Professional Community for Car Dealers, Marketing, Advertising and Sales Leaders
This Automotive Digital Marketing Professional Community and Network is dedicated to Thomas Lesard...
Tom was a giant of a man, who was also my boss from 1982 to 1984 while I worked for the De La Fuente Automotive Group in San Diego, CA.
Mr. Lesard taught me many profound lessons about how to run a car dealership. My first General Manager position was thrust upon me when I was 25 years old and had been in the car business for two years... Yeah, I know... Crazy, but there were many complicated circumstances. For example, the dealership DBA was "D'Imports" and it had franchises for Honda, VW, Porsche, Audi and Peugeot... All under one roof. The facility was located next to the Imperial Valley Airport just outside of El Centro, CA. There was a California Highway Patrol Barracks adjoining the property, which resulted in many interesting escapades involving me, my Porsche 911 demo, various CHP Officers and abandoned highways running through the most God forsaken desert I have ever seen, before or since.
When the De La Fuente Family first hired Tom Lesard, he was somewhat of a legend because of what he had accomplished with several dealerships in the Apple Valley of California and the way he pulled business from the population centers to his West, which were East of Los Angeles.
Tom Lesard flew his highly modified, hot rod Twin Turboprop, pressurized cabin Beechcraft Baron private aircraft out to the Imperial Airport about once every ten days and would spend the whole day with me teaching me how to read financial statements in a manner that was part science and part art... The analysis and quick ratios Tom taught me in 1982 I still use to this day. His insights and hundreds of hours he invested in mentoring me, teaching me and coaching me are what really shaped what was to become my future success in the car business.
One day, in May of 1983, about 9 months after Tom Lesard started flying his plane out from San Diego to coach me, and while we were having dinner at "The Buick" Restaurant in downtown El Centro, I thanked Tom for teaching me so much over the prior 6 months. I asked him how I could ever repay him. Tom was a giant of a man who had played college football, was drafted by the NFL and then had his career end before it ever got started due to an injury during his first rookie training camp. He scrunched up his NFL Linebacker face, leaned his massive shoulders forward to shift his 6' 6" towering torso towards me, as if to create a sound block... He started to speak to me so quietly it was almost a whisper... I had to lean towards him to hear what he was saying;
"Ralph, I have a very real and extremely serious commitment I want you to swear on your life that you will execute... I want you to promise me something, and have absolutely no doubts in your mind that YOU WILL EXECUTE YOUR MISSION!"
He started to raise his voice in the middle and was getting pretty darned loud on those last 5 words...
At this point he was glaring at me, eyes wide open and it seemed to me he was pissed off... I was already regretting my question. I responded in the type of shaky, quivering voice a 25 year old produce guy from Buffalo would be expected to have when placed into a role he was sorely unqualified to be in;
"Uhhhh... well... ah, mmmm... ahem... I don't know what you are going to ask for, but as long as I don't have to sacrifice one of my two baby girls, huh huh... I think I can handle whatever it is you want done..."
Tom did not seem to find any humor in my lame ass attempt to be funny... He went on to say;
"Ralph, I have given you an eduction that is worth far beyond what you could possibly understand at this point in your career... I am going to demand that you make me a promise. Some day, after you have made your mark in the car business, you will have the opportunity to take some young punk who doesn't know jack about the car business, under your wings and give to him the same type of coaching and guidance I have given you. And when that opportunity arises, I want you to say a prayer and thank God that you have the opportunity to take the gifts I have given to you and bestow them on the next generation of leaders that come into this business, after you have had your run..."
It was one of those truly bizarre moments that I believe most of us have at various points in our lives, when I inherently realized exactly what he was talking about... Felt a sense of spirituality that overshadowed and dwarfed my minds attempt to apply logic and reasoning. Tom was looking into my eyes as if he could see my soul... Then he started to speak again. He maintained his lock on my eyes like some sort of Klingon tractor beam... I could not look away. He went on to say;
"You are the fifth young car guy I have taken a personal interest in... With those two baby girls you have, I am sure you made good use of the $2,000 a month raise I gave you six months ago. The reason I did that is because Roque (the owner) knew you were so eager to prove yourself, that he took advantage of you. He sent you out here, from San Diego, to this hell hole of a cockroach infested, insecticide drenched piss poor excuse for a town, at a fraction of the pay that anyone else would insist on getting.
