On business culture and giving
“Our mission statement describes a balance. It is a balance between business and a personal, moral and ethical code. "
So Jim Ferman 65BBA preaches a culture of balance at Ferman Automotive Management of Tampa. Ferman, like many successful entrepreneurs, has self-interests, but in his business he allows customers, employees, community and family to ride in the front seat. The sale is not all there is to success. That’s how the Ferman family business, which started with a simple bicycle in 1895, is motoring toward its fifth-generation—a remarkable achievement in U.S. business history.
“Our mission statement describes a balance,” Ferman said. “It is a balance between business and a personal, moral and ethical code. It is a balance between a care and concern for employees’ careers and a care and concern and desire to give back to the communities that we’re part of. I hit the ground running every morning with that balance in mind.”
Ferman, 75, is the CEO of Ferman Automotive Management, a superstructure of finance, human resources, IT, risk management and training for 13 different franchises of cars, motorcycles and trucks under eight general managers. In the hierarchy of the business, Ferman has two sons-in-law who represent the fourth generation of the company. He has six grandchildren who represent the fifth generation and, if the business is passed on to them, it will be astounding. It is estimated that just 13 percent of family-owned businesses survive to the third generation, much less the fourth, or fifth.
“There’s a heightened sense of responsibility in a multigenerational family business,” Jim Ferman said when asked about the pressures of running the company started by his grandfather. “If you look at how many family businesses make it through several generations, the answer is not very many.
“We have an attractive business that has evolved in what has been an evolving business. It’s hard to pick up a business magazine without reading about the disruptors, the autonomous cars and Uber and drive-sharing services and electric cars that will not need much repair. We’re poised to continue.”
"Don’t be afraid to ask a question because you’re afraid the answer might be no.”
Ferman, who was an active member of the Emory Board of Trustees for more than 30 years and is still a trustee emeritus, has personally diversified in business. He is the chairman of the board of the Bank of Tampa, the largest community bank in the city.
There are some hallmarks to Ferman’s business success. Among them: Seize opportunity and pick yourself up after defeat.
In the mid-70s, Ferman and his friend and fellow Emory alum Maynard “Mike” Ramsey III joined to create a company called Applied Medical Research Corporation. Ramsey is a biomedical engineer, and the duo created a blood pressure monitoring device which was bought by Johnson & Johnson.
In 1976, a rival car dealer called to buy an Oldsmobile from Ferman. Ten minutes into the call, Ferman was on his way to owning the man’s Toyota dealership. The man was moving to California and divesting, and Ferman simply asked how much money he wanted for the dealership.
The lesson, he said, “Don’t be afraid to ask a question because you’re afraid the answer might be no.”
Another pivotal moment in Ferman’s career was buying a stake in a company that specialized in machining small metal parts by hand. Within a year the first computerized lathes made Ferman’s company obsolete.
The lesson, he said, “Keep trying, failure isn’t permanent. It’s the next step to something that does work out.”
There are two other centerpieces to Ferman’s success. One was his liberal arts background at Emory.
“The school offered and wanted its graduates to have a broad liberal arts background, in addition to the task and business-oriented courses and studies and abilities,” he said. “It has given me a much broader enjoyment of life, and a perspective on business that’s not simply how do we run a better business. There is real value in not being one-dimensional.”
“He is, by nature, generous. He doesn’t feel a need to control everything. There are lots of men who are not able to do that.”
The other centerpiece to the Ferman empire is Cecelia Ferman 65C, Jim’s wife, who provides plenty of the balance the company strives for. They met in the campus snack bar and were married in 1966. She is a champion in Tampa for the renowned Moffitt Cancer Center, but what is more remarkable is her 30-year stint of driving a route for Meals on Wheels every Wednesday. Her proudest moments were ignoring the early societal stigma around AIDS and delivering meals to patients with the deadly disease.
Her daily creed is borrowed from the theologian John Wesley. “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”
On the longevity of the Ferman family business, Celia has her own opinion why the business is stretching toward five generations. Her husband has allowed other hands on the rudder for steering.
“He is, by nature, generous,” Celia said. “He doesn’t feel a need to control everything. There are lots of men who are not able to do that.”