Norman Braman fought automakers in and out of court over vehicle allocation, dealer bonus programs, two-tier pricing and facility upgrades.
In an industry dominated by corporate behemoths such as Lithia Motors, AutoNation and Penske Automotive Group, Norman Braman stands out.
Over the past four decades, the combative Miami megadealer has sued automakers over sales incentives, facility renovations and any other requirements that he considered too onerous.
In the process, he has built a $3 billion retail empire that caters to wealthy Floridians’ demand for Audis, Bentleys, Rolls-Royces, BMWs, Cadillacs and other luxury brands.
Braman’s success has allowed him a unique status. Most individual dealers don’t have the deep pockets to fight the automakers in court, and corporate dealership groups typically avoid public spats with the factories.
But Braman has never shied away from a fight.
In 2012, he went to court after Cadillac sought renovations that Braman claimed would have forced him to raze and rebuild his store. Five years later, he sued BMW and Audi for setting tougher requirements for sales incentives.
Nowadays Braman is a bit more mellow. Automakers are learning to work with their dealers, he says.
“There is a much more cooperative attitude than 10 years ago,” Braman told Automotive News this month. In years past, automakers “were pushing costly renovations on dealers. I don’t see that happening as much anymore.”
Braman entered the auto business almost by accident. In 1969, the Philadelphia native sold his chain of health and beauty aid stores, then moved to Miami with his wife and two daughters.
He had planned to retire but instead invested in a couple of Cadillac dealerships after befriending a dealer who had moored his houseboat at Braman’s dock.
As his empire grew, Braman amassed an art collection that included works by Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Alexander Calder. He also purchased the Philadelphia Eagles, although he eventually sold the football team after concluding that he didn’t need the aggravation.
At the age of 90, he still keeps an eye on his business, which ranked No. 21 on Automotive News’ most recent list of the top 150 dealership groups based in the U.S., with retail sales of 29,334 new vehicles.
And he keeps a wary eye on the fast-growing electric vehicle market. Braman worries that automakers want to emulate Tesla’s direct sales to car buyers, cutting dealers out of the loop.
“That would bypass the dealer network,” Braman warned. “If it happens, that will be a major point of contention.”
Ford Motor Co. already has riled retailers by calling for pricey electric chargers, staff training and other EV-related expenditures that could cost up to $1.2 million per store.
Braman said he is hopeful that retailers and automakers will sort out their differences over EV upgrades, and he downplays the need for lawsuits. For one thing, dealer associations across the country have lobbied state legislatures to protect dealership franchise rights, he notes.
“Everybody understands that the courtroom is not the place to be,” Braman said. “Dealers and automakers understand that.”
Braman said he’s willing to work with the Florida Automobile Dealers Association on issues such as vehicle allocation, sales incentives and direct sales to consumers. And Ted Smith, president of the association representing 850 Florida dealerships, appreciates that support.
“We all have to be on the same page,” Smith said. “We are marching as one unit now.”