I don't tolerate that bullshit approach to using people, and never will. It is a sin for a multimillionaire to pay his people that are making him rich, less than what anyone would need to support their family at a decent standard of living... I want you to never forget what I did for you, and to promise me that, in the future when you see a good man or woman getting screwed by a pay plan that was concocted by somebody a lot shrewder and more treacherous than them, you will do whatever you can to make it right... OK?"
I nodded and simply said "Yes sir"
Tom took a sip of his iced tea (no alcohol within ten hours of flying) and went on to explain;
"Here's the way this deal works... You are the fifth person I have taken under my wings and shown what to do. I am committed to helping five more people become successful in the car business before I retire. I want you to feel a profound obligation to mentoring at least as many people in your career as I have. You have the advantage of starting at a much younger age.'
"And, if for any reason i cannot complete my ten mentoring commitments... If I get run over by a bus... If my wife finally lives up to her threats and cuts my balls off so I bleed to death... If for any reason I cannot complete my mission to pay it forward ten times over... Then YOU must complete my shortfall, on top of your own... You got that? Because this is the way this deal works!"
By then, the whole scenario was seeming pretty weird to me... I was thinking religious cults and wondering what i had gotten myself into. We finished our meal, left the restaurant and I drove Tom back to the airport, watched him climb into the cockpit of his plane while thinking how small his briefcase looked next to this hulking giant of a man.
A month later, Tom Lesard asked me to pack my family up, move back to San Diego and take a GSM job at our dealer group's Subaru dealership... Within two months, as he had promised, he moved me back to the Kearny Mesa VW store where I had started my car sales career less than 3 years earlier. At the age of 26 I was the GSM of one of the top 5 volume Volkswagen dealerships in America, and by far the #1 Peugeot dealership in the country.
One rainy day in November 2003, one of my Finance Managers, a beautiful young woman who had moved to San Diego from Hawaii, came up to the sales tower and shared a situation with me. It seemed that her father and brother had flown from Honolulu from Los Angeles and had missed their commuter flight from LAX to San Diego. We were discussing her options, such as me lending her a VW Quantum Syncro, since she drove a classic 1969 Chevy Camaro that was terrible on rain slicked roads... Tom Lesard came down from the corporate office on the second floor and walked up to the sale tower. he asked what was going on, and when he heard my Finance Manager tell her story about her father and brother being stuck at LAX he said;
"C'Mon, we'll go fire up my Baron, and be up at LAX in less that an hour, pick up your dad and brother and have you all back here in Kearny Mesa in time for dinner..."
She asked if it was OK to fly in the rain and Tom flashed that big Cheshire cat grin of his, which kind of made his eyes squint shut and flared his nostrils. He described with much pride and bravado how he flies in far worse weather than the benign cloud cover and rainfall with little wind that was coming down at the time. He went on to tell her about his investment in all new avionics, plus that he was instrument certified... I remember thinking to myself "What a great boss to be working for..."
Later that evening, I was still on the desk a couple hours after our scheduled closing time, trying to make a late night last deal of the day. It was a dark and drizzly night, rain coming straight down. The desk phone rang, which seemed odd for that late at night and I answered. It was Nelly Timothy, our corporate controller... She was choking back tears when she told me that the Kearny Mesa General Aviation Airport security team had called her as she was on the emergency contact list Tom Lesard had turned in at the airport. They cal;led to tell her that Tom had crash landed his plane in a grassy field between rows of subdivision homes in Tierrasanta, near the airport. I am not sure I remember too accurately what happened right after that... I saw all manner of fire trucks and emergency vehicles flying southbound past the dealership on Highway 163 with lights on and sirens wailing... Phone call after phone call...
