Oak Park dealership helps drive much-needed change during Black History Month

Auto industry has more work to do in terms of diversity

OAK PARK, Mich. – The auto industry has certainly changed over the years, but when it comes to diversity, there’s more work to be done.

“My first job was right here, 35-ish years ago,” said Ken Thomas, vice president of Northland Chrysler.

Thomas has come full circle since starting at Northland Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram in Oak Park.

"When I started out as a mechanic, I had no idea what path my career would really take," Thomas said.

While Thomas walked through the doors as a mechanic 35 years ago, he's climbed the company ladder to become the vice president of the dealership.

Northland Chrysler is the only African-American-owned Chrysler dealership in Metro Detroit. It’s one of two in Michigan.

"I have been working on this for the last 30 years," Thomas said.

It’s a journey that involved some bumps and bruises.

“I tried being a service adviser, did that for a couple of years, didn’t really like that as much, either," Thomas said. "I moved into sales and found my niche and moved up the ladder in business and became a finance manager."

Thomas said the ladder has been a lonely climb, at times, even though Detroit is a majority black city.

“As hard as it may be to believe, when I started here as a mechanic, I was the only African-American mechanic," Thomas said. "When I went to my next job as a mechanic, I was the only African-American mechanic. When I got into sales, at that time, I was the only African-American salesperson on that floor. It was hard in the '80s and '90s for an African-American to break into this industry.

“While I’m proud to be the only African-American Chrysler dealer in Metro Detroit, it’s also sad that we’re the only African-American dealer. In this market, where it’s still majority African-American population, there needs to be more representation in this market."

Thomas said Chrysler has recently started a minority training program to place African-Americans in leadership positions. It’s a move Thomas said is helping, but as an industry as a whole, there’s still a long way to go.

“Over time, it’s going to progress," Thomas said. "It’s going to change, but the fight will still continue."

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