Jim Moran died at 88 on Tuesday morning, April 24, 2007. Jim Moran is a common, Irish name but this Jim Moran was a very uncommon Irishman. He was the founder of the JM Family in Deerfield Beach which is made up of several companies, the largest being Southeast Toyota. They distribute new Toyotas to all the dealers in the southeast USA. His company was just ranked the 18th largest privately owned company in America. He was a multibillionaire when he died.
I first met Jim Moran at a meeting for Pontiac dealers in Ft. Lauderdale over 40 years ago. Jim had recently moved down from Chicago where he had sold Courtesy Ford, which he built to become the largest Ford dealership in the world. Previously he had done the same with a Hudson dealership. Jim grew up in Chicago. His parents were poor but he worked hard at various jobs, saving his money until he could buy a Sinclair gas station. He began selling a few used cars from his gas station and that’s what motivated him to buy a small Hudson dealership.
The reason Jim moved to Florida in the early sixties, was his doctor telling him that he had cancer and as little as six months to live. After he sold his Ford dealership and moved to Florida, he found out his doctor was mistaken. So, Jim got back into the car business. First he bought a small Pontiac dealership in Homestead. He soon sold that for a nice profit and built the biggest Pontiac dealership in the USA in Hollywood, Florida. He set his sights on his next project to be the first Volkswagen dealership on Miami Beach. Back in the sixties, the VW franchise was the most profitable franchise around. Volkswagen turned him down, so he took the money he had planned to invest in the VW dealership, $100,000, and bought a distributorship for a Japanese car that very few people had even heard of, named Toyota. The rest is history.
Some will say that Jim Moran was just plain lucky. Nobody wanted a Toyota distributorship in the sixties. The quality of Toyotas at that time was terrible and big American cars dominated the market. He may have been lucky, but he was also very, very smart, worked very hard, and I have never known anyone so focused on success. Beyond this, he was blessed with the God given talents of extreme charisma and the ability to find, train, and motivate great people to work for him. He built a network of dealers to sell Toyotas in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and North Carolina. He also built a support structure for the dealers including a finance company, insurance company, car accessory company, JM Lexus (the largest Lexus dealership in the world) and a port preparation company. His other companies are now nationwide and service all makes of cars, not just Toyota.
I like to think I had a special relationship with Jim Moran. We were both “just a couple of Pontiac dealers” when we met. I bought my Toyota dealership in North Palm Beach/Lake Park in 1975. Those were the “wild and wooly days” in the car business. Jim Moran was an advertising genius as well as a car genius. His marketing and advertising techniques were copied by the Japanese to increase the sales of Toyotas in the rest of the USA when they realized that Southeast Toyota was outselling every other region. The “Toyotathon” was invented by Jim Moran. Top Toyota Japanese management had huge respect for Jim Moran. “Moran san”, they called him. He coached them on styling and designing Toyotas to suit American taste. He often flew to Tokyo in his private Gulfstream IV or V Jet to meet with the top management of Toyota. Jim Press, the highest ranking American in Toyota and the only non-Japanese member of Toyota’s board of directors was sent to work for Jim Moran at Southeast Toyota while he was being groomed for top management. It is a fact that Jim Moran positively and significantly affected the success of Toyota in America.
This is one of literally hundreds of eulogies that will be written about this man. Most will paint him to be perfect, a man for all seasons, and all things to all people. They will write about his charitable contributions, his family, and all of them good things he did during his life, which were significant. Because I knew Jim for a longer time than most and because I knew him very early in his career, I have a different perspective. Back in those days, the rules of the game were a little looser than they are today. There were fewer laws and regulations. It was the Wild, Wild West when it came to marketing cars. Jim Moran was blessed with incredible talents, including charisma, drive, and intelligence. He was the most competitive man I have ever known, the Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods of the car business. Like all great performers, he loved doing what he did better than anything…yes anything. Everything else in this great man’s life was secondary to his becoming the very biggest and best Hudson Dealer, Ford Dealer, Pontiac Dealer, Lexus Dealer, or Toyota Distributor in the world. Underneath the smooth facade was always the rough, tough Chicago Irishman. I don’t believe it is possible to be the best in the world at anything unless you are blessed, or is it cursed, with this kind of focus and ambition.
The last conversation I had with Jim Moran was his phone call to me about a year and a half ago. He had heard that I had just recovered from colon cancer surgery and called to ask how I was doing and wish me well. He reminded me about his doctors in Chicago telling him that he had cancer and as little as six months to live more than 40 years ago. He congratulated me on my dealership’s great increase in sales since I moved into my new, much larger dealership. Then he said to me, “Earl, I’ve been telling to build that new dealership for the last ten years!” We both laughed.
I am proud and lucky to have known Jim Moran. I learned a huge amount from him and I would have to say that he had a greater influence on my business life than anyone except my father.