Jenell Ross: Automotive Trailblazer by Design

by Edward Cates

Savoy Winter 2013 Cover Story
by Edward Cates

Following in the footsteps of a trailblazing father is not a daunting task if you are Jenell Ross, President of Bob Ross Buick, GMC, Mercedes Benz and Fiat based in Centerville, Ohio. Jenell’s meteoric success as an auto dealer has come from hard work and her ability to channel a deep seeded commitment to honor her parent’s contributions to the automotive industry and community.

Jenell was raised in a dealership the daughter of Bob Ross, one of the first African American auto dealers in North America and the first African American Mercedes Benz dealer in the country. “From the time I was four, Dad was an automobile dealer so growing up around vehicles and the business has always been a part of my life. I remember coming in to work with him on Sundays and I would jump in and out of cars acting like I could drive,” shares Jenell as she reflects. “The automotive industry, which may include a car insurance from, was always something I wanted to be a part of and had an interest in. Through elementary, high school, college, whenever I could, I would focus on projects or papers around the automobile industry to give me the opportunity to learn something different. I never thought it would happen so early, running the day-to-day operation when I was 27, because Dad was only 62 when he passed.”

Although Jenell had been groomed to become a dealer, she was in graduate school when her father passed unexpectedly and accelerated her involvement with the dealership. Jenell’s mother Norma, a curriculum consultant for the Dayton Board of Education, stepped in following her husband’s untimely death for an interim period as Jenell completed the National Auto Dealers Association dealers academy while running the day to day operations of the business. She grieved the loss of her father while embracing her career as a dealer continuing the legacy her father prepared her for.

In 2013, Jenell was named Chair of the American International Auto Dealers Association (AIADA), an organization comprised of over 12,000 US based international nameplate dealers such as Toyota, Honda, Mazda, Subaru, Mercedes Benz, BMW and more.  Further Jenell is the first and only second generation African American Women owned automobile dealer in the country (at the time of this article).

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“Jenell’s leadership as Chair of the AIADA is significant because she is the first African American Woman to chair that organization,” adds Damon Lester, President of the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers (NAMAD) from their organizational headquarters in Metro Washington D.C. “Jenell is one of the most well rounded automobile dealers in the industry. She knows the political and advocacy aspects of the business and understands operations as a dealer who also opens and closes her store every day. She has been a pioneer and a trailblazer advocating for all dealers not just for minorities.

Over the last five years, automotive dealers across the nation were devastated by the onset of the economic recession. As manufacturers closed plants and laid off employees, the number of employee related automotive purchases decreased in communities like Dayton Ohio. Jenell’s ability to not only survive but also thrive as a dealer through these tough economic times speaks volumes for her tenacity and toughness as an entrepreneur.

“Jenell Ross is a role model for all professionals, not just Women or African Americans. Her leadership of AIADA is an unprecedented achievement by any woman independent of race,” said Donald Tinsley, Sr., retired auto dealer and former Chairman of the National Association of Minority Automotive Dealers. “Jenell’s father Bobby was a part of our small core group of the first African Americans that earned automotive dealerships in the early 1970’s. We knew what we were doing was important. All of us worked together to improve our dealerships and create opportunities for the next generation of African Americans that would follow us. Jenell truly embodies the fulfillment of our hopes and dreams for African American dealers.” Tinsley was also one of the first African American automobile dealers, awarded his Buick dealership in Redwood City, California in 1971. Ross and Tinsley were not only among the first African American dealers in the country, they also hailed from the same hometown of Richmond, Indiana.

Giving back by contributing time and resources to worthy causes is a priority for Jenell. She holds an annual golf tournament in honor of her father Bob benefitting the American Heart Association. In memory of her mother Norma she has been an avid supporter of the American Cancer Society by engaging a group of over 200 walkers on her team and raised over $43,000 in 2012, for the Annual Walk for Breast Cancer. She has outfitted all three of her dealership buildings with pink and developed a campaign with her God Daughters called “Pink Ribbon Driven” that ties breast cancer awareness with the auto industry in a meaningful way.

Jenell Ross’ career, success and charismatic leadership is a noble example of generational entrepreneurship done right. While her parents planted the seeds and provided resources for her growth and succession as a dealer, Jenell also eagerly learned all aspects of her business, met adversity and opportunity with enthusiasm, bravery and reverence.

As she continues the legacy of her parents, she has created one of her own that she describes in an understandably intermingled perspective on the legacy of the Bob Ross Auto Group. “I would want people to think that what we’ve stood for almost 40 years of great customer service and being extremely committed and involved to our community. I hope that people feel that I have continued that after my parents have gone because that was something that was very true and dear to them. As for me personally, I would just like to feel that I was remembered as someone that was very humble, in terms of what I do, but that everyone knows the passion that I have for the business, as well as the compassion that I have for my employees, my family and friends.”

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