Farr, Mel 1944–
Mel Farr 1944–
As president of the Mel Farr Automotive Group, Mel Farr owns the largest African American-owned automobile dealership group in the United States, according to Black Enterprise magazine’s annual rankings. Farr, who was once a pro football player for the Detroit Lions, oversees a chain of Ford, Lincoln-Mercury, and Toyota dealerships spread across five states with over $600 million in sales. Farr also presides over one of the most successful car dealership chains in the country, and holds the top spot on Black Enterprise’s list of Industrial/Service companies in its annual rankings of African American-owned businesses. Farr entered the automobile business at a time when there were only a handful of new-car dealerships owned by African Americans and Hispanics, and has been credited with paving the way for increased minority ownership among domestic car dealers. He credited his skills as a professional athlete for his future success as an automobile dealer. “It takes an extreme amount of effort to go out there and apply your training on the football field,” Farr told Burt Herman in the Detroit Free Press in 1997. “It takes an extreme amount of effort to be an African American and be very successful at this thing.”
Farr was born in 1944 in Beaumont, Texas where his father, a truck driver, eventually owned and operated his own used-car lot. His mother was a domestic worker who tried in vain to keep her sons from roughhousing. However, Farr and his brother willfully ignored her pleas to keep away from touch football games, and both would soon emerge as talented high school players. Farr was a standout at Herbert High, and won a football scholarship to the University of California at Los Angeles. He began his career at UCLA in 1963, and was twice named to the All-American team. Farr left UCLA before graduating to pursue a pro career, and he became the Detroit Lions’ number-one draft pick in 1967.
After relocating to the Motor City, Farr was signed to a three-year, $94,000 contract. He quickly demonstrated his value to the Lions, who were owned by members of the Ford family, scions of the automotive dynasty. In his first season, Farr was named the National Football League’s Rookie of the Year, and was selected to the Pro Bowl. Following the stunning successes of his rookie season, Farr attempted to renegotiate his contract.
At a Glance…
Born 1944, in Beaumont, TX; son of a car dealer and a domestic worker; married since the mid-1960s; wife’s name, Mae; children: Mel Jr., Michael, Monet. Education: Attended the University of California at Los Angeles, 1963–66; University of Detroit, B.S., 1970.
Career: Played pro football for the Detroit Lions, 1967–74; affiliated with Ford Motor Company’s Minority Dealer Development Program, Dearborn, Ml, 1968–75; became co-owner of Cook-Farr Ford, Oak Park, Ml, 1975, became sole proprietor of Mel Farr Ford, 1978.
Addresses: Office— Mel Farr Automotive Croup, 24750 Greenfield Rd., Oak Park, Ml 48237.
However, the Lions refused to negotiate. “I got $500 for being Rookie of the Year,” Farr told Hiawatha Bray in Black Enterprise. “That’s all.”
Realizing that his career as a pro athlete would eventually come to an end, Farr went back to college and earned a bachelor of science degree in 1970 from the University of Detroit. When he was a teenager, Farr often spent weekends scouting junkyards for good deals for his father’s used-car dealership, or by assisting in other ways. “The car business has been in my blood all my life,” Farr told the Detroit Free Press in 1997. When the Ford Motor Company offered him a choice of two off-season jobs, doing public-relations work for Ford’s racing division or a lower-paying post with its recently created minority dealer development program, Farr opted for the latter. He spent the next several years in the development program. “As an African-American, I could see being an auto dealer,” Farr told Herman in the Detroit Free Press. “As an African-American, I could not see being a coach in the National Football League, because there weren’t any.”
There were also very few African American new car dealers in the late 1960s. Ford’s minority dealer development program aimed to correct this imbalance within its ranks. It offered a training program with classes and on-the-job experience at a dealership, and Farr, having completed the program himself, then recruited candidates for it. The company then provided financing to program graduates so that they could open their own sales franchises. Working for Ford during the off-season also helped Farr in his athletic career. “I thought it made me a better football player,” Farr told Bray in Black Enterprise. “I had that fulfillment of learning something else, so I could go out and play with reckless abandon. If I got hurt, I knew I could do something else.”
