Black-owned car dealerships disappearing across the nation
By Fred Jeter
Special to the Trice Edney Newswire from the Richmond Free Press
After spending most of his life in the automotive business, 60-year-old Harry Lee Harris is shifting gears. Owner of Universal Ford since 1986, Harris will on May 1 complete the sale of his successful Black-run business to Richmond Ford.
“There is a time to buy and a time to sell,” said Harris, referring to his dealership at 10751 W. Broad St. in Henrico County near Richmond, Virginia. “My wife and I are looking forward to traveling all over the big globe and being super grandparents. We’ll play lots of golf, too.”
Ron Kody, who is white, owns Richmond Ford. The ownership change means there will not be a single Black-owned, new car dealership in the Richmond area. Virginia, at best, has just a handful of Black-owned dealerships. In Northern Virginia, there are three, Infiniti of Chantilly, owned by Reginald L. Brown Jr., formerly of Richmond, and BMW of Sterling and MINI of Sterling, both owned by Thomas A. Moorehead.
Across the nation, the number of Black-owned, new car dealerships peaked at 532 in 2002, but has fallen by 50 percent since. As of 2012, there were 261 such dealerships, according to Automotive News, an industry trade journal. Those dealerships comprised just 1.5 percent of the 17,653 new car dealerships in the United States.
In response to a question, Harris elected not to disclose his selling price. “The purchase price was sufficient for Mrs. Harris (Vanessa) and I to retire comfortably. The Kodys certainly purchased a profitable and premium franchise in the Richmond market, and we wish them luck.”
As of May 1, Universal will change its name to Richmond Ford West. Harris said all Universal employees will remain as part of the transaction. That includes Geneva Harris, a manager, who is Harris’ daughter.
The youngest of 11 children, Harris was born in Arkansas and grew up in St. Louis. His role model was his older brother, Sam Johnson, one of the nation’s first minority auto store owners. Harris got his start as a teen when his brother put him to work washing cars at his dealership, Metro Lincoln-Mercury in St. Louis.
An unquestionable workaholic with king-sized dreams, he rose to managerial status. “I fashioned myself after Sam,” said Harris. “I used his blueprint to get where I am today.”
His first car was a pre-owned 1962 Chevy Impala that he purchased for $250. He’s been upgrading ever since. Harris and Johnson became partners and transferred to Charlotte, N.C., in 1977 to run Johnson Lincoln-Mercury. In 1986, with the help of the Ford Motor Minority Dealer Program, Harris purchased Universal Ford. The original location was in the Virginia Commonwealth University area where the Siegel Center now stands. The business moved to Innsbrook in Henrico County in 1989.
Harris has been ranked as high as No. 53 on Black Enterprise magazine’s annual list of the 100 top Black-owned dealerships. In 2012, he received the Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the Metropolitan Business League, the area’s largest Black business group, of which he is a longtime member. He also belongs to the Ford Minority Dealer Association, the Ford Lincoln Mercury Alumni Association, the Urban League of Greater Richmond and the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers. He served on the board of the Garfield Childs Foundation, whose members included former governor and current U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine.
Vanessa Harris, Harry’s wife of 37 years, is something of an entrepreneur herself. For nine years, she owned and ran Shoes Etc. at Sixth Street Marketplace.
Harris has two brothers, Clyde and Eli Harris, who own and operate used car lots in the Richmond area. The decision to sell will free him and his wife “to do things we’ve never had the time to do,” Harris said. Until now, he said, life has totally revolved around work.
“Nothing is forever,” said Harris. “We’re no different than Thalhimer’s, Bill’s Barbecue, Dick Strauss Ford. All those owners have moved on, too. I’ve got my own bucket list of goals and I’ve pretty much reached them.”
In retirement, he hopes to speak to business classes at Virginia Union University and other schools. Harry and Vanessa’s four children are graduates of either VUU or Johnson C. Smith in Charlotte. They have three grandchildren.
Life is good. The Harrises reside in a home along the 18th fairway at plush Dominion Golf Club in Wyndham in Henrico. Harris says both he and his wife are “avid golfers,” but “she can outdrive me because she’s had so much more practice.”
Now, Harris, in “Chapter Two” of his life, will have more time to chase the dimpled ball around the course. You might say he’s trading cars for pars. Being a shrewd businessman, it’s a deal he couldn’t pass up.