At the Wheel of a Family Legacy: Elizabeth Gillespie

Growing up, Elizabeth Tobin Gillespie, president of the largest Ford dealership in Texas owned by a woman, didn’t envision a Ford as her future.

“I assumed I’d grow up, get married, join the Junior League and have babies. Women back then didn’t really work outside the home. That’s what they did: they went to school, got married and had children,” she says. “Actually I was in college when I decided I wanted a career in business.”

To her, business meant the Gillespie Ford dealership that her grandfather, Frank M. Gillespie, established in 1925. Coincidentally, the fledging dealership was located at 720 E. Houston on land that now is the site of the Alamo gardens and museum. Elizabeth Gillespie, a descendant of the Canary Islanders who established a colony in San Antonio in the 1700s, says that her great-great-great-grandfather, John Smith, was an Alamo messenger during the siege in 1836 and later became San Antonio’s first mayor.

“I grew up around the dealership,” Gillespie says, recalling Saturday visits, new-model introduction parties and summer jobs in the office, working for her father, Frank Gillespie Jr., and her uncle, Jimmy Gillespie, who inherited the dealership in 1946.

Nevertheless, when she began considering the possibility of going into the business, her father didn’t think she was really serious about it. She recalls his response: “Oh, baby, you don’t want to work in the car business; it’s too tough.”

But Gillespie, the youngest of three daughters, had been raised by her parents to be independent. “They encouraged us to do our own thing. They didn’t try to mold us,” she says.

After she earned her bachelor’s degree from Trinity University and a master’s in business administration from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 1979 and had worked for almost a year at USAA, her father finally decided she was serious about a business career. He welcomed her into the dealership, which over the years had been moved to several locations on Broadway.

When her father died, in 1989, she left her position as manager of the Gillespie Ford leasing company and began working with her uncle as a dealer principal. Seven years later, when her uncle died, she took sole responsibility for daily operation of the company. It was important to her that Gillespie Ford continue as a family-owned business, and she had full support from the company’s employees and from Ford Motor Co.

“Even 25 years ago, the manufacturer was becoming aware of the importance of women in sales. Having some women at Ford made it easier for me,” she says.

Gillespie shares ownership of the company with her sister Zelime Matthews and her cousin Claire Inglish, both of whom are artists, and her sister Paula Gossett, who lives in New York City. All three serve on the Gillespie Motor Co. board of directors, but they are not actively involved in day-to-day operations.

Frank Gillespie may have been right when he warned his daughter that the car business was tough, but she has proved that not only can she survive, she can thrive. Gillespie Ford was No.1 in sales volume in the city for a decade beginning in 1975, but sales figures declined when the heart of San Antonio’s business began to shift in the 1980s from downtown to the north.

In 1993, Ford Motor Co. was keen to establish a dealership in northwest San Antonio. Although Gillespie’s uncle, who was ill at the time, considered relocating to that area quite risky, she believed it was a necessity and set about putting the change in motion. On July 4, 1993, Gillespie Ford threw open its showroom doors at 7111 N.W. Loop 410.

“It was scary making a move, but we had to do it in terms of survival, and it turned out to be the best decision I ever made. Car sales doubled in the first month, and for eight of the nine years since 1995 Gillespie Ford has ranked first in Ford sales in San Antonio,” she explains.

“I’m a numbers person,” Gillespie says, and she has credentials to prove it. In 2003, Gillespie Ford ranked 38th throughout Ford’s 5,120 new-car dealerships. Among those dealerships, women have ownership interest of 25 to 30 percent or more in only 324. “Despite Ford’s active recruitment efforts, roughly only 40 of those women are actually involved with the operations,” says Ford Motor Co. spokesman Mitch Johnson.

Gillespie, the numbers person, believes that number is due to change. “Nearly 70 percent of all car-buying decisions in the United States are made by a woman or influenced by a woman,” she says. “Women have been so good in real estate sales, and I think we’ll see more and more women in car sales. Women are especially sensitive to consumers’ buying needs; that’s why women salespeople do well.”

Oddly enough, the woman whose dealership sells 2,700 cars and trucks a year has never bought a vehicle for herself. Her first car was the Ford Maverick her father gave her when she got her driver’s license. Now she drives demonstrators.

However, she has sage advice for either male or female car buyer: “Do your homework. Research before you buy. The more information you have, the easier the buying experience.” And the place to gather it? The Internet, of course. “The whole Internet thing has really hit the car industry,” she says, adding that everything from color selection, body style and available options to used-car values can be gleaned through Internet research.

Trailblazing has become a habit with Gillespie during the 25 years she has been in the automobile business. When she joined the Downtown Rotary Club in 1987, she was San Antonio’s first female Rotarian. Currently she serves on the Wells Fargo Bank community advisory board and on the community board of the Methodist Specialty and Transplant Hospital. She is a member of the Young Presidents’ Organization. She also has served on the boards of the San Antonio Chapter of Cystic Fibrosis, the Friends of the McNay Art Museum and Saint Mary’s Hall. She was listed among America’s Top 500 women business owners in the 1998 and 1999 Working Women’s Magazine.

She also is on the board of Ford Salute to Education, an organization formed in 1992 by Ford Motor Co. and San Antonio-area Ford and Lincoln Mercury dealers to provide scholarships to local high school students with an interest in auto mechanics.

A past president of the San Antonio Auto Dealers Association, Gillespie is a member of the Ford Dealer Advertising Board, which she served as chairman in 2003. She belongs to Ford’s elite President’s Circle, an international organization consisting of dealers from 32 countries around the world selected by senior management and brand presidents to act as consultants on issues key to the success of the company.

Gillespie also was selected to serve on Ford’s Product Advisory Committee, a group that meets biannually in Detroit to provide input on present and future vehicles being developed by the company. She says one of the most exciting new wrinkles on Ford’s horizon is the new gasoline-miser hybrid that runs virtually silently on electrical power until it reaches 25 mph, when it automatically and seamlessly kicks over to gas power. It is due out this fall.

But Gillespie’s life is not all work and no play. She shares her office with Zazu, a lively cockatiel who dropped from the sky into her backyard eight years ago and has been the company mascot ever since.

Still, she puts in the hours. “I am here in the office from 9 until 5 five days a week. This keeps me busy, being here, making sure it’s done right,” she says. The dealership has 185 employees, some of them hired by her father and even her grandfather. The general sales manager and operations manager report directly to her, but she’s always available to any of the 185 employees who need to speak with her. “I know I can’t do everything, so I give my staff power to make decisions,” she comments. “I want them to feel comfortable talking to me about whatever problems they may have. I put myself in their shoes.”

Three years ago Gillespie married Carl Schenken, owner of a recreational resurfacing business that finishes tennis and basketball courts and installs artificial turf for putting greens. “We’re both golf enthusiasts. We met on the practice range of the San Antonio Country Club. Our first date was playing golf. We also have a beach place in Rockport where we can get away on weekends with Jackson and Buddy, our two yellow labs. My husband and I race around during the week to get everything done before the weekend,” she says. She got a bonus when she married Schenken: “three great stepchildren — Trey, Johnny and Linde, all in their 20s and 30s.”

Does she ever miss the Junior League life she never had? “No, not at all. I’m very proud of what we have accomplished with the company, and I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing. The only problem is getting everything done, but fortunately I’m a list-maker and I can handle it,” she concludes.

Author: Loydean Thomas

Photographer: Liz Garza Williams

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