Indeed, Farr’s years on the gridiron began to catch up with him, and he was often sidelined with injuries. During his career with the Lions, Farr continually saved money so that he could purchase his first dealership. Upon his retirement from pro football in 1974, Farr approached the executives of the minority dealer development program and expressed his desire to start his own business. Ford executives, however, felt that he still lacked the necessary experience, and so Farr went into business with a mentor, John Cook. With a $40,000 investment, the two men opened Cook-Farr Ford in Oak Park, a suburb of Detroit.
The location selected by Farr and Cook had been the site of two failed car dealerships, and their business partnership soon became untenable. He and Cook disagreed over marketing strategies, and Farr was eventually able to buy Cook’s share of the business in 1978. However, he soon realized that he had made a mistake. “I thought I was buying a profitable business,” Farr told Bray in Black Enterprise, but instead found “I had bought a company that was on the verge of bankruptcy.” Still, he became just one of over two dozen African American new car dealers in the country at the time.
Farr and his new business were soon faced with several other daunting challenges: oil prices in the United States rose dramatically, Ford produced few of the fuel-efficient economy cars that customers demanded, and a massive recession overtook the Michigan economy. As plant closings and layoffs became widespread, new car sales plummeted in the Detroit area. In 1980, Farr could barely meet his payroll. He was forced to lay off half of his staff, and brought his teenage sons in to help with the janitorial work on nights and weekends. Fortunately, Farr was able to borrow funds from the Small Business Administration and from the Ford Motor Company that enabled him to stay in business.
During these lean years, Farr and his dealership became known for the company’s inventive television ads. In the first series, Farr put himself in a Superman-style cape and flew over his dealership while trumpeting its bargains in a rapid-fire voice-over. He called himself “Mel Farr, Superstar,” and advertised his “Farr better deals.” He wrote, directed, starred in, and edited the low-budget, comic ads himself, which became a hit with local television audiences. “I was hanging on by my fingernails,” Farr told Chain Store Age Executive. “I had to make myself known.” Another series of ads, which starred a popular Detroit Lions player at the time, Billy Sims, also helped to boost sales.
In 1986, Farr opened his second dealership, a Lincoln Mercury franchise in another suburb. His brother Miller managed the dealership, and both of Farr’s sons also grew into the business. Farr became a Toyota dealer during the late 1980s, but only after several years of haggling with the import automaker. His Bloomfield Hills, Michigan dealership was only the fifth African American-owned Toyota sales franchise in the United States.
Farr went on to acquire or launch dealerships in New Jersey, Ohio, Maryland, and Texas. He also began his own financing company, Triple M Financing, to help low-income buyers who did not qualify for a car loan from the Ford Motor Credit Corporation. His son, Mel Jr., runs the Cincinnati area dealership. Another son, Michael, manages the flagship showroom in Oak Park, and several other relatives are also employed by the company. With his wife Mae, whom he married in the mid-1960s, Farr also has a daughter, Monet.
Farr keeps his father’s original business license for his used-car lot in Beaumont, dated July 8,1960, above his desk. Named Auto Dealer of the Year in Black Enterprise magazine in 1992, Farr has steadily held the top spot in the magazine’s annual rankings of African American dealerships—twenty years after he opened for business, there were over 600 minority-owned dealerships in the United States. In 1997, the Mel Farr Automotive Group was ranked 46th among all of the nation’s top 100 auto dealers, according to Crain’s Detroit Business, and is consistently listed on Black Enterprises list of the Top 100 black-owned businesses in the country.
In addition to his stellar pro football career and his tremendous financial success in an industry where minority representation has been hard-won, Farr can also boast one other claim to fame: he sang backup on the Marvin Gaye hit “What’s Going On.” He and another Lions player, Lem Barney, were playing golf one day with the famous Motown singer when he came up with the melody; Farr and Barney liked it and urged Gaye to record it, but Gaye told them he would only do it if they helped out. “I guess I’ve done a little bit of everything— a lucky guy,” Farr told Herman in the Detroit Free Press.
Black Enterprise, June 1992, p. 154; June 1999, pp. 131–138.
Chain Store Age Executive with Shopping Center Age, December, 1997, p. 68.
Detroit Free Press, November 2,1997; May 11,1999.
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