For almost as long as he can remember, Ron Gregoire has had an affinity for numbers. He parlayed his ability into an accounting degree, a generous internship, a job offer, a CPA license, a highly successful career in the automotive world and a rewarding retirement. But of all the numbers he’s crunched, analyzed and parlayed over the years, a single digit stands out.
One move. One professor. One opportunity.
Gregoire, who will receive an honorary doctorate in June during the College of Business Administration’s commencement ceremony, is one of two recipients of an honorary doctorate this year from Cal Poly Pomona. Fellow alumnus Eddy Hartenstein, a communications pioneer and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, will be honored by the College of Engineering.
The award recognizes Gregoire’s professional accomplishments, community service and unflagging support of his alma mater. He is humbled by the tribute and aware of his good fortune, especially when he considers how different his life could have been had his father, a long-haul trucker, not heeded a relative’s advice to move from Massachusetts to California, where the opportunities and weather were better.
“Thank God we moved to the West Coast in 1962 because, quite frankly, if we had stayed on the East Coast, the odds are great that I would have started out being a plant worker because so many of my mother’s family members were working for Ford and GM. I probably never would have gone to the university, because nobody there was going — nobody.”
Instead of building cars, Gregoire wound up selling them at his dealerships in Cerritos, distinguishing himself among his peers as an entrepreneur with an almost magical touch.
“Luck is the crossroads where preparation and opportunity meet,” he says.
That preparation began when Gregoire enrolled at Cal Poly Pomona in the late 1960s, based on a simple calculation: “It was affordable and close. I could drive there and live at home.”
By that point, his parents had achieved a slice of the American Dream, going from a travel trailer that first year to a mobile home, and then to what Gregoire describes as a nice three-bedroom house in Duarte with two baths, a big lot and a pool.
“I think they paid $16,500 for it,” he says. “That was real money back then.”
After choosing business over engineering, Gregoire immersed himself in his studies and focused on becoming an accountant. He credits Professor Clarence Jackman, who oversaw the internship program, for helping pave the way to success by arranging a paid internship that meshed with his classes.
“Clarence made sure you got the schedule you needed to complete your studies and give you the time off you needed to work a job. I don’t know what kind of pull he had, but it was always like I was a senior. I always got the classes I needed at the times I needed them. I don’t think I was ever at school past 1 p.m.”
That internship changed Gregoire’s life.
“It’s funny how things turn,” he says, reflecting on his time at the venerable A.B. Schultz Company. “The reason I ended up getting into the car business was because they had an audit specialty with automotive clients. I really enjoyed the auditing work, and I excelled at it.”
Although he was on track to become a partner, he seized a lucrative offer to manage the books for a struggling dealership. When it started to stumble, Gregoire offered to run things.
“It’s a business that consumes money, but I’d really learned to manage things. I knew the cost of every car, the cost of carrying inventories, but the owners said, ‘You’re an accountant, kid, what do you know about cars? You can’t do this.’”
So he decided to venture out with two partners and acquire a Dodge franchise on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena.
“I must say, it wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done in life,” Gregoire says. “You might recall what Dodge was like back then — big cars that nobody wanted.”
In 1979, after two years of scraping by, he applied for a Ford dealership just off the 605 freeway in Cerritos, the only dealership on the block in what then was dairy land. “I knew personally the man who handled new dealer appointments. He said, ‘This is one of the weakest applications I’ve ever seen in my life. You barely meet our guidelines. If you falter even a little bit, you won’t make it.’”
For the first six months, Gregoire lost money — and then came the opportunity that changed his professional life. Ford was in a fierce battle with GM for the truck sales title, but it had a line of small trucks that weren’t moving. It declared victory by reporting them sold and had no choice but to offer the Couriers to dealers as used vehicles. Gregoire bought 200 and engineered a brilliant advertising campaign.
“People were coming in and buying two or three because they were the cheapest thing they ever saw. It made me profitable for the year. It launched me. Everything I did in the future was similar: Stay focused on a product, promote it, come up with a price point below your competitors, and when someone comes in looking to buy, have a bunch for them to choose from.”
Over the next 10 years, he expanded and acquired six additional franchises — and flourished. Retiring before turning 50 has allowed him to focus on other things in life. One of them is philanthropy.
“I’m a believer that if life has been good to you, you have an obligation to give back to society,” he says.
During his career, Gregoire supported youth athletic leagues, cancer support organizations and the Los Angeles Police Department’s community youth outreach program. In retirement, he became a proponent of the arts to improve the quality of life in his community.
“I came from a blue-collar family, so I was never exposed to these kinds of things. We never went to the theater. My dad was out there working all the time. If it hadn’t been for Little League, we wouldn’t have done anything.”
University President Michael Ortiz has known Gregoire throughout his tenure and knows well the quality of his character.
“Ron is one of those individuals who quietly make a huge difference,” Ortiz says. “He leads by example and gets things done. I treasure his friendship and his commitment to the university.”
That commitment is reflected in his service on numerous advisory councils, his leadership in the $150 million Campaign for Cal Poly Pomona, and his generous support of an array of initiatives in the College of Business Administration, including being the lead donor on its new three-building complex.
“I’m a Cal Poly Pomona guy who had the benefit of learning from professors who worked in the field. I had the benefit of internships. Other guys who started their careers the same time I did couldn’t hit the ground running the way I did,” Gregoire says. “That’s what a Cal Poly Pomona education can do.”