A native of Hope, AR, and boyhood friend of former President Bill Clinton, Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty found himself at an early age drawn to dual careers: politics and the auto business. 

After serving as University of Arkansas student body president, at age 23 in 1969 he became the youngest person to run for, and win, a seat in the Arkansas state legislature. He became chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas at 30 and worked on the gubernatorial campaigns of former Arkansas Gov. David Pryor and Bill Clinton.

He served as chief of staff (aka “chief javelin catcher”) and counselor to the president in the Clinton White House and as a governor of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Board.

McLarty also is a third-generation car dealer, tracing those roots back to a family Ford dealership that opened in Hope 93 years ago. 

Today, as vice chairman and co-owner of RLJ-McLarty-Landers Automotive Holdings, based in Little Rock, McLarty oversees 34 car dealerships and three Harley-Davidson outlets in eight states.

The group is No.28 on the 2014 WardsAuto Megadealer 100, with total unit sales of 54,960 and $1.28 billion in revenue.

With his sons, he also is involved with other dealership ventures, including operations in China, Mexico and Brazil.

McLarty joined the family auto business in 1969, working primarily in leasing. The company merged its leasing operations with Leaseway Transportation in 1978 and McLarty became an officer, responsible for Leaseway’s southern region.

In 1979, the McLarty Companies bought the assets of Ward Industries, one of the nation's largest school bus manufacturers, and returned the company to profitability.

McLarty partnered with former competitor Steve Landers in 2004 to create a dealership group with 12 dealerships.

A partnership deal was inked in 2008 between McLarty-Landers and Robert L. Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television and chairman of RLJ Companies, to create RLJ-McLarty-Landers Automotive Holdings. The partnership structure called for McLarty-Landers to contribute the dealerships and for Johnson to contribute capital.

The company today ranks as the country’s largest minority-owned dealer group.

“Bob and his team have been superb partners,” McLarty says, noting that former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown introduced them in 1992. “I have a lot of respect for Bob and his team. It’s been a real privilege to build something with a partner that you like and trust and, frankly, enjoy working with.”

Johnson feels likewise.

“I have always admired Mack’s commitment as a public servant on behalf of the U.S. government and his understanding of the role of business in creating opportunities for all Americans,” he says.

“When he approached me about partnering with him, I quickly agreed because I knew of his family history in the dealership business and I knew he shared my values that minority Americans deserved an opportunity to be a part of the economics of the automobile dealership industry. It was a perfect fit for me as an entrepreneur and a longtime friend of Mack McLarty.”

The RLJ Companies also owns or holds interests in banking, private equity, real estate, hospitality, professional sports, film production and gaming.

Both of McLarty’s career paths have taken an international direction.

His son, Mark, founded and leads McLarty Transportation Global, which comprises Yanjun Auto Group, a leading BMW dealer in China; Caltibiano McLarty Group, the top Toyota dealer in Brazil; and Jaguar Land Rover importer GDV Imports in Mexico.

Following a 10-year partnership with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, McLarty opened his own international strategic advisory firm. “We have kind of a private-sector State Department here where we advise major multinational companies how to approach their business around the world,” he says. “The OEMs are truly global companies, so my firm here is a nice fit.”

WardsAuto spoke by phone to McLarty from his Washington office.

WardsAuto: Talk about the history of the McLarty dealer business.

McLarty: My grandfather, Tom McLarty, established a Ford dealership in Hope, Arkansas in 1921 with a group of shareholders that owned one of the two banks in town. He was general manager and managing partner of the dealership.

My father was right out of Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation. He served in WWII as a captain. He came back to Hope and acquired the dealership in 1954. He liked to say he mortgaged his house, his shotgun and all his wherewithal to buy a Ford dealership. He paid it back in about 18 months.

He was a typical entrepreneur, a great car guy, tremendous people person, great with customers. He built the business and acquired a Ford dealership in Texarkana, TX, which we thought was a very long step, even though it was only 30 miles (48 km) from Hope.