Talk to Ira Rosenberg for five minutes and you’ll quickly understand why he was so successful as a car salesman.

Rosenberg, the 80-year-old founder of Saco-based Prime Motor Group, is funny, personable and a gifted storyteller. He’s also a tireless worker who never took “no” for an answer.

After nearly six decades working for and then owning dealerships, Rosenberg announced his retirement in October. His son, David Rosenberg, now leads the business as CEO of Prime, which operates 30 dealerships in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

The Maine Sunday Telegram asked Ira Rosenberg to reflect on his early days in the business, how the industry has changed since then, and how he feels about retirement. (Spoiler alert: He doesn’t like it.)

Q: How did you get started in the car business?

A: I started in the car business (in 1960) changing tires in a used-car lot at a Chevrolet dealership in Cambridge (Massachusetts). After about four months there, my hands were getting dirty and I couldn’t keep them clean, and I decided this wasn’t for me. So I went to the boss and I said, “I’m leaving,” and he says, “Nope, you’re going to go into the service department office.” So I went into the service department office, and I had control of a guy there that was a drunk. And I mean a cheap, wino drunk. So my job was to find all the bottles, throw them away, pick him up, bring him home, and make sure there were no more bottles left in the office. And he would find all kinds of spaces to hide them. So then, after a few months of that, I couldn’t handle it anymore and I went to the boss and I said, “Listen, I’m through. I can’t stand that guy.” So he says, “OK, you’re going to start selling cars.” He says, “I’m going to teach you how to sell cars, and I’ve got this guy, Silvio Santoni,” who was an old Italian guy who couldn’t write English. He could speak it wonderfully, but he couldn’t write English, so he needed me to write his English to make the order. And he used to sell a lot of cars. He was a great salesman. This was my daily schedule: On the way to work, I used to have to pick up the Telegraph, which was the horse racing form. Then I came in, I brought him coffee, and I brought him the Telegraph, and he used to sit there and decide who he’s going to bet. My job next was to get the list of the horses he wanted to bet, and I had to call it in to the bookie. And then he would teach me how to sell cars in between. Oh, he used to holler at customers, “Get out! You don’t want to pay my price? Get out!”


Q: That doesn’t sound very good. Why did you stick with it?

A: The minute I sold my first car, I knew that it was for me. I loved it. So then I began selling cars and I began to sell Corvettes. We became a big Corvette dealership in Massachusetts, and we used to have most of the Corvette business in New England at that time. And I was the Corvette sales manager, and I loved that. And then pretty soon I met my wife, and she was not too enamored with the car business. She didn’t see a future in it, so I left. We got married, and I went on the road selling advertising, welding rods, you name it. And it wasn’t good. Finally, she’s pregnant in the hospital, and she sees an ad at Sea Crest Cadillac-Pontiac in Lynn (Massachusetts) looking for a salesman. So I went home, dressed up a little bit, and went down to Sea Crest. There was a guy named Tom O’Brien there. He was the general sales manager. He interviewed me and I told him I definitely need the job, and I know the area so well, I know all the people, which was (expletive). He says, “Well, I’ve got a lot of other interviews.” He says, “I think you may be too young,” because all these other guys on the floor – there were five other guys – they were kind of old-timers. By the way, Tom O’Brien turned out to be one of my best friends. So I went out, I went to Dunkin’ Donuts, and I said, “What am I doing? I need that job!” So I got a cup of coffee, brought it back, and years ago they used to have a little couch in the showroom. I’ll never forget this, I sat in that couch for three days. I got friendly with all the guys there, and then one of the owners, Ken Carpi, came over to me and he says, “Are you the young fellow that’s been sitting here for three days?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He was a little afraid to get too close to me in case I was crazy. So he said, “Come into my office.” I went into his office, we sat down and he said, “Let me ask you, where do you want to be when you get older?” I said, “I want your chair.” So he says, “Listen, young fella, either you’re a real wacko, or you’re really good.” He says, “Let’s give you a 30-day chance.”

Q: How did it go once you got the job?

A: For 30 days I worked my (butt) off, and I noticed that my customers would come back, and they weren’t doing business with me. So finally, at the end of 30 days, he asked me to leave. And before I left he says, “Don’t you see? Those salesman are stealing your customers.” I said, “Son of a gun!” So I went down to Dunkin’ Donuts again, right down the street, had a cup of coffee and came back, and I begged him to give me a job. “Give me another 30 days.” So he gave me another 30 days, and the next morning at the sales meeting I was prepared. I said, “Listen, guys. I don’t mind stealing, but anybody steals from me from now on, it’s three for one. I grab three of yours to one of mine.” I said, “You’re welcome to try, but from now on I am going to be worse than you guys ever thought.” I didn’t leave that showroom, and I was raging. I was a raging bull in that showroom. And after 30 days, they gave me a demonstrator (a new model car to promote the dealership). And I worked there for seven years. I was one of the top-producing Pontiac salesmen in New England.

