Jerry Cohen remembers offering Jack Fitzgerald his first job selling cars in 1956, when Cohen was an assistant sales manager of a dealership on Georgia Avenue in Northwest Washington, D.C.
Cohen, who later founded Jerry’s Ford and Jerry’s Chevrolet in the metropolitan area, says he was in need of a salesman “when this unassuming schlub came through the door” looking for work. The 20-year-old Fitzgerald said he knew about cars and needed a job, says Cohen, who decided to hire him.
“He turned out to be my best hire, our ace in the hole,” Cohen, now 89, says of the young man who worked long hours and came in late at night to sell just one more car in order to meet monthly sales targets. “The kid was like a submarine—you never knew where he would come up.”
More than 65 years later, Fitzgerald is still working hard, now as head of an auto sales empire with 1,700 employees and 25 Fitzgerald Auto Mall dealerships in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Florida. In Montgomery County, the company owns dealerships in Wheaton, Rockville, Gaithersburg and Germantown. Though Fitzgerald will turn 86 in September, the Rockville resident continues to work every day, arriving at his dealership on Rockville Pike by 7:30 a.m. after attending church, ready to make sure his staff practices the key to being successful salespeople. “The customer will tell you what he or she wants,” he says. “Our job is satisfying those desires.”
Growing up in Northeast D.C. after World War II, Fitzgerald says he was smitten with twin passions: cars and making money. His hero was Hollywood rebel James Dean, who wore a pompadour and drove a 1949 Mercury coupe. Fitzgerald got his first car—a 1936 Ford V-8 that didn’t have a heater—when he was in high school.
Fitzgerald says he barely made it through high school, struggling academically at St. Aloysius School and then St. John’s College High School before finally graduating from D.C.’s McKinley Technology High School. “I worked hard in school, I really did, but I wasn’t getting good grades,” says Fitzgerald, who didn’t go to college and was diagnosed as an adult with dyslexia. Even today he runs his finger along each line while reading to make it easier.
By age 11, Fitzgerald had discovered a knack for selling, and his father, John, encouraged his son’s interest in sales. By the time Fitzgerald graduated from high school, he had saved several hundred dollars he’d earned by selling greeting cards, vacuum cleaners, shoes, encyclopedias and even fire alarms door to door.
In 1966, 10 years after Cohen hired him as a car salesman, Fitzgerald, 31, and his partner at the time, Bob Dowd, put up $90,000 for a Dodge dealership with a one-car showroom in Bethesda. As his auto empire grew locally, Fitzgerald gambled on expanding into Florida in 1989 after one of his best sales managers moved there. Fitzgerald found a distressed dealership in Clearwater on the Gulf Coast near Tampa and hired his former sales manager to run it. Today, there are five Fitzgerald dealerships in Clearwater.
Fitzgerald achieved national prominence in 2009, when General Motors and Chrysler were moving through bankruptcy. The two automakers planned to close more than 2,600 dealerships, including several that Fitzgerald owned. Convinced that GM and Chrysler were making dealers scapegoats for manufacturing failures, Fitzgerald led a media blitz to reverse the automakers’ action.
Armed with Consumer Reports data showing that the automakers lagged far behind their Japanese competitors in quality, Fitzgerald joined forces with Tammy Darvish, then of Darcars Automotive Group, another local car dealer that was one of the largest in the country. Together they created a nationwide coalition of dealers and spent weeks lobbying Congress to convince lawmakers to roll back the automakers’ action.
Darvish, now president of U.S. operations for AutoCanada, says Fitzgerald is a master at bringing people together. “We knocked on every door, seeing almost every member of Congress, telling them dealers were vital to local communities,” she says.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Kensington, who was then a congressman representing Maryland’s 8th District, credits Fitzgerald with leading the fight for the franchise protection legislation. “Jack successfully fought to defend dealers against unfair and abusive practices of the big auto manufacturers,” Van Hollen says.
Though Fitzgerald remains in charge as CEO, three family members co-own and help run the company. When Fitzgerald bought that first dealership in Bethesda, his sister, Dottie, now 73 and his only sibling, dropped out of college and began working as a switchboard operator there. She and Fitzgerald’s son, John III, along with his stepson, Bill, are shareholders and members of the board of directors.
Twice a month or so, Fitzgerald flies two hours in his private jet—a 2004 Beech Premier with a tail registration ending with his initials, “JF”—to Clearwater to check on his dealerships. Fitzgerald has owned four planes since 1965 and still maintains his flying license, but these days a corporate pilot handles that responsibility.
“Sometimes he’s in the service department, sometimes he’s on the lot going over used cars. He always wants to know what is selling and what customers are talking about,” Eric Coffey, president of the Clearwater operations, says about Fitzgerald’s visits. “Jack has unmatched instincts, and I’ve learned that when he speaks, I need to listen.”
As Fitzgerald built his business over the years, he says he kept in mind the best advice he ever received, which came from the manager of the meat department at a neighborhood grocery store where, at 11 years old, he stocked shelves. “Jackie,” the manager told him, “in this world, you get paid for what you know.”
“I’m proof of the American dream,” says Fitzgerald, reflecting on his success. “It all depends on what you choose to do with your life.”