Car dealer mogul, Ira Rosenberg

Auto Luminaries: Ira Rosenberg

All too often, American success stories are the tales of people born into wealth, who have every opportunity handed to them; succeeding when the deck is stacked in your favor means very little. Sometimes, however, you get a real story about someone who created their own opportunities and seized life with both hands, making every moment count. That kind of success and that kind of story is how Ira Rosenberg built an automotive empire (twice) and lived exactly the sort of life every one of us should hope for.

Humble Beginnings

What I find so remarkable and noteworthy about Ira Rosenberg is that he truly was a self-made man who built his own success. Born in 1937, his father was a meat cutter and his mother was a homemaker. He was raised in Malden, Massachusetts, which he later described as “a nice little town to grow up in.” Later in life, he recalled that two of his uncles were salesmen and as a child he marveled at their expensive suits and fancy cars—forging the connection in his mind between success in sales and success in life.

Running Away to Join the Navy

In 1954, at the age of 17, Mr. Rosenberg ran away from home and joined the US Navy against his parents’ wishes. He spent two years in the Navy, serving primarily on the USS Forrestal, growing up as he advanced in rank and got his first real taste of responsibility. He recalled later that he “…had some really good times and… got to see the world. What an adventure for a kid.”

I couldn’t say it any better than that.

The Chevy that Started it All

After his time in the Navy, Ira Rosenberg began attending Suffolk University. He had never been much of a student in his younger days, and growing up had changed very little. Later on, he recalled that he never bought a single textbook and only spent a year and a half at the university. While going to college, however, he started working at a Chevrolet dealership changing tires and working in the service department. He left the dealership, got married, became a traveling salesman for a while, and had his first son, David, before ending up at another dealership and being given his first job selling cars.

In his own words, the moment Mr. Rosenberg sold his first car he, “knew that it was for me. I loved it. The first car was a Chevrolet, a 1970 Chevrolet Impala coupe, turquoise bottom, white painted roof. In those days we had painted roofs.” Even more than 40 years later, you can feel every bit of excitement in his words. His memory so perfectly retaining the tiniest detail of that first sale—the thrill of it burned into his thoughts forever. It’s a simple, beautiful moment, the kind each of us has every-so-often, which changes everything afterward.

Building an Empire

New England car dealer legend, Ira Rosenberg

Ira Rosenberg was employed at Sea Crest Cadillac in Lynn, Massachusetts and established himself in a short time as one of the best salesmen in the entire region. With hard work and a natural knack for talking to people, he worked his way up through the showroom. In 1975, Mr. Rosenberg bought his first Toyota dealership in Danvers, Massachusetts—as his success grew he bought more and more dealerships.

In the 1980s he established the Ira Motor Group of dealerships and became well known throughout Massachusetts. He connected with people—he liked people; his employees, customers, friends, and family. While a lot of other owners hide in the back office and avoid the showroom at all costs, Mr. Rosenberg was out on the floor all the time. He truly loved it.

The Face of His Business

Throughout the 1980s, he also became the face of his company, starring in television ads for the Ira Motor Group. His slogan, “Ira, Ira! Zero Down at Ira!” became famous throughout the state. As he put it, “I used myself as a brand. I was the brand.” He put himself out there—people would recognize him and he would give them his business card with his personal phone number on it. That was the key to his success—putting himself out there and connecting with other people.

His son, David Rosenberg, took an interest in the family business and worked for his father—taking a break to receive an MBA from Columbia University. The two of them worked together, with David in a leadership role, to grow the Ira Motor Group more and more. Over more than two decades, they built a huge network of dealerships that prospered throughout the region.

(The First) Retirement

In 1999, father and son Rosenbergs decided to accept an offer from Group 1 Automotive (a publicly traded company from Houston, Texas) to acquire the Ira Motor Group. Ira Rosenberg was 62-years old and had built a massively successful business from the ground up, doing everything himself. His retirement after the sale was more than well-earned—he finally had time to rest.

He was bored beyond imagination. How bored? He is noted to have said to his wife, “I’d either like to go back to work or get a lobotomy.” Needless to say, there was no call placed to a psychiatric surgeon.

Building another Empire

After a few years away from the auto industry, Ira Rosenberg started buying dealerships again and getting back into the game. In the mid-2000s, he purchased three dealerships in the state of Maine and formed the Prime Motor Group. In his own words, “…when I went to go back to work, I’m glad I picked Maine. Otherwise, I might never have made it.” He continued, “I just wish I had grown up in Maine.”

Once again, Mr. Rosenberg made himself the face of his dealerships—appearing in his commercials alongside other employees. His competitors in Maine appreciated his work and found themselves having to make more effort to keep up—making better advertisements and pushing themselves to try to stay in the same league as the old expert. His son, David, invested in his father’s second venture initially, but soon joined him in rebuilding a new auto group.

David Rosenberg purchased nine dealerships throughout Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire in 2007. After a short time, he merged his company with his father’s dealerships to form an even larger Prime Motor Group, with David as CEO and Ira as key adviser. The Prime Motor Group has more than 60 dealerships in eight different states and is one of the largest auto sellers in the country.

(The Second) Retirement

In October of 2017, at 80 years old, Ira Rosenberg announced his second, and final, retirement from the auto industry. Leaving the Prime Motor Group in his son’s hands, he stepped away from the business once and for all. Two months ago, in February, Mr. Rosenberg suffered a fall while going to answer the door of his home in Florida. Sadly, in the early hours of Thursday, March 28, due to complications from that fall, Ira Rosenberg passed away in his sleep, resting in his home, surrounded by his loved ones.

A Life to Remember

Tell a story long enough, and it will always end the same way—everything passes, and everyone dies. The value of it is in the meaning of that story and the lives that each of us live while telling it. Ira Rosenberg lived a remarkable life, built two auto empires, employed thousands of people, and touched countless lives.

Beyond his accomplishments as a businessman, he was a noteworthy philanthropist, giving money to numerous charities and organizations including the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Lown Cardiovascular Group, the Plummer Youth Promise, and Sweetser Maine Mental Health Services. Mr. Rosenberg had three children, eight grandchildren, and a legion of friends and well-wishers who remembered him fondly from meeting him at his dealerships or just seeing him on TV. What more could anyone ask for?