By Jim Workman
Being a pioneer in an industry that was mostly male-dominated is certainly a point of pride.
But after 30 years as president of the West Virginia Automobile and Truck Dealers Association, Ruth Lemmon now shrugs it off, while also counting it as a blessing.
It sometimes takes a woman’s touch even in what seems to be a man’s world.
That philosophy has taken Lemmon, a 2014 Lorenelle White Lifetime Achievement Award Winner, far throughout her career.
“It feels great to be thought of as a pioneer,” she admits. “But not getting caught up in gender, only a great desire to succeed and never wanting to embarrass myself or the people I worked for.
“Hard work, not taking short cuts, I don’t believe in handouts, it’s not an option; you earn it on your own.”
Lemmon said that doesn’t mean she hasn’t failed a few times, but she has learned and grown from her failures because of an attitude to succeed.
“You have to be loyal to the people that give you that paycheck, to be proud of you,” she said.
Having an early background in sales has helped her tremendously, Lemmon said.
“Everything in life is about sales,” she said. “Whether it’s a tangible product or an idea or a philosophy, it’s all sales.
“I don’t know if being a woman helped me or hurt me.”
Lemmon said she was one of the first female sales reps with Xerox back in 1968, but she received so much support from other sales representatives they instilled in her the belief that “you can do it, if you just dig down deep.”
There are many proud accomplishments decorating Lemmon’s outstanding career.
“Being with a company 30 years is an accomplishment, and some of the relationships that I’ve developed,” she said. “I’ve gotten many awards. But awards are something that you put on a wall. What really matters is how did you get there?”
Lemmon explained the best award is the confidence someone has in you to do the right thing.
“I take awards as rewards for someone saying ‘we appreciate what you’ve done and we believe you’ve done it right,’” she said. “That’s the greatest reward.
“There’s value in giving everything you have.”
Representing the West Virginia Automobile and Truck Dealers Association over four decades has given Lemmon an opportunity to help shape an industry of great importance to the state, its business leaders and its communities.
“The association is made up of the last of the great entrepreneurs,” Lemmon shared. “They invest their own money and their lives in marketing and selling someone else’s product, which they pay for up front. It’s just a great organization, along with the individuals that comprise the group.
“When you look at many contributions in many communities, at the top of the list, many times it’s an auto dealer or truck dealer. It’s a group of individuals that really oil the energy and the economics of their community, state and certainly the nation.”
Her position is one that Lemmon has always taken with great pride.
“This association exists solely to assist the dealers and to provide them information working through a lot of red tape with government agencies, keeping them informed,” she said. “The greatest reward is reading national magazines and seeing one of our dealers being recognized.
“Or going to an opening of a new dealership or a new facility as it’s been our case recently so many times.”
Lemmon said it has been particularly exciting to see the next generation of dealers take hold.
“The success and the transitions within the dealerships and the growth is gratifying,” she said. “When you talk about dynamic people, and movers and shakers, you can always find an automobile dealer in that mix.”
It hasn’t always been pleasant, though, as economic turns have affected the business climate.
“We work as a team,” Lemmon said. “To see how our dealers have come back from the bankruptcies has just been phenomenal. Probably the darkest days came in 2008, with the first list of dealers that lost their dealerships … it was very, very tough.
“But we’ve been reborn. When you look around and see the numbers of employees they have now, seeing the new facilities — that they’ve paid for, by the way … these are not paid for by the factories.”
Lemmon said seeing dealer lots become more crowded with an increase in inventory means employees, communities and the economy overall are all on the way to a brighter future.
“We’ve made great strides through the years,” she said. “No one person makes anything happen.”
Back in 1984, the association trusted Lemmon with its lead position.
“When I was hired, the mission that was given to me was to build an association that was recognizable, that was respected and we’ve done that, lock-step,” she said. “We were very poor. As a matter of fact, they neglected to tell me they were broke.
“In one of my first meetings, one of the dealers said to another, ‘By the way, have you told her that we’re broke?’”
Lemmon said Joe Holland Sr. was instrumental in her early success, assuring her that they would find a way to work out the budget woes.
