Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Our family business was founded by my grandfather, Marvin Tamaroff, in 1969. Today, we’re run by the third generation of our family, and we own and operate six auto dealerships in metro Detroit. We sell new and pre-owned vehicles and operate service, parts and collision facilities. We also own and operate a leasing company and a business that supplies vehicles to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and suppliers.
I serve as president of Tamaroff Motors and Jeffrey Automotive Group,
and my cousin and business partner, Jason Tamaroff, is the vice president.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?
I held a variety of roles at my family’s dealerships starting at age 15, but I began working for the company full time when I graduated from Michigan State University in 2007. My first full-time job was as assistant finance manager. About six months later, I became a manager at our family’s Dodge dealership.
About one year in, just as I was finding my groove and building a team, we received a letter from Chrysler informing us that they were going bankrupt, and our Dodge store was one of 789 dealers being terminated. We had 22 days after receiving the letter to unwind a business that had been successful for 27 years. We had to liquidate our inventories and find homes for 55 employees.
It was an incredibly difficult time that was also beneficial in building my foundation as a future leader, as it was an extreme test both personally and professionally. We did our best to shuffle employees to other stores and wind down the business, which ultimately led us to our next challenge: being a fully import dealer in a dominant domestic market. (All our other franchises were imports.)
I knew if we wanted to succeed, we had to be the number one import store in our market, which meant we had to update our outdated facilities, infrastructure, processes and team. Several years later, we achieved that goal, and to this day, are the number one import dealer in our market.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
About two years into my role as used car manager, I thought I had everything down pat. One night, I was busy appraising about 30 pre-owned vehicles. One of them was parked outside of my office window, waiting to be appraised. It was an older car with very high mileage that would typically be worth about $1,000, so I thought it was safe to appraise it from my office window. We ended up taking it on trade. When I went to move it at the end of the night, I noticed the entire passenger side was wrecked, both doors were missing, and every single body panel was damaged. This was the last time I appraised a car without physically going to inspect and test drive it.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are family-owned and family-operated, currently being run by the third generation. We are not corporate run, there are no levels of upper management, and we know all our employees. Our family has always been trendsetters and never followed what others do. We operate with a high moral compass and value work/life balance.
A prime example: After COVID, we temporarily changed our hours and told our team that if we can do the same business in five days that we previously did in six, and could do it from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in sales instead of 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., we’d keep the post-COVID hours so that everyone could enjoy more family and personal time.
We are currently open five days in service and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday in sales, and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Morale, customer satisfaction and business have never been better.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! We’re constantly looking at bolt-on businesses and other verticals in our area of expertise. With electrification changing the future of the auto industry, our goal is to be on the front lines of electric vehicles. We are currently positioning ourselves to be a leader in the electric vehicle transformation and to meet our customers’ evolving needs. It’s an exciting time to be in the auto industry as things are changing fast.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Without my father, both my grandfathers, and my uncle, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I had the benefit of having all my family members in the automotive business at one point or another. Each had their own unique style and strengths, and since I was often around all of them growing up, I picked up something from each.
My grandfather, Marvin Tamaroff, was my ultimate role model and hero. He, along with my other family members, empowered me and trained me to be the leader I am today.
A turning point in my career was when there was a general manager that I was reporting to that was very loyal to my family and did a terrific job, but constantly shut me down as I was coming up in the business and wanted to try new things. One day, my grandfather told me, “Kid, if you know in your heart you’re doing the right thing, then just do it. If you’re right, everyone wins; if you’re wrong, you’ll learn from your mistakes and you’ll continue to grow until you get it right.” He always had my back and knew before I did that I was cut out for this job and all that came with it.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Our family has always been very charitable. It’s part of our DNA. Giving back is a large part of our Jewish religion and has a lot of personal meaning to us. We’re in process of launching the Tamaroff Foundation because of all the charitable work we’ve done and plan to do in the future. We also started a program at the dealership last year called Donations 4 Denim. On Fridays and Saturdays, we allow the team to wear jeans if they donate $5 to the cause. At the end of the month, the dealership matches every dollar collected. The employees nominate a charity each month, and since we’ve started the program, we’ve donated over $20,000. We’ve also become more involved in our local communities and have plans for continued sponsorships. There are several causes that are near and dear to our hearts, and we believe giving back is a great way to support them.
How do you define a family business? How is a family business different from a regular business?
To me, a family business is owned by families and run by families. It’s generational, like families, and the values that exist within a family are the same values by which the company is guided. We practice what we preach, and we treat our employees like we treat our family.
In that same breath, no family member who works here is treated differently than any other employee. My first year working full time, my parents and grandparents were taking their annual trip to Florida for the New Year. When I asked my uncle — who was then my boss — if I could go, he told me no, I hadn’t accrued any vacation time yet. I was upset that I couldn’t be with my family but looking back, I am glad he treated me like everyone else. That helped me earn the respect of my peers and ultimately prepared me to be a leader.
Non-family businesses are different from the core. We don’t answer to a board of directors or have anyone outside of the family influence our decision making. We do what’s best for the business while keeping our families, employees, and customers in mind at every turn.
In your opinion or experience, what are the unique advantages that family-owned businesses have?