I told one of my guys to take charge of the showroom because I was going to the site of the crash. I drove my demo to about 2 blocks from where Tom had crashed, before I ran into the police and fire department cordons... Got out of my car, left it parked in the street, started running through people's backyards to try and get closer... I got knocked down by a cop and started blabbering that I was looking for my boss's plane. As he helped me up off the grass, he explained that the survivors had been taken to Scripps Memorial, and the coroner was dealing with the fatalities. I felt sick... I was hyperventilating, sweating profusely, soaking wet with grass stains all over my white dress shirt. The cop asked me where my car was, and then told me I better move it before it becomes a hazard and causes an accident.
I drove back to the dealership where about a dozen of us stayed all night waiting for word from Tom's wife, or anyone, on who was alive, who had died, etc. As it turned out, Tom was the only one of the three who lived long enough to be hospitalized. He had hit the power lines near the airport with his landing gear down while on approach. Something had malfunctioned with the airport's Radio Frequency pilot triggered runway lights, so he had been attempting to land without the marker lights on the sides of the runway. Tom crash landed the plane into a long and narrow field between two rows of houses. According to witnesses, none of the 4 people in the plane were injured by the impact. Tom had managed to belly land the plane, sliding a couple hundred yards across grassy fields and through a fence... There were at least half a dozen witnesses from the homes. They said that as he opened the cockpit door and it swung upwards, the plane's fuel tank in the wing on Tom's side exploded in a fireball that engulfed the cockpit.
Tom had second and third degree burns over 80% of his body. His lungs were burned as well... He was able to hold a marker and wrote "Yes" when the doctors asked if he would like to be taken off of life support.
The next day, all of us at Kearny Mesa VW endured the painful trauma of watching the wreckage of Tom's beloved Beechcraft Baron being slowly drive past the dealership on a flatbed tractor trailer truck. It was surreal... About 30 of us standing in the front of the showroom as the truck with what was left of Tom's plane crawled past at about 5 MPH.
FAA Crash Report: BEECH 56TC Air Crash
The air crash with the BEECH 56TC happened on 11/11/1983 at 2238 in SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA, USA, causing Destroyed damage to the Airplane. More details on the accident below:
Aircraft details on BEECH 56TC Air Crashed in 11/11/1983 at 2238 in SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA, USA, causing Destroyed damage to the Airplane:
TOTAL: 4 Fatal Injuries
Every day for the next few weeks, I found myself looking out the side of the showroom, over towards Kearny Mesa Subaru, where my Finance Manager's 1969 Chevy Camaro was still parked. Eventually, I had the locksmith make keys for it and parked it our back behind service. About 9 months after the plane crash, her mom called me from Hawaii and asked if i could sell the Camaro and send her the proceeds. We figured out a way to get a duplicate title and took care of it. I seem to recall getting about twice what the car was worth from a wholesaler that always had a big crush on her. He said something about restoring the Camaro and keeping it.
We all moved on... The De La Fuentes brought in Steve Wilhite to replace Tom Lesard, and if the name sounds familiar, it may be because Steve went on to become VP of Sales for VW of America, then VP of Marketing at Nissan before becoming Carlos Ghosn's right hand man in Tokyo, then came back to the US a few years ago to take the role of COO at Hyundai Motor America after Finbarr O'Neill had left. Along the way Wilhite brought me in on many exciting projects as an OEM Consultant... But, I never forgot Tom Lesard and am still working on the 15 people I must help become successful in the car business to cover my ten and the 5 Tom still owed at the time he crashed his plane. I keep losing count.
So... Now you know why ADM is dedicated to Tom Lesard and why I am so motivated to coach, guide, mentor, assist, prod and cajole people to do better in their roles within the auto industry...
Thank you Tom...
30 Years later, it is still the best assignment I have ever had in the car business!
I know that nobody misses Tom as much as his family, but here it is, more than 25 years after he died in a tragic plane crash and I am still making a conscious effort at keeping the promises I made to Tom... Such is the lasting impact of true leaders!
-- Ralph Paglia
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Last updated by Ralph Paglia Dec 20, 2012.