Tom Harris, a second-generation British Columbia auto dealer who built his empire from the depths of recession in the early 1980s and later led the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association (CADA), has died.
Harris died suddenly June 28; he was 67 years old.
In 1982 his father’s dealership, Jack Harris Chevrolet Oldsmobile Cadillac in Nanaimo, B.C., fell on hard times. Interest rates were topping 20 per cent. People were delinquent in their auto payments. The bank was knocking at the door. Harris was scrambling to raise the necessary cash to save his father’s dealership. He failed to do so in time. A week before Harris had the finances, the bank closed Jack Harris Chevrolet Oldsmobile Cadillac. All told, 15 dealerships in B.C. closed that year.
Harris would not be denied the family legacy. He opened Tom Harris Chevrolet Oldsmobile Cadillac in the same location on June 3, 1983.
Harris needed $600,000 and an operating line of credit to get the dealership, according to the Victoria Times Colonist.
He leveraged his real estate, borrowed money from friends and found a willing partner in Jim Gauthier, a successful dealer in Winnipeg. Harris had nine mortgages and personal loans when the dealership’s doors first opened, according to the newspaper.
“I believed in myself and I believed that properly structured, I could put this thing back together,” Harris told the Times Colonist in a 2006 interview.
Harris would eventually add five dealerships, including the Kia, Mazda, Nissan and FCA brands, to what became Harris Auto Group. Today, the group consists of four outlets. He was president of CADA in 2003-2004.
Staff at Harris Oceanside GM remembered their founder fondly on Facebook, calling him a leader, mentor and philanthropist.
“Tom was always an inspiration to us all here at Harris Oceanside Chevrolet Buick GMC and always let us know that everything will turn out ok,” the post by staff reads. “His easy swagger through the store while eating popcorn is a site we will all miss. Rest in Peace Tom.”
Harris wasn’t only an auto dealer. He correctly predicted the cellphone market would be a lucrative one and entered the market in 1986, selling cellphones out his showroom, eventually adding a “store” above the showroom.
Tom Harris Cellular has continued to acquire and open new stores, raising the total number of locations today to 50. Tom Harris Cellular is now the largest Telus Authorized Dealer in Canada.