It should have been a fairly dull business arbitration between two New Orleans-area car dealers.
Late last summer, Ronnie Lamarque, the colorful local Ford dealer and part-time crooner, was upset that a rival Ford dealer, Matt Bowers, was looking to relocate just over five miles away from his Williams Boulevard complex in Kenner.
Gathered at a hearing in the Metairie offices of the Louisiana Motor Vehicle Commission were Lamarque and Bowers, with their respective lawyers, along with a host of officials and Ford representatives. When it came time for Lamarque to speak, he made his case a cappella.
“I was born by the river/in a town called Arabi,” he warbled to the melody of Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. “It’s been a long, long time coming/but I know that Ford ain’t gonna bully me.”
His impromptu lyrics also made mention of “Ford’s new fair-haired boy,” a reference to Bowers, as Lamarque argued the proposed dealership was too close to his own.
“I thought the song was a tremendous hit,” said Lamarque, 75, who appeared on “America’s Got Talent” in 2018.
Bowers thought otherwise. “It was insane,” he said, inserting an expletive for emphasis.
The dispute was made moot when Bowers’ potential new location fell through. But the episode was emblematic of a generational shift in the local car business. Bowers, 46, has ruffled a few feathers over the past six years as he quickly assembled a 10-dealer network that hit $1 billion in sales in 2021.
Car dealerships have resulted in some of the more conspicuous business fortunes in South Louisiana over the years, with names made familiar by billboards and television spots: Lamarque, Troy Duhon, Ray Brandt, the Bohn family — who got started four generations ago, in the 1920s — and of course the late Saints owner Tom Benson.
Bowers is now looking to enter the club but with a different style for the social media era.
The Veterans Blvd. relocation was a missed opportunity. He had a deal in place to move across the street and lease out the current site to a home improvement chain for $1.3 million a year.
But he quickly moved on to new deals, which included buying Allen Hyundai in Gulfport, Mississippi, his ninth dealership since he started Matt Bowers Automotive in 2016. He’s just closed on a 10th — the fourth in the New Orleans area — which is awaiting final clearance from the carmaker.
Stephen Walenczak, the Dallas-based manager of Louisiana’s GM dealer network, which includes Bowers’ two New Orleans area Chevrolet dealerships, said few car sellers have been able to grow as fast in the business, which requires considerable upfront capital as well as connections.
“It’s definitely pretty rare that something like that happens,” said Walenczak. “New Orleans and the surrounding area is a unique market. Having someone local from the city is big, it goes a long way, and definitely helped Matt.”
Bowers grew up in Mid-City but spent most of his career out of state. He first came onto the radar of many New Orleanians three years ago when he paid $20,000 for two weeks worth of billboards decrying the infamous “no call” that kept the Saints from advancing past the Rams to the Super Bowl in Atlanta.
The “SAINTS GOT ROBBED” and “NFL BLEAUX IT!” signs on Atlanta-area highways went viral and were featured on all the major national television news channels as well as in publications ranging from The New York Times to Southern Living Magazine.
“There is not any amount of money you could have paid to have that kind of exposure,” said Bowers.
The notoriety lived on in social media, for example when he put up a $25,000 reward for a gang of tire thieves that hit his Slidell Chevrolet dealership. When cops caught the culprits, Bowers was invited to join their photo op because of the role played by his large social media following.
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His charitable efforts get a boost from his association with Saints players, particularly star running back Alvin Kamara, with whom Bowers also has partnered in some of his real estate deals, such as Bienville Villas, a condominium development in Mid-City.
Bowers got started in cars in the late 1990s, when he took a job at Benson’s Nissan dealership in New Orleans instead of going to law school.
Rick Zibilich, who hired Bowers a year later as a finance manager, said Bowers was a young man in a hurry. “I think he has always had visions of being really big,” he said, noting that Bowers quickly turned a $500,000 loss into a $2 million profit at a Gulfport Nissan he was asked to run by Houston-based Group 1 after they’d bought the Bohn Auto group.
“He was then able to convince people to throw their money on the table, which is necessary because this is a very capital intensive business,” said Zibilich.
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A long road to his first dealership was still ahead. Capital is one big hurdle: the average cost of a new dealership is $11 million, with another $4 million of annual running costs needed, according to the National Association of Automobile Dealers.
The tightly-controlled family dealer groups have started to give way somewhat to consolidators like AutoNation, Group 1, and Lithia Motors, each of which have built networks of hundreds of dealerships.
Still, the vast majority of the 17,000 or so car dealerships in the U.S. are part of groups that are fewer than 10 outlets.
Bowers’ break followed a stint in Nashville working for auto dealmaker Terry Taylor, when he partnered with Franklin McLarty, a fourth-generation dealership owner and the son of Mack McLarty, a White House Chief of Staff under President Bill Clinton. When a Chevrolet dealership in Slidell came up for sale, it didn’t fit with McLarty’s plans but he suggested Bowers go it alone.
Bowers was then off to the races, using longstanding banking relationships to acquire new franchises, including another Chevrolet dealership on Airline Drive in Metairie, the Ford on Veterans and others out of state.
He followed a strategy of sniffing out dealerships that could be suffering from the “third generation curse,” where a family owner has lost interest, or for a recent ownership change, like a widowed second wife, who might be eager to sell.
But in the process of growing, some of Bowers’ media tactics have rubbed his fellow car dealers the wrong way and put him on the radar of regulators.
This month, Bowers was fined just under $27,000 by state regulators. It stemmed from a media campaign he ran in 2020 to sell $10 million worth of Chevrolet Tahoes, Suburbans, and GMC Yukons that he had acquired from Hertz and Avis rental franchises when they were suffering badly early in the pandemic.
The regulator found that Bowers’ advertising blitz on Facebook, YouTube and other media offering “distressed sale” vehicles at “dimes on the dollar” had broken rules about what dealers can say about savings on used vehicles and how much inventory they own.
According to state documents, the complaints that triggered the investigation were made by three other area car dealers, including a current LMVC commissioner.
Bowers, who embraces his image as a brash go-getter, says there was bound to be blowback for anyone elbowing their way into the car business.
“Look, I get it. I’m the guy who has his initials on the back of his Gulfstream, not everybody is going to like me,” he said, referring to his private jet.
Lamarque, who said he bears no grudge against Bowers, noted that at one point he also was a dealmaker. He had accumulated 18 franchises in the metro area by 2003. But he said it had become “like a runaway train” that had taken him too far from his roots.
“I’m more of a car man,” he says, happier with a scaled back operation focused on his Ford, Lincoln and Mercedes dealerships, which he hopes to pass to his 24-year-old son, Ronnie Michael. “They’ve got to see it, smell it, and drive that baby home!”
Bowers is headed the other way. “Early on, I read a biography of Tom Benson and what it took him to succeed,” he said. “I’ve already decided this: I’m going to go as far as I can go until something or somebody stops me.”