This should have been a pretty boring commercial arbitration between two New Orleans-area car dealerships.
Late last summer, Ronnie Lamarque, the colorful local Ford dealer and part-time crooner, was upset that a rival Ford dealer, Matt Bowers, was looking to move just over five miles from his Williams Boulevard complex in Kenner.
Gathered in a hearing at the Metairie offices of the Louisiana Motor Vehicle Commission, Lamarque and Bowers, along with their respective attorneys, as well as a host of officials and Ford representatives. When it came time for Lamarque to speak, he pleaded his case a cappella.
“I was born by the river / in a town called Arabi,” he tweeted to the tune of Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem “A Change is Gonna Come.” “It’s been a long, long time coming/But I know Ford won’t harass me.”
His off-the-cuff lyrics also mentioned “Ford’s new blond boy”, a reference to Bowers, as Lamarque argued that the proposed dealership was too close to his.
“I thought the song was a huge hit,” said Lamarque, 75, who appeared on “America’s Got Talent” in 2018.
Bowers thought otherwise. “That was crazy,” he said, inserting a swear word for emphasis.
The dispute became moot when Bowers’ potential new location fell through. But the episode was emblematic of a generational shift in the local automotive industry. Bowers, 46, has ruffled some feathers over the past six years as he quickly built a 10-dealer network that hit $1 billion in sales in 2021.
Car dealerships have produced some of South Louisiana’s most notable business fortunes over the years, with names made familiar from billboards and television spots: Lamarque, Troy Duhon, Ray Brandt, the Bohn – who started four generations ago, in the 1920s – and of course the late Saints owner, Tom Benson.
Bowers is now looking to enter the club but with a different style for the social media era.
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Veterans Boulevard. the move was a missed opportunity. He had made a deal to move across the street and lease the current site to a home improvement chain for $1.3 million a year.
But he quickly moved on to new deals, which included buying Allen Hyundai in Gulfport, Mississippi, his ninth dealership since he started Matt Bowers Automotive in 2016. He just closed a 10th — the fourth in the New Orleans area – awaiting the final. authorization from the car manufacturer.
Stephen Walenczak, the Dallas-based manager of GM Louisiana’s dealership network, which includes Bowers’ two Chevrolet dealerships in the New Orleans area, said few car sellers have been able to grow as quickly in the Louisiana area. business, which requires considerable initial capital as well as connections.
“It’s certainly quite rare for something like this to happen,” Walenczak said. “New Orleans and surrounding areas is a unique market. Having someone from the city is important, it goes a long way and has definitely helped Matt.”
Bowers grew up in Mid-City but spent most of his career out of state. He first appeared on the radar of many New Orleans residents three years ago when he paid $20,000 for two weeks of billboards decrying the infamous ‘no call’ that kept the Saints from advancing past the Rams until the Super Bowl in Atlanta.
The “SAINTS GOT ROBBED” and “NFL BLEAUX IT!” The signs on Atlanta-area freeways have gone viral and have been featured on all major national news channels as well as in publications ranging from the New York Times to Southern Living Magazine.
“There’s no amount of money you could have paid to have that kind of exposure,” Bowers said.
Notoriety continued on social media, such as when he offered a $25,000 reward for a gang of tire thieves who hit his Slidell Chevrolet dealership. When the cops caught the culprits, Bowers was asked to join their photoshoot due to the role played by his many social media followers.
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His charitable efforts are boosted by his association with Saints players, particularly star running back Alvin Kamara, with whom Bowers has also partnered on some of his real estate deals, such as Bienville Villas, a condominium development in Mid -City.
Bowers started in cars in the late 1990s, when he took a job at Benson’s Nissan dealership in New Orleans instead of going to law school.
Rick Zibilich, who hired Bowers a year later as chief financial officer, said Bowers was a busy young man. “I think he always had a vision to be really big,” he said, noting that Bowers quickly turned a $500,000 loss into a $2 million profit in a Gulfport Nissan that he was asked to lead by Houston-based Group 1 after they bought the Bohn Auto Group.
“He was then able to convince people to throw their money on the table, which is necessary because it’s a capital-intensive business,” Zibilich said.
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A long way to his first dealer was still ahead of him. Capital is a major hurdle: The average cost of a new dealership is $11 million, with an additional $4 million in annual operating costs required, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association.
Tightly controlled family dealership groups began to give way to consolidators like AutoNation, Group 1 and Lithia Motors, each of which built networks of hundreds of dealerships.
Yet the vast majority of the approximately 17,000 car dealerships in the United States are part of groups with fewer than 10 outlets.
Bowers’ hiatus followed a stint in Nashville at car dealership Terry Taylor, when he partnered with Franklin McLarty, fourth-generation dealership owner and son of Mack McLarty, White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton. When a Chevrolet dealership in Slidell was put up for sale, it didn’t fit McLarty’s plans, but he suggested Bowers go it alone.
Bowers then left for the races, using long-standing banking relationships to acquire new franchises, including another Chevrolet dealership on Airline Drive in Metairie, the Ford on veterans and others out of state.
He followed a strategy of spotting dealers who might be suffering from the “third generation curse,” when a family owner has lost interest, or for a recent change in ownership, such as a widowed second wife, who might be eager to sell.
But growing up, some of Bowers’ media tactics rubbed his fellow car dealerships the wrong way and put him on regulators’ radar.
This month, Bowers was fined just under $27,000 by state regulators. This stemmed from a media campaign he waged in 2020 to sell $10 million worth of Chevrolet Tahoes, Suburbans and GMC Yukons that he had acquired from rental franchises Hertz and Avis when they were in severe pain at first. of the pandemic.
The regulator found that Bowers’ advertising blitz on Facebook, YouTube and other outlets offering “distressed” vehicles to “dimes on the dollar” broke rules on what dealers can say about savings on used vehicles and the inventory they own.
According to state documents, the complaints that sparked the investigation were filed by three other area auto dealers, including a current LMVC commissioner.
Bowers, who embraces his image as a brash go-getter, says there was bound to be a backlash for anyone making their way into the auto business.
“Look, I get it. I’m the guy who has his initials on the back of his Gulfstream, not everyone is going to like me,” he said, referring to his private jet.
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Lamarque, who said he didn’t blame Bowers, noted that at one point he was also a dealmaker. He had racked up 18 franchises in the metro area by 2003. But he said it became “like a runaway train” that took him too far from his roots.
“I’m more of a car man,” he says, happier with a scaled-down operation focused on his Ford, Lincoln and Mercedes dealerships, which he hopes to pass on to his 24-year-old son, Ronnie Michael. “They have to see it, smell it and bring this baby home!”
Bowers is heading the other way. “At first I read a biography of Tom Benson and what it took for him to become successful,” he said. “I’ve already decided this: I’m going to go as far as I can until something or someone stops me.”