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Tampa's Ernie Haire Ford set for auction

Ernie Haire Jr., above, bought the Ford dealer in 1970, and it has since been run by his sons.

Photo by Zach Boyden-Holmes

Ernie Haire Jr., above, bought the Ford dealer in 1970, and it has since been run by his sons.

After 39 years, Ernie Haire Ford is going out of business next month, ending the Haire family's colorful and controversial run as Tampa automotive tycoons.

Ernie Haire Jr., who bought the dealership on Florida Avenue in 1970, was a race horse owner, helicopter pilot and friend of actor Burt Reynolds.

After 12 years at the helm of the company, he was shot to death with a .357-caliber Magnum by his wife, Mary Katherine Haire. Mary Haire's 1983 acquittal of murder charges left her in charge of a company that seemed to thrive until the recent automotive slump.

Under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since Nov. 24, Haire plans to sell off its assets at an Aug. 17 auction. The company's new and used car dealerships on the 9000 block of North Florida Avenue will likely re-emerge with new owners.

Haire has collected an opening $8 million bid from Florida luxury car dealer Elder Automotive Group of Tampa Bay. Owner Richard Elder runs Saab, Aston Martin and Jaguar stores near Haire's north Tampa location.

Like most dealerships, Haire fell afoul of the worst automotive slump in decades, but also got smacked last year with a $6.9 million class-action settlement for overcharging customers for window etchings.

Employees were somber on Haire's lot Friday afternoon, wondering if they'll keep their jobs under new management.

Longtime salesman Joe Moon said the sales force has dwindled to half a dozen. He remembers when they sold as many as 400 cars and trucks a month. Now they're lucky to do 40, he said.

"It will still be a Ford dealership, even if it is no longer Ernie Haire Ford," Moon said. "If for some reason the new owners don't want me here, most of my customers will follow me."

Company president Ernie Haire III, the son of the founder, declined to discuss the bankruptcy and sale. During his term, the company had maintained its dominance as a leading Florida Ford dealer with $259 million in sales as late as 2006.

But there's no denying that the Haire family has suffered its share of disasters.

Ernest Bryant Haire Jr. and Mary Haire married as teenagers and bought the dealership in their mid 30s. As a former company accountant recounted in 1982, Ernie was the type of hard-headed boss who would hire and fire someone on the same day.

Ernie Haire befriended Burt Reynolds when the Hollywood star borrowed Haire's helicopter to film a scene for the film Cannonball Run II. Reynolds reciprocated by appearing in commercials for the dealership. As part of the high life, Haire also owned a thoroughbred stable in Odessa.

In 1982, after 28 years of marriage, Haire moved out of his Land O'Lakes ranch home and hooked up with a younger woman. When Ernie returned to the house five days before Christmas in 1982 to confront his wife about the sale of her jewelry, Mary Haire emptied six bullets into her 47-year-old husband. Ernie Haire had used the gun to hunt bear in Alaska.

Mary Haire claimed self defense, hired famed mob lawyer Frank Ragano, and convinced a Pasco County jury of her innocence. The story goes that Mary Haire, needing a new president for the dealership, awarded the job to her son David on a coin flip.

When David died of cancer in the 1990s, Ernie Haire III took over running the company. But it came at a the price of a lawsuit from David's former wife, who claimed she was swindled by her in-laws.

In the past 20 years, the Haires haven't curbed their litigious streak. Mary Haire sued former lawyer Ragano, claiming he cheated her out of $75,000 to make a movie about the mob-connected union boss Jimmy Hoffa.

Though in life Ernie Haire Jr. clung to his business, once telling family he would rather live with an alligator than share his wealth, his survivors tried to sell the company in the late 1990s to the CarMax chain. When Ford Motor Co. blocked the sale, Mary and Ernie III sued.

The family also sued Bill Currie, owner of competitor Bill Currie Ford, for slander. A few years ago, Ernie Haire Ford lost a $5.8 million age discrimination lawsuit.

After an evening of imbibing on Gasparilla Day in 2007, Ernie III was arrested for setting off M-80 firecrackers at his neighbor Paul Bilzerian's house in Tampa's Avila neighborhood at 5 a.m. Haire had sued his former friend over broken business deals. He received probation.

As for the dealership's fate, the Haires expect to hand over the business by September to whichever company wins the auction. Depending on the bid amount for the company's assets, the Haires may keep the land and lease the lots to the new owners.

Company treasurer and secretary Todd Hodges, speaking for the Haires, said he hopes the dealership's remaining 100 employees can keep their jobs when the family departs.

"There's two of us working ourselves out jobs — me and Ernie," Hodges said. "The new owners may keep all the employees. Or they may keep none."

Staff writer Marlene Sokol contribued to this story.

Tampa's Ernie Haire Ford set for auction 07/31/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 4, 2009 3:07pm]
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