he was already selling as many used
Buicks as some of their top new-car
dealers. How? By maximizing a market
for those who couldn't afford Cadillacs,
comprised mostly of local Jews.

All 30 existing Buick dealers passed
on the Southfield territory; and
Tamaroff, with $64,000 and GM as his
business partner, bought 13 acres off
Telegraph Road.
Two years passed while Tamaroff
patiently worked out a zoning dispute
with city officials before he could open.
"No one wanted to build a building,
start from scratch, go in debt. It was
a lot of work and everybody thought I
was nuts," he said, chuckling.
"Everybody! Including my mother,"
said his son, Jeffrey, referring to Claire,
whom Mary married more than five
decades ago.
Jeffrey, who began cleaning and
prepping cars at the dealership as a
teen, is now chairman of the company
and owner of his own franchises.
"But the location was everything,"
Jeffrey said, with gratitude. "It's what
secured the dealership for him and
allowed him to be successful."
From there, Mary built an empire,
anchoring a visible and high-traffic
location and offering a wide range of
products, including recreational vehi-
cles, the Opel, the Electric City Car, the
Yugo and the DeLorean.
Despite the cutthroat nature of corn-
petitive auto sales, Tamaroff stayed
a mentsh, said Ed Powers, executive
director of the Southfield Chamber of
Commerce.
"I've known him for at least 15 years
and you never, never hear a negative,"
he said. "Marv's truly an entrepreneur
who helped turn the city's northwest
corner into a retail magnet. Some said
it was crazy at the time, but pioneers
are always seen as a little crazy." pi

July 9 a 2009

A19

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