Roger Penske’s opening of a seven-story auto dealership in downtown San Francisco last month was a daring step for the global industry magnate.
San Francisco leans left and buys green. And for 40 years, its consumers have shopped for cars and trucks in the suburbs.
But Penske, seeing opportunity downtown, put a combined Nissan and Infiniti dealership into an abandoned building that was arguably the jewel of the city’s one-time auto row.
But the 75-year-old auto retailing, racing and truck leasing mogul was not the only powerful mover and shaker behind the new store. Before he could think of doing it, he first had to win the favor and approval of Mrs. Brooks.
Marie Brooks, the grande dame of San Francisco auto retailing, is elegant and dark-haired at age 86, respectfully referred to as “Mrs. Brooks” by auto industry executives. Hers is a life story that intertwines the history of the car business and the history of one of America’s biggest retail markets.
She is the former owner of Ellis Brooks Chevrolet and one of the first female franchised auto dealers in America, and now reports for work daily at her Ellis Brooks Automotive Center used-car lot in downtown San Francisco. She operates a leasing company, owns a Honda store in Yreka, in far northern California, and is a franchisee of the Wheego electric car startup.
More to the point for Penske, she owns the building at the corner of Van Ness Avenue and Bush Street that he needed to make his daring deal pencil out. And it was never a sure bet that she would let him rent it.
How his Penske Automotive Group, with $11.6 billion in auto retail revenues, won over Mrs. Brooks, put the deal together, bucked the historical direction of the local market and worked with Nissan North America to fit its factory real estate specs onto a piece of historic urban real estate is a story of what Roger Penske is famous for: attention to detail.
“San Francisco is not the real world,” observes Peter Blackstock, a Toyota and Lexus dealer in the region’s Monterey peninsula, and also the northern California representative for the National Automobile Dealers Association. “It’s a very political and liberal city, and just a very challenging place to do business. People don’t buy cars there the way they do in other cities.
“Hats off to Roger Penske for figuring out how to make it work.”