Some people love cars. Some love the car industry. And some love the people who make up that industry. Diane Maher loves all three, especially during the industry’s recent calamity.
Maher was named by DP Fox Ventures Chairman Dan DeVos as senior vice president, CFO and COO of Fox Motors in April, a volatile time when General Motors and Chrysler were preparing to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and deciding which dealerships would emerge with them and which wouldn’t.
Maher had been gradually moving toward the new position and was the natural choice for the post. She handled the firm’s acquisitions of all its dealerships, starting with the very first: the purchase of Keenan Saab in 2000. She also spent those years working closely with the directors who oversaw the business.
“I think it was a little bit more of a formal affirmation of my role there, than a ‘boom, and now you’re in charge.’ How it’s different is I dedicate more time to improving operations of the dealerships, and I spend a lot more time with those directors than I did before,” she said.
“At DP Fox, we have a few vice presidents in charge of certain business groups and I’ve always been in charge of that business group, as far as I’m the point person here on anything related to dealership matters.”
In only nine years, Fox Motors has grown from being a single Saab dealer to a business with four divisions and 14 locations across the state that sell a balanced mix of domestics and imports.
Maher has played a key role in the company’s growth every step of the way.
“It’s been fun. I’ve loved it. I just love the car business and it has seen some rapid growth since 2000. For the last nine years, we’ve done a lot. We’re the second-largest dealership group in Michigan,” she said.
“I like the employee-development, leadership, people-side of the business the best. I guess what gets me up in the morning are the stories of all the people in the dealership world that I come in contact with who may have started when they were 17, portering cars for some dealership, and now they’re running a division for us,” she added.
Companies: DP Fox Ventures, Fox Motors
“There are stories like that all over — success stories of people who didn’t have the education and the money to get somewhere but they did it anyway. That is really inspiring to me. So I love developing people to get to the next level. I’m trying to do my part to help them get there.”
DP Fox Vice President and General Counsel Monica Sekulich has worked with Maher for 13 years and has been impressed by her accomplishments and the way she has handled herself.
“She is a truly dedicated professional who has been instrumental to DP Fox’s growth and success. She exhibits the highest level of professionalism, commitment and skill in her dual roles of CFO of DP Fox and COO of Fox Motors. And on top of wearing both of those hats, she also juggles an active family life and community service,” said Sekulich.
It may be hard for some men to grasp, but most women probably understand Maher completely when she says her biggest career break was when she became pregnant with her first child. She was an accountant at Deloitte & Touche at the time and the firm’s financial consultant to DP Fox, back when the company was just starting to make its mark in the market.
With a child on the horizon, Maher knew she had to make a career change, because working as a public accountant was too demanding and time consuming while also raising a baby. So she approached DeVos and made him an offer.
“I knew his business back then wasn’t big enough to support a full-time VP of finance person, but I told him that I’d be willing to do that part time, so it was affordable for him. Then I could change my lifestyle, and he would have somebody here to help him with his business. And he said, ‘Sure, that sounds good,'” said Maher, who began her accounting career in 1987 under the tutelage of Max Smith at Deloitte and credited Dan and Pamella DeVos with bringing her into the fold.
“So I think getting pregnant may have been my biggest career break,” she said with a laugh. “Because it caused me to think that I needed to go in a different direction, and it just happened to be the right time for him.”
Maher joined DP Fox as the firm’s chief financial officer in 1993. The rest, as they say, is history — a history that DeVos has co-written.
“Diane has been an integral part of DP Fox for over 15 years. Her leadership and dedication to the company and its employees goes above and beyond. As CFO, she has brought excellent disciplines to our business that have directly translated to their success. With the additional role as COO of Fox Motors, she will be leading our current and future businesses in that area of our business,” he told the Business Journal.
Maher was born in Allegan and raised in Gobles. Today, she lives with Damian, her husband of 18 years, and their three children —Hannah, Keegan and Marlee — in East Grand Rapids, a place that she said gives her the same small-town feeling she enjoyed while growing up in Gobles.
“East Grand Rapids is very community driven. Everybody is behind their little sports teams. Everybody knows each other. It’s kind of similar to a small town, which is interesting to me,” she said.
“My husband grew up there and he wanted to live there and raise our kids there. I’m really happy that we did, because the kids can ride their bikes to their friends’ houses, and it’s convenient to work and shopping and everything else. It has such a small-town feeling to me that I just feel at home.”
Maher sits on the board of directors for RBC Ministries, which produces the “Our Daily Bread” monthly prayer booklet that is distributed across the globe and printed in multiple languages. She also chairs the company’s personnel committee and is part of the finance and audit committee. “It’s a huge operation. There are like two million members,” she said.
Maher graduated from Ferris State University with a degree in accountancy, the first in her family to attend college. She said her parents and teachers showed faith in her abilities.
“I may have never gone, except I was valedictorian of my high school so my teachers encouraged me to go. And I think that’s why I have such a passion for these people who really weren’t afforded the opportunity to go to college and they still made an incredible career for themselves in the car business. I really have a passion to see people succeed.”
She met Damian through a friend at a party and it was “love at first sight” for both. They dated for three years before marrying.
Damian is a partner and vice president in Northgate Holdings, which owns and manages manufactured housing communities, mostly in the metro Chicago area. Damian began Northgate Holdings in 1993, the same year Diane started at DP Fox.
“Their business is doing well, so we’re very lucky, actually,” she said. “Their parks look like single-family home developments. They’re really nice, with very nice landscaping.”
When she gets time off, Maher said the family likes to travel, especially to the Bahamas where Damian has a 35-foot fishing boat docked. DP Fox manages the Cape Eleuthera Resort for Princess Cruise Lines. Cape Eleuthera is a private peninsula located about 57 nautical miles east of Nassau. Maher, who also manages the resort, said the family has been going there for the past dozen years or so.
“Whenever I’m on a business trip there, he comes along. He loves to do that deep-sea fishing stuff, so that’s been our hobby because there is a lot invested in the boat,” she said, laughing.
“Then we go on a ski trip once a year, which we really love to do as a family.”
Fox Motors emerged from the dealership cuts pretty much unscathed. GM is pulling its Pontiac and Buick lines from Fox Motors Charlevoix by the end of the year. The dealership will still offer Chrysler products. But GM rescinded its original order to drop Fox Pontiac Buick GMC on Alpine Avenue from its lineup after the firm appealed that decision.
Strangely enough, GM never told the firm why it initially wanted to cut ties with the dealership and never said why it changed its mind after DP Fox filed a letter of appeal with the automaker.
“During all of this, they cannot really say much. So we don’t know why we were chosen in the first place and we don’t know why they decided to give us a second chance. We just don’t know. But I’m assuming that everything in that letter did change their minds. It was the only way that it could have happened,” she said.
As for her immediate future, Maher will focus on growing the firm’s dealership business and continue to spread its solid reputation for integrity.
“We’re looking for growth here, and our goal is to be the largest and the best dealership group in Michigan. So my marching orders are to become not only the biggest but the best dealership group in the state,” she said.
“Right now, we’re just focusing on just the state. Dan and his family are obviously big supporters of Michigan; (they) feel committed to Michigan and this is where they want to have their businesses to help the state and the people of the state. That’s our focus.
“We’re looking for opportunities to grow and there are a lot of opportunities in times like these. So that is what I’ll be doing professionally for the next two years is just developing this business.”