Leaders We Encounter Who Change Our Lives
Why is the Automotive Digital Marketing Professional Community dedicated to some guy named Thomas Lesard? On the 29th Anniversary of his passing, I wanted to take a moment to share my experience with this car guy who left a deep impression on me, and explain why…
Thomas C. Lesard was a giant of a man, who was also my boss from 1982 to 1984 while I worked for the De La Fuente Automotive Group in San Diego. Mr. Lesard taught me many profound lessons about how to run a car dealership.
My first general manager position was thrust upon me when I was 25 years old and had been in the car business for two years. The dealership DBA was “D’Imports” and it had franchises for Honda, VW, Porsche, Audi and Peugeot, all under one roof, which was next to the Imperial Valley Airport just outside of El Centro, CA. There was a California Highway Patrol Barracks adjoining the property.
Tom Lesard flew his Twin Turboprop Beechcraft Baron out to the Imperial Airport about once every ten days. He would spend the day showing me how to read financial statements in his unique manner, which was part science and part art… He taught me many analysis techniques and quick ratios that I still use to this day. His insights and the hours he invested in mentoring, teaching, and coaching me shaped my future in the car business.
In May of 1983, while we were having dinner at “The Buick” Restaurant in downtown El Centro, I thanked Tom for teaching me so much and asked I could ever repay him. Tom was a big man who had played college football, he scrunched up his suddenly stoic linebacker game face, leaned his massive shoulders forward to shift his towering 6′ 6″ frame towards me, and spoke so quietly it was almost a whisper; I had to lean towards him to hear what he was saying;
“Ralph, I have a serious commitment I want you to make and execute. I want your promise that there be no doubts in your mind that you will execute your mission!”
He started to raise his voice in the middle and was glaring at me, eyes wide open. It seemed to me that he was angry; I was already regretting my question. He went on:
“Ralph, I have given you an education that goes far beyond what you understand at this point in your career. I am going to demand that you promise to pay me back. Someday, you will have the opportunity to take someone under your wings and give to him the same type of coaching and guidance I have given you. When that happens, I want you to say a prayer and thank God that you have the opportunity to take the gifts I have given to you and bestow them on the next generation of leaders that come into this business.”
Tom looked me in the eyes as if he could see my soul. I could not look away when he said:
“You are the fifth rookie I have taken a personal interest in. I am sure you made good use of the $2,000 a month raise I gave you six months ago. I did that because Roque (the owner) knew you were eager to prove yourself, and he took advantage of you. He sent you here from San Diego, to this hell hole of a cockroach infested, insecticide drenched poor excuse for a town, at a fraction of the pay anyone else would insist on.
I don’t tolerate that approach, and never will. It is a sin for a multimillionaire to pay his people less than what is needed to support their family…You will never forget what I did and promise me that, when you see someone getting screwed by somebody a lot shrewder and more treacherous than them, you will do whatever you can to make it right…OK?”
I nodded and simply said, “Yes sir”
Tom took a sip of his iced tea (no alcohol within ten hours of flying) and went on to explain:
“Here’s the way this deal works: You are the fifth person I have taken under my wings and shown what to do. I am committed to helping five more people become successful in the car business before I retire. I want you to feel an obligation to mentoring at least ten people in your career. You have the advantage of starting at a much younger age.
If for any reason I cannot complete my 10 mentoring commitments, if for any reason I cannot pay forward what I have been given at least ten times over, then YOU must complete my shortfall, on top of your own…You got that? Because this is the way this deal works!”
We finished our meal, left the restaurant and I drove Tom back to the airport, watched him climb into the cockpit of his plane. A month later, Tom Lesard asked me to pack my family up, move back to San Diego and take a GSM job at our Subaru dealership…Two months later, as promised, he moved me back to the Kearny Mesa VW store where I had started my car sales career less than three years earlier. At the age of 26 I was the GSM of a top five sales volume VW dealerships, and the number one Peugeot dealership. In a good month, we sold over 300 cars.
On a rainy day in November 2003, my finance manager, a young woman from Hawaii, came to the sales tower and shared her situation with me. Her father and brother had flown from Honolulu to Los Angeles, but missed their commuter flight from LAX to San Diego. As we discussed her options, Tom walked up to the sale tower. When he heard the story, he said:
“C’mon, we’ll go fire up the Baron, be at LAX in less than an hour, pick up your dad and brother and have you all back here in time for dinner.”
She asked if it was OK to fly in the rain and Tom described with great pride how he flies in far worse weather than the benign cloud cover and gentle rainfall that was coming down at the time.
Later that evening, I was still at the desk a couple hours after our scheduled closing time. It was a raining. Nelly Timothy, our controller called me; The Kearny Mesa Airport called her because she was on Tom’s emergency contact list. Tom had crashed his plane in a field between subdivisions in Tierrasanta. I don’t remember what happened after that very well—I saw emergency vehicles flying southbound on Highway 163, lights on and sirens wailing; I asked someone to lock down the dealership because I was going to the crash site. I got within two blocks, before I ran into the police and fire department cordons…I drove back to the dealership where a few had stayed waiting for word on what had happened. By then it was all over radio and TV news reports: Three passengers were dead at the scene, Tom hospitalized in critical condition. Tom had second and third degree burns over 80 percent of his body. He was able to hold a marker and wrote “Yes” when the doctors asked if he would like to be taken off life support.
The next day, we endured the trauma of watching the wreckage of Tom’s beloved Beechcraft being slowly driven past the dealership on a flatbed tractor trailer. It was surreal; A small crowd stood in the showroom as the truck with what was left of Tom’s plane crawled past at about five MPH.
I will never forget Tom Lesard and I am still working on the 15 people I must help become successful in the car business to cover my ten and five for Tom still owed at the time he crashed his plane. I keep losing count.
Now you know why ADM is dedicated to some guy named Tom Lesard and why I am motivated to coach, guide, mentor, assist, prod, and cajole people to do better in their roles within the auto industry.
Thank you Tom; 30 Years later, it is still the best assignment I have ever had in the car business!
Ralph Paglia is vice president of digital for Tier 10 Marketing and editor-in-chief of the Automotive Digital Marketing Professional Community (www.automotivedigitalmarketing.com).