‘You don’t have to be flexible, you need to be elastic:’ Bob Ross Auto Group celebrates 50 years in business

Jenell Ross is continuing the legacy her father, Robert “Bob” Ross Sr., created and her mother, Norma Ross, helped build with the Bob Ross Auto Group.

This year, the Centerville dealership is celebrating 50 years as a Buick dealer and 45 years selling Mercedes-Benz vehicles.

Bob Ross started the Bob Ross Auto Group on Feb. 22, 1974 in Richmond, Ind., becoming the first Black-owned auto dealer in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia.

He was also the first Black-owned International Harvester Dealer in the U.S. and, a short time later, the first Black-owned Mercedes-Benz dealer in the world, said Jenell Ross, president of the Bob Ross Auto Group, which is located at 85 Loop Road in Centerville.

“He experienced many firsts in the automobile industry,” and all of it started with” the purchase of the dealership where he first started working,” Jenell Ross said.

The dealership had previously been known as Vivian Buick and Opel and International Harvester Trucks, where Bob Ross had worked as a lot attendant.

When Bob Ross was 18, he joined the U.S. Army, and he married his wife, Norma Jean Henderson, on Sept. 4, 1954. He also worked at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the former Defense Electronics Supply Center.

He became a salesman for Shannon Buick in Dayton in 1962, later participating in and graduating from the first General Motors Minority Dealer Academy. He also received an associate’s degree from the University of Detroit.

In 1979, Bob Ross purchased Davis Buick and Mercedes-Benz in Centerville, later purchasing a GMC truck franchise in 1982.

Jenell Ross worked at the dealership as she grew up, but she took on a formal position at the business after she graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Emory University in Atlanta. She also completed the General Motors Dealer Management Development Program and graduated from the National Automobile Dealers Association Dealer Candidate Academy.

From there, she had nearly six years of working with her father before he died on July 6, 1997 in Centerville.

Jenell Ross said she was grateful for those nearly six years working under his oversight.

“It allowed me the opportunity to learn, but gain the respect of his management team, who was very tenured, seasoned and knowledgeable about the automobile business, and our organization,” she said.

Following the death of her father, she, in partnership with her mother, Norma, and brother, Robert Jr., served as the executive management team until Norma died in April 2010 from breast cancer.

The knowledge and seniority of the dealership’s team, along with the support from the community and the car manufacturers they represent, helped with the transitions in leadership, she said.

She also attributed the success of the family business to her parents and to those who worked for them. Currently, they have nearly 90 employees, a number of whom have spent years or decades with the Bob Ross Auto Group.

“My dad always made sure that we understood that who we have on our team helps to make us successful, because without a successful team, it doesn’t matter what product or service you’re trying to sell if you don’t have the right people in place,” Jenell Ross said.

Technology has been the biggest driver in change in the dealership industry that she has seen while at the Bob Ross Auto Group.

“The industry was much different in the late 90s compared to where we are today,” Jenell Ross said.

Her father never had a computer, but the auto group has continued to follow and adapt as the technology evolved.

“He thought the internet was going to be a fad when we needed to get a website,” she said. “...Then you think about where we are now. Now we’re talking about AI, and everything is being digital.”

Technology continues to reshape the industry, Jenell Ross said, just as they’re continuing to follow new trends.

“Something my mother always said was, in the car business, you don’t have to be flexible, you need to be elastic,” Jenell Ross said. “You have to be nimble and change when change is needed.”

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