Storied Miami auto dealer network shifts to a new owner, larger national company in Oregon

Bill Lehman Jr. parked his family’s Lehman Dealership Enterprises in the hands of a national firm based in Oregon, dropping off the Miami business his father, a former U.S. congressman, started 86 years ago.

The 81-year-old Lehman and his family sold their automobile sales business for an undisclosed amount to the publicly traded Lithia Motors & Driveway, culminating seven months of negotiations, Lehman said in an interview this week.

The sale includes the eight Lehman locations: Honda, Genesis, Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi, Buick, GMC, Subaru dealerships in Florida City, Doral, North Miami and Miami Gardens. Lithia plans to keep the 500 employees and the Lehman name on the auto showrooms.

The transaction closes a chapter that began with Lehman’s father and company namesake, William Lehman. He opened a dealership in 1936 in North Miami, while working as a high school teacher. The business later struggled to survive, when Lehman’s father stepped into the political arena in the early 1970s.

The elder Lehman represented Miami-Dade County for 20 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, advocating on behalf of Haitian migrants and for better local transportation. Before his death in 2005, the slice of State Road 856 connecting Biscayne Boulevard in Aventura to Collins Avenue in Sunny Isles Beach was named the William Lehman Causeway in his honor.

His son stepped into the family business in 1967, after graduating with an MBA from Harvard University. The younger Lehman oversaw the company’s dealership expansion and launched the car leasing company William Lehman Leasing and subprime car lending business Affiliated Financial Corporation.

In 2021, Lehman’s affiliated companies generated $900 million in sales and retail and lease contract financing was over $40 million, Lehman said.

South Florida is a very good car market. In the last few years, with the influx of people, the overall market is good,” Lehman said. “People are making money and buying cars.”

With the sale, Lehman said he’s buying time outside of the office — although still holding onto William Lehman Leasing and Affiliated Financial Corporation — to spend time with his 13 grandchildren and to visit national parks.

The acquisition gives Lithia eight more dealer sites in South Florida, in addition to its existing dealership in Coral Gables. Given the expansion of companies into Miami, Lithia is betting on newcomers needing a car, said Tom Dobry vice president of marketing of Lithia Driveway. The company’s auto dealer network now includes 290 locations across the United States and Canada, all managed by CEO Bryan Deboer, the company founder’s grandson.

Founder William Lehman’s Chrysler dealership in 1953 on the corner of Northwest 7th Ave. and Northwest 71st St. in Miami.

Little stands in the way of the firm’s goal of being “within 100 miles of every American household,” Dobry said, despite inflation, car supply shortages, gas prices, the popularity of ride-sharing applications and people working from home.

Although there are a lot of people that have changed their driving habits, many continue to drive for work and for pleasure,” Dobry said. “New car dealers are selling out of their inventory.”

The transaction is a sign of a healthy local economy, said David Menachof, associate professor at Florida Atlantic University’s College of Business.

“It’s a good sign,” Menachof said. “A purchase of that sort says they’re in it for the long term and they want to see their investment grow over the years.”

In addition to his two remaining businesses, Lehman said he’ll remain on the boards of North Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art — a museum that his father helped open with a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.