All in the Family: Pearson Ford chairman/CEO turns business over to son, reflects on career


For John Pearson III,  the transition from being an English literature student at the University of Arizona to becoming chairman of a car dealership in Indiana is not typical, but it was made possible by a fishing trip in Canada.

John Pearson III, 73, – chairman/CEO of Pearson Ford in Zionsnville — is turning over his business to his son, John S. Pearson, 41, after leading the dealership for nearly 50 years. John S. Pearson will serve as the third-generation Pearson to run the Ford dealership.

“My dad called me and said, ‘We have an opportunity for you to move up the ladder quickly,’” said Pearson III, reminiscing on his post-graduate days in the 1970s. “‘If you wish to do that, that’s fine. If you don’t, then I’ll buy you out.’”

Pearson III said his father, John Pearson Jr., who established Pearson Ford in 1960, gave him a few shares at the time. Pearson III said the fishing trip let them negotiate a two-year deal for Pearson III to try out the car industry.

John S. Pearson is taking over the dealership.

In 1973, Pearson III joined the Pearson Ford sales team. Pearson III, then 23 years old, had just graduated from the University of Arizona. He said before moving back to Indiana, he forgot to ask about his working hours, so he called the dealership manager.

“(The manager) said, ‘Well, it’s 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., five days a week and all day Saturday,’” Pearson III said. “And I said, ‘Well, you’re joking. I’m the owner’s kid. What really are the hours?’ He said, ‘Welcome to the real world, boy.’”

After about six months, Pearson III said he finally got the hang of sales. Two years later, in 1976, he became the general manager of Pearson Ford. In 1981, Pearson Jr. died of lung cancer, leaving Pearson III to become the second president of Pearson Ford.

At the time, the U.S. was in a recession. Interest rates were near 18 percent and inflation rates ranged from 15 percent to 20 percent, according to Pearson III.

“We had mechanics working on their own cars and (the) salesmen all quit to sell foreign cars,” Pearson III said. “It was a real test, so when I started, I got thrown into the fire, to say the least.”

But the fire died out and the business started to improve, so Pearson III invested in land. He already owned 7 acres in the Zionsville area but had a deal with a neighboring family to buy their land. From 1981 to 1991, Pearson III bought more than 23 acres of land for future expansion at the junction of Zionsville and Carmel.

In 1984, Pearson III built a body shop. In 1995, he built a two-story building for sales and service. In 2008, he built the Performance Collision Center and added the Quicklane Tire & Auto Center.

Pearson III said the community has given him more than he can ever give back, but he said he still tries to give back however he can. He said a large part of his philanthropy has been through giving to nonprofits such as New Hope of Indiana.

New Hope of Indiana supports people with disabilities and their families and helps them live their most fulfilling lives by providing assistance with everyday activities in the home and workplace. The organization provides affordable and accessible housing and transportation and also help people get jobs.

“They actually have needed specialized vans that are modified for wheelchairs,” Pearson III said. “And we have provided them those vans and have serviced those vans as they put on literally hundreds of thousands of miles driving around every day.”

Along with New Hope of Indiana, Pearson III supports tennis organizations like the Pearson Automotive Tennis Club — at 4560 S 875 E — because of what playing tennis at the University of Arizona taught him for the business world. Pearson III and John S. Pearson both played tennis in college and were IHSAA state champions in high school.

“Unlike team sports, you’re out there on the court and you’re basically by yourself, and you have to problem-solve with no help at all. (Tennis) helps you think,” Pearson III said. “And it really helps in business in a lot of ways because you think you’ve got everything going your way and then the next day, everything reverses and happens so easily.”

As Pearson III hits the ball over to John S. Pearson’s side of the court, Pearson III said he knows his son will be under pressure to succeed but he knows his son will achieve greatness.

John S. Pearson had a similar start in the business, learning the ropes in the buy-here-pay-here model. He later transferred to the sales department with roles in sales and finance. He also spent time in the service department prior to being promoted to president in 2019.

“It’s not easy being the son of the owner,” Pearson III said. “It’s not easy being the third generation where he has to, hopefully, get it in his blood.”

John S. Pearson said being the owner’s son, he put a lot of pressure on himself to be successful and prove his worth.

“It was more about just trying to establish myself as not just someone you can go to for help or questions,” John S. Pearson said. “I just wanted to prove my worth and make sure that people knew that I wasn’t just handed this right on a silver platter.”

Pearson III said he “sincerely believes” that his son will give back to the community similarly to how he has through the years.

“I just feel so grateful and humbled that we’re able to still operate and stay in business,” Pearson III said. “(We) try to do the right thing as best we can. And when we make a mistake, we try and raise our hand and say, ‘Hey, we made a mistake.’”

John S. Pearson said he looks forward to the future of Pearson Ford. He said the dealership will be investing in 12 chargers for electric vehicles. The chargers will support Level 3 and Level 4 electric vehicles and will be open to the public.

“I hope that through the learnings from him and going forward on my own as time goes on that I can have the type of impact that he’s had on the community while still running a customer-friendly, locally owned quote unquote ‘mom and pop’ (business),” John S. Pearson said.

Pearson III said he is looking forward to the shift so he can spend more time with his grandchildren and watch his son succeed.

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