By Gillian Graham
Staff Writer for the Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier
Ira Rosenberg's enthusiasm for selling cars is second only to his enthusiasm for giving back to the community. Rosenberg, owner of Prime Motor Group, won the Courier's 2010 Great Person Award for his commitment to giving back to the community and supporting his 300 employees in Saco.
Rosenberg was nominated for the annual award by Maria Surprenant of Saco, who has worked at Prime Honda for 19 years. "Mr. Rosenberg has given this area over 300 jobs. He donates to our hospitals, cancer funds, diabetes and Sweetser for our kids," she wrote in her nomination letter. "Most of all, I nominate Mr. Rosenberg because my husband just passed away after a long battle with cancer. I was able to stay home and take care of him. I could not have done this without him or my coworkers. We are truly a big family."
Surprenant said she wanted nothing more than to take care of her husband, Henry, during his eight-month battle with cancer. Rosenberg encouraged her to take all the time she needed at home and offered to support the family in any way they needed, she said.
"It meant a lot for me to be able to be home and not worry about not having a job. Ira provided that for us," she said. "I just didn't know how to say thank you."
Rosenberg, who splits his time between homes in Kennebunkport and Florida, said he was touched by Surprenant's nomination and each vote he received. "I feel very humbled," he said in a phone interview from Florida. "I'm just happy to be in the position to help people."
Rosenberg, who grew up in Malden, Mass., joined the Navy after high school and served during the Korean War. While attending Suffolk University on the G.I. Bill, he got a part-time job changing tires at a used Chevrolet dealership. That, he said, is how he stumbled into the car business "strictly by accident."
Rosenberg worked his way from changing tires to the service department then sales. After marrying Judith 49 years ago, he switched careers before finding his way back to cars. He used his last $140 to open a used car lot in Salem, Mass., in 1967. He bought his first Toyota store in 1975, then went on to grow the Ira Motor Group to include multiple stores in Massachusetts.
Twelve years ago, Rosenberg decided to retire from the car business after his wife was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. They moved to Florida, but after four and a half years, Rosenberg said he wanted to go back to work.
That, he said, is how he ended up in Saco, where he opened a Toyota-Hyundai store. He expanded his business during the past six years to include seven dealerships in the Prime Motor Group.
"The people in Maine are fabulous. They're nice, they're honest, they're straightforward," he said. "My employees are my family and I feel very close to them. I enjoy the customers; they're fun to do business with. I enjoy going to work every day."
Soon after moving to Kennebunk, Rosenberg was on his way to work when he saw fire trucks racing to put out a barn fire at Sweetser in Saco.
"I made some phone calls and we started building the barn right then and there," he said.
The Rosenbergs pledged $15,000 to rebuild the barn and challenged other businesses to contribute. Since the 2004 fire, Rosenberg has continued to support Sweetser's programs for children and families because he supports the organization's mission to help people find promising futures. The Rosenbergs are sponsors of the Sweetser/Prime Motor Group Golf Classic held each June to raise money for Sweetser.
"I just feel if we can save the kids maybe we can do something for the country," he said. "If we help these kids, maybe the country will be more unified. I feel good about it in my heart."
Rosenberg and his wife, who he praises for her philanthropy, support the Dyer Library and Saco Museum, Young School Library, Saco Fire Department, Saco Spirit, Counseling Services Inc., Southern Maine Medical Center, Young Maine Readers, Maine Reads, Boys and Girls Club of Southern Maine, All Care Hospice, American Heart Association, Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women's Hospital.
In December, Rosenberg donated 30 books and a visit by author Julie Hahnke to Thornton Academy. Rosenberg said he feels it is important to support children through educational programs and will soon offer a similar opportunity to students in Wells.
"You've got to have charity in your heart. You have to feel for your fellow humans," Rosenberