Josée Bélanger Leroux is one of only six women who are Ford Canada dealer principals.
It may be 2016 but women are still knocking down barriers in many career fields. Although women influence almost 80 percent of car-buying decisions, automobile dealerships are mostly owned and staffed by men.
Sudbury’s Josée Bélanger Leroux is a trailblazer. She is one of only six women who are Ford Canada dealer principals.
When she was a teenager, she washed cars, delivered parts, and drove courtesy vehicles at her father’s dealership in Chelmsford. Today she is the boss at Bélanger Ford Lincoln Centre. The dealership has 60 employees and does more than $42 million in sales every year. It is the only Lincoln dealer in Northern Ontario.
During a recent conversation, Bélanger Leroux, 52, tells me she was a good athlete in high school. “But I didn’t win the athlete of the year award. I had a bad attitude. I didn’t like to lose.”
That determination to win has served her well and now she has embarked on another challenge. She is committed to raising money for research to find effective treatments and a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
ALS is a progressive neuro-muscular disease where nerve cells die off and leave voluntary muscles paralyzed. It is often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease – Gehrig, who played for the New York Yankees, was diagnosed with ALS and forced to retire in 1939. English theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author Stephen Hawking, now 74, was diagnosed with early-onset slow-progressing motor neurone disease in 1963 and was given two years to live.
In most cases, doctors do not know why ALS occurs. A small number of cases are genetic.
In July 2015 Bélanger Leroux’s husband of 27 years, Michel, 54, was diagnosed with slow-progressive ALS. The high school physical education teacher had retired just one month before he got the bad news.
Michel was involved in a snowmobile accident the year before and needed surgery, she explains. “After a year, he was not getting stronger and two of his fingers were crippling. He went to Sunnybrook Hospital where he was diagnosed.”
She first met Michel in Ottawa through their mutual friend, Guy Labine. The couple have two children, Dominique, 26, and Sebastien, 24, and a granddaughter. (Both children won athlete of the year awards at their schools, says their proud mom.)
Although she grew up on a car lot, Bélanger Leroux studied to be a dental assistant, worked for the Sudbury and District Health Unit for a number of years, and later owned a women’s clothing store in Chelmsford.
The youngest of Gabe and Laura Bélanger’s four daughters – Louise, Lynne, France and Josée – she eventually joined the staff at the dealership that her father started in 1971. When Gabe died of cancer in 2009, she was in a position to apply to become a dealer principal.
Bélanger Leroux is quick to point out the dealership was not handed to her; she had to work for it and prove she could do it.
“I worked in every department here for 24 years, so I applied to be dealer principal. Ford Canada told me I had to hit my target two years in a row. I did and I was accepted. It wasn’t easy.”
She has since met a kindred spirit: Diane Craig became president and CEO of the Ford Motor Company of Canada in 2011.
Bélanger Ford has won the President’s Award for 11 years in a row. It is the highest dealership honour presented to dealerships that demonstrate outstanding achievement in sales and customer satisfaction.
In 2014, Bélanger Ford underwent a major expansion with an additional 6,000 square feet that includes an automatic car wash, a quick lube drive-through and an improved customer waiting area.
“My office is in front of the waiting area. Usually the dealer principals are in the corner. They don’t want to talk to the customers. I always have my door open.
“My dad was all about customer service. People say I am just like my dad. They call me Gabe Junior,” she says.
Daughter Dominque says, “Mom takes her job very seriously. She is on her cell even at the spa.”
“My business card includes my cell number and if someone has a problem, they can call me…even at three in the morning,” says Bélanger Leroux.
The Bélangers have always been there when the community needs them and have made numerous donations to community causes.
Gabe Bélanger donated seven acres of land to accommodate St. Gabriel Villa. His wife graciously donated $50,000 to start the Gabriel and Laura Bélanger Fund that supports initiatives at the seniors’ facility in Chelmsford.
Last year Bélanger Ford Lincoln Centre partnered with Marymount Academy to conduct a test-drive fundraising event. The Lincoln Driven to Give event raised $12,445 to help a student who has cancer. This is not the first time the dealership has helped to raise money to help someone with medical expenses.
The dealership has also made donations to the Sam Bruno PET Scan Fund, United Way, Sudbury Cadets, local hockey teams and a variety of other good causes.
“Josée is very caring and has a big heart,” says Chris Fleury, the used car manager. He started at the dealership when he was 21 and like many of the employees, he has worked for the Bélangers for a number years.
“She is passionate and has a competitive spirit,” he adds. “There is no second place.”
A week after Michel was first diagnosed with ALS, Bélanger Leroux took him to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to ensure he got the best advice possible. Mayo neurologists have extensive experience treating ALS patients.
A month later she organized an ice bucket challenge for the Adaptive Canuck ALS Foundation which funds research into stem cell treatments and a cure for ALS at the Toronto Western Research Institute at the University of Toronto.
The Adaptive Canuck ALS Foundation was founded by Jeffrey Perreault, a Sudbury businessman who was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 33 in 2014.
Last fall the dealership sponsored a golf tournament for ALS research that raised more than $50,000. The second annual golf tourney will take place Sept. 17 at Forest Ridge Golf and Country Club in Chelmsford.
“Michel is active, enjoys fishing and golf. He is strong. He still cuts the lawn,” says Bélanger Leroux.
“His doctor says he has never seen a guy so positive about ALS.”
The couple have several trips planned and will spend time this winter in Florida. They have rented a condo with a pool so Michel can get lots of exercise.
They are optimistic and determined to live life to the fullest as long as they can.
“I am doing whatever I can for Michel,” says Bélanger Leroux.
She is determined not to lose.