The journey from civil engineer in Lima, Peru (population 11 million) to dealer principal of a Ford dealership in Morristown, Tenn. (population 30,000) hasn’t always been completely smooth for Jaime Vergara.
“Lima is a big city, there is a lot to do, but coming here it was much quieter. There’s more routine,” Vergara of Morristown Ford explained. “Everything here is closed at 10pm, while in Lima, you are just starting to go out at 10pm.”
But having the opportunity to create his own American dream and raise his family in a close-knit community made the culture shock worth it. “I love the U.S. My family came here every year for vacation as a kid and this is the country I picked,” Vergara said.
Taking a Risk on Tennessee
Vergara emigrated to the United States in 1993 with his wife and three small children due to Peru’s “Lost Decade,” a financial crisis that plagued the country’s economy throughout the 1980s. He started working in a Jeep store in Orlando and was quickly promoted to management. “I didn’t expect to stay there, but I was doing really well,” he said.
In 1998, he enrolled in the Ford Minority Dealer Program and secured his first store in 1999 in Cookeville, Tenn. “I realized after the first year in the program, they put you on a list to buy something when it comes available,” but Vergara had heard of graduates who had been waiting six to seven years for a dealership to become available for purchase. “My chances of having a Ford dealership in Florida were limited, so I talked to my regional Ford contact and said I’m willing to move anywhere.” A month later, Vergara was given the opportunity to buy the dealership in Cookeville. “I’ll be honest, Tennessee wasn’t really a location that most minorities candidates were looking at. For me, it was easy to grab the store,” he explained.
Between 2000 and 2006, Vergara bought out Ford’s 90 percent partnership stake in his Cookeville dealership (for $5 million) and acquired four other dealerships. He also opened a furniture store and an RV dealership, all while commuting between his home in Orlando and his businesses in Tennessee. “I’ve been doing the commute since 1999. My wife calls me a ‘part-time’ husband,” Vergara said while laughing.
Then the 2008 recession hit and Vergara sold all but one dealership. “But I was able to ride the wave,” he said. Later that year, Ford decided to close the Morristown store—which had accumulated $5 million in debt over four years—rather than save it. That’s when Vergara stepped in. “I argued for them to just give me a chance, and if it doesn’t work out, they wouldn’t lose anything.” Ford sold the store to Vergara for just $300,000, plus he took on the previous debt. In 2015, Vergara was able to buy out Ford’s shares and became the sole owner of the Morristown dealership.
Language is No Barrier in Morristown
“As a minority, I’m not really the type who cries or is loud and demanding help because I’m a minority,” Vergara said. “Ford gave me an opportunity, an opportunity that a lot of Americans don’t even have, so I’m very lucky and grateful to them.”
In fact, Vergara believes he is one of the last graduates of the original Ford Minority Dealership Program to still be in business. “We were almost 500 dealerships,” Vergara said. “When they wound it down in 2012, there were only two left in business, mine and another in Pennsylvania.”
Because his Tennessee market isn’t especially diverse, Vergara says he’s never felt that his Hispanic ethnicity was particularly problematic for his dealership. “I’m from Peru, so it’s different. I have friends in California and they want more Hispanic or Mexican dealerships there because that’s what’s in their area, and Spanish speakers feel more comfortable in dealerships where they have Spanish speakers.”
And he finds that Southern hospitality is a real thing, which explains why Vergara is currently putting out feelers to buy another dealership or two in the Southeast region. “I choose a very small town 23 years ago because they were good people,” Vergara noted. “When we first opened, the southern ladies were very friendly, bringing cakes and bread puddings to the dealership. I’ve had a very good experience over there. I don’t regret being in that part of the country, it is beautiful.”
In conjunction with Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 to October 15), this article is part of a series celebrating the Hispanic voices working in the auto retail industry.