When Anthony March met Ernest Hodge in January 1998 in Atlanta, it was a chance for two friends to indulge in one of their favorite, but less frequently enjoyed pastimes, golf. "When I was at General Motors, my handicap was about plus three; now it’s more like plus five or plus seven," says March. On the wall behind his desk is a picture of a lone golfer hitting a long shot across the green. "Next to work, that’s about the only other thing that I do," he says.
Hodge, CEO of the Heritage Automotive Group in Atlanta — No. 16 on the 1998 BE Auto Dealer 100 list with $79.9 million in sales — and March, CEO of Tony March Buick GMC Saturn in Hartford, Connecticut — No. 58 on the 1998 list with $35 million in sales — have been friends since they met at the General Motors Dealer Academy in 1984.
"Something just clicked between us," says March, 48, who sees in Hodge a brother. Ditto for Hodge, also 48, who grew up as the only boy among three sisters. The two had culled a relationship from their days at the academy, and although they’d gone their separate ways afterward, they’d stayed in touch over the years, comparing sales strategies and dealer tales, using each other as a sounding board or for advice.
So when they met at Hodge’s private country club, Eagle Landing, neither was surprised to discover they each had expansion plans in the works for their dealerships, with offers for more deals on the table. As they walked and played the front nine, both wondered out loud how to take advantage of the many opportunities being offered without overextending their companies’ capital reserves and resources.
The two began to think it might be time to go the way of their larger competitors and business trends in general — merger. The duo were treading on turf as new as the freshly manicured lawns on which they were golfing. Never before had two African American dealers brought together their two separate dealerships under one umbrella with one co-management structure. Maybe it was an idea whose time had come.
"This is the first minority holding or management company that’s been put together this way within GM," says Eric Peterson, general director of GM’s Minority Dealer Development program. "Tony and Ernie have had the foresight and understanding [of the changing retail landscape], and joined ranks to establish a holding company that puts them in competition with the big players," explains Peterson.
By the time March and Hodge teed off on the back nine, they had a gentleman’s agreement — "partners." The benefits of merging their two businesses would offer tremendous opportunity, from increased size to lower operating costs. By May 1998, the two companies had formally merged into March/Hodge Holding Co.
For 1998, March/Hodge (No. 4 on the 1999 be auto dealer 100 list) reported sales of $184 million on its