“The mentoring that I have had has just been unbelievable,” she said. “When I came here, the titans of the industry really just took hold.
“Another really strong mentor of mine is Jimmy Love. Jimmy is all about going forward. It’s been a tremendous ride.”
Some of the best advice Lemmon received came from a Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker, another West Virginia native.
“Sam Huff told me once, ‘The most important words in the world are ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’” she shared. “Also, ‘Yes, sir and no, sir. Yes, ma’am and no, ma’am.’”
The automotive industry remains a dynamic economic force in all corners of the Mountain State.
“There are so many people involved,” Lemmon said. “We have about 8,000 (auto and truck dealers) employees in the state now.”
She said the industry offers many opportunities, and she hopes the group has made legislative strides that enable the dealers to conduct their business and offer more opportunities to other people.
“If you want to work, want to succeed and you want to grow, there is a dealership that will make that available to you,” she said. “If you’re committed, and if you’re willing to put forth the effort, a great career is open to one and all.
“Today we have many dealers that started as lot boys, or salespersons or technicians. Now they’re the owners of the big sign out front.”
Lemmon’s background played a large role in preparing her for a lifetime of service to others, and gave her the ability to believe that there was nothing she could not accomplish.
“My career started in 1968 with Xerox, as a customer representative, responsible for education and public relations,” Lemmon said. “Then the great fortune of becoming one the first female sales reps in the country. My desire was to always work or to be associated with people that were more successful than me, that were smarter and willing to work.”
Lemmon spent 11 years with Xerox, and decided to become an entrepreneur. The problem was, she decided three weeks in she didn’t like her boss — herself.
“In the first interview, I found the West Virginia Automobile and Truck Dealers were exciting people with lots of energy. I liked that,” she said. “I was fortunate enough to get the position and the rest is history.”
Her “great ride” was about to begin.
“I have to tell you, I didn’t know where the restrooms were at the Capitol, much less what a lobbyist did,” Lemmon admitted. “But then again, the dealers were the key. Any success I’ve ever had is because someone gave me the opportunity and the support.”
Lemmon’s success at the state level has translated well at the regional and national level.
“When I became an automotive trade association executive, fortunately I was placed in the southern region of the National Auto Dealers Association, with southern gentlemen,” she said. “They became my life support. Right off the bat, they were very kind and very supportive. They helped me through so many things.
“So many people think that they accomplish things on their own. You really don’t. It’s a team effort. It’s the people that walk beside you and behind you that keeps you going.”
Lemmon has been married to Ret. Col. David Lemmon of the West Virginia State Police for 46 years.
“He’s been very supportive,” said Lemmon.
Lemmon grew up “in the suburbs of Frame, West Virginia,” and went to Clendenin High School and then Morris Harvey College, which is now the University of Charleston.
She and her husband live in Nitro.
“Our son, David II, is a state policeman and he and his wife Teresa have three daughters, Katie, Kelsey and Kampbell,” Lemmon shared. “Our daughter Laura lives in Hilton Head.
“Our grandson Ryan Schultz just graduated from West Virginia University and just started his career. He’s excited and has lots of energy.
“It’s a great life.”
There’s also someone else special to Lemmon.
“The love of my life, my dog Reagan, a Springer Spaniel,” she said with a smile. “Dogs teach you. No matter when you come in, he’s happy to see you and loves you unconditionally. Any person without an animal is missing a lot in life.”
Lemmon also gives Deb Qualls, her assistant at the West Virginia Auto and Truck Dealers Association, much credit to her success in the last few years.
“Deb is not my right hand person,” Lemmon explained. “She is both my hands. She is very valuable to the association. She’s a tremendous asset, knowing we can always depend on her. My nature is to be hyper, so she is a great settling force for me. She’s been a Godsend.”
Even though she is receiving a lifetime achievement award, one may sense that Lemmon is not ready to drive off into the sunset, given her drive and amount of energy she displays.
“Well, there comes a time,” she said. “We’ll see. There’s always room for new talent.”