Q: Do you remember the first car you ever sold?

A: The first car was a Chevrolet, a 1970 Chevrolet Impala coupe, turquoise bottom, white painted roof. In those days we had painted roofs.


Q: How has the auto sales business changed from the time you started to today?

A: There’s a lot more transparency in the business today, and the internet is really killing profits. There are books that people can get, and you can go right on the internet and find out what the dealer pays. And most people don’t want to pay more than $25 (above that) for the car. And with that type of profit, you can go broke pretty fast. So that’s changed. But with it came a whole new breed of salespeople. I worked with some pretty nasty guys years ago, but they taught me what not to do. I feel that as an owner, I have tried to clean up the industry with a better reputation, and I really feel my almost 60 years in the car business, I have tried not to hurt anybody, I’ve tried to be straight with everybody. In the car business there’s always things that you can’t control, but under my control, I think we’ve cleaned it up. The car business used to be a tough business. Tough people were in it.

Q: Can you give me an example of how the industry is more customer-friendly today than it used to be?

A: Oh yeah. Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this, but at (the Chevrolet dealership where Rosenberg first worked), we had offices, and every office was bugged. The sales manager would have you go to the customer and try to get the best price and then come back, and we could turn on the thing, and you’d listen to the husband and wife go, “Well I’m not going to pay him any more,” or, “We’ll give him a little more money,” something like that. Well that cleaned up pretty fast. Now we treat customers more professionally. Years ago, a woman came in, you’d say, “Yes, honey, what can I do for you?” Try doing that today. Now women are more inclined to come in to buy a car by themselves because they feel safer. That’s just some of the stuff that’s changed.

Q: What do you think has made you successful in this business?

A: I’m a little different from most of the dealers I know, because I’m on the floor. I love to talk to people. I love to talk to salesmen, to customers, and to try to sell cars in the showroom. A lot of dealers don’t want to be bothered talking to customers. I worked at a dealership selling Pontiacs and Cadillacs at Sea Crest, and the owners never came on the floor, never. So that was one thing I learned not to do. (As a dealership owner) I advertised myself. I used myself as a brand. I was the brand. So when people would recognize me and come over and talk to me, I used to give my card out with my personal telephone to anybody who I could, because I wanted them to talk to me. I’m completely different from a lot of other dealers. A lot of dealers don’t like to go on the floor, and that’s not me.


Q: How do you feel about retirement, and what are your plans?

A: Almost 60 years has gone by so fast. I guess everybody works toward retirement. You look up into the sky and you say, “Here’s that retirement hill. I’m coming up, I’m coming up, I’m gonna be there.” And you get there, and guess what? It’s lonely, you don’t know what to do, and it’s not friendly. So what am I going to do? I really don’t know. I’m not sure I’m through working. I feel I’m a younger 80, and I have a lot of zest, and I have a lot to give to a business. You know, you can only play so much golf. I’ve taken up painting and I’m becoming an artist, but that’s not enough. I’ve got to have people around me. So I don’t know what I’m going to do. My wife suggested that I bag groceries at the supermarket.

Q: Didn’t you retire once before?

A: Uh huh, yep. Eleven years ago I retired, and then unretired. Maybe I could do it a second time. (Laughs.) The only problem is I’m getting older.

Q: What lessons have you learned in your career?

A: All my people know that I have three things for success. One of the things is PMA. Do you know what PMA stands for? Positive mental attitude. It is probably the single most important thing anybody working anywhere in business has. The second is a fire in the belly. I came from a very, very poor family, and I was determined. I wasn’t jealous of the rich kids, but I wanted to be like them. I was not great in school, so school didn’t attract me. I quit high school in my senior year and went into the Navy during (the Korean War). So the second thing is a fire in the belly and a fierce determination to succeed. And third is YCDBSOYA. You can’t do business sitting on your (butt).

Q: Do you have any other thoughts as you reflect on your career?

A: I was so happy that when I went to go back to work (after the first retirement), I’m glad I picked Maine. Otherwise I might never have made it. Maine is one of the finest states that you can do business in. The people are fine, for the most part. I’ve enjoyed a great last 10, 11 years there, and met some fabulous people. I just wish I had grown up in Maine.


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