There are many advantages to being a family-owned business. We don’t answer to anyone or have anyone influence our decision making. Our core values drive us forward and we always do what’s best for our employees and our customers. We also get to work with and be surrounded by family. We breed that culture in our dealership and treat our employees — and customers — like our own family.
One of the most unique advantages is we can be true entrepreneurs: We can take risks, try new things, and be innovative. We can accomplish anything we set our minds to without anyone managing our decisions and direction.
What are the unique drawbacks or blind spots that family-owned businesses have?
Loyalty and tenure are a great thing, but at times, can be a challenge too. I am grateful we have a very tenured and loyal staff including many employees who have never held a job outside of our company. With so many team members that haven’t had experience working outside the dealership, we don’t always get new or “outside” perspectives that could help us continue to evolve our business in new ways. We also learned the hard way that promoting based on tenure doesn’t mean it’s always the right person for the position. Promotions need to be based on a variety of factors, but merit needs to be the driving reason. It’s a very delicate balance.
Some would consider simply working with family as a drawback, but our grandfather led with the value that family always came first. No matter what happened at work — an argument, an issue, etc. — when we leave work and sit at the dinner table or celebrate a birthday, anniversary, or holiday together, all of that gets left at the door.
What are some of the common mistakes you have seen family businesses make? What would you recommend to avoid those errors?
As mentioned, I would recommend avoiding things like promoting from within based on tenure and not letting personal relationships get in the way of making the best decisions for the business. It’s a slippery slope and needs to be managed by the right person who can separate those things and ultimately look at what’s best for all parties involved. Performance reviews, coaching, and communication are key to getting the team focused on the same goals and moving in the same direction.
Other common mistakes family businesses make is promoting family for the wrong reasons. We always knew we had to work our way up and whoever was most qualified would have the job at hand. You can have different roles, different responsibilities and take different paths but still be equal partners. My cousin worked outside of the business for several years and gained valuable experience which he brought back when he entered the family business. My path was different, but it worked for me.
A lot of family businesses let money get in the way and are in the business for the wrong reasons. Teaching the next generation the right things, being tough on them in the right ways at the right times, and not handing anything out is ideal if you want to successfully transfer a business to the next generation(s). Most businesses don’t succeed in the second generation, let alone the third. Our goal is to get to the fourth, fifth, and beyond.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders of family businesses to help their employees to thrive?
Take the time to do the little things with your team. Write notes congratulating them on their work anniversaries and take the time to say thank you and good job. Wish them a happy birthday each year. Celebrate wins and buy everyone lunch, socialize, and have fun with your teams.
People want to work for people they like and trust. They want to work for people who care about them. Most CEOs or founders do at their core, but they get so caught up in running the business that they forget to take the time to do the little things that mean so much to team members.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean with a story or example?
A leader is on the frontline, willing to risk it all for his/her team. A leader is someone the team wants in the foxhole with them, have their back and challenge them to live up to their potential. I also think a leader is someone they look up to, trust, and genuinely like to be around. A leader is the tip of the iceberg that is only as strong as his/her foundation and understands that everyone plays a role, everyone has value, and each individual is only as good as the people around them. A leader empowers people and is not insecure but wants to see the people around him/her grow.
Here is our main question. What are the “5 Things You Need To Run A Highly Successful Family Business”? Please share a story or example for each.
Values — values drive a business and give it purpose and meaning. At Tamaroff, we’ve been guided by a single value since our founding: If you do the right things, and you take care of the employees and the customers, the rest will come.
Grit / Perseverance — You’ve got to be able to roll your sleeves up and do whatever it takes to succeed. Especially in a family business, you wear many hats and serve in many roles. Leading by example and be willing to do whatever you’d ask of your people is key. You can’t be afraid to do what’s right, no matter how hard it is, and you can’t be afraid to hear the words ‘no’ as you’re building your business. No matter how far you move forward, there will be things out of your control that push you back, but you must push harder to break down the walls and get through in order to succeed.
Passion — When you do what you love for a living, it’s not work. If you put your heart and soul into your business, the results will reflect that. I love people, I love business, and I love cars. There is no place I’d rather be working than with and for my family. Hopefully, my passion and leadership will one day give me the honor of passing down the business to the next generation.
Communication — Everyone talks about communication, but you must live by that value. You must talk to everyone, not just those at the top. You gain a greater perspective by talking to all your employees, from entry level on up. Talk to your customers, too. Understanding what customers like and dislike makes you better. When you’re running a small business, sometimes, the plans for growing the business can live just inside your own head. Be sure to share your thoughts and goals with the team and get everyone’s input by constantly communicating.
Empathy — Take a step back and realize you’re dealing with fellow human beings, whether customers, employees, manufacturers, suppliers, vendors, etc., and we all need empathy. Understanding people and communicating based on the situation at hand is imperative. We all put our pants on one leg at a time and the strength of relationships and understanding how and when to be empathic results in positive outcomes.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Warren Buffet. I feel that his values and morals align with our family and our business, and his methods have been tried and true for decades. He’s an innovator, he’s stable- minded, he lives well below his means, he gives back to his community and beyond, and he seems to live a very balanced and successful life. He’s definitely got some tips and secrets I’d love to learn and pass down through the next generations.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
World peace. Life is too short to fight, and the collateral damage isn’t worth it. It’s wishful thinking, but Earth is a large enough place for all people to co-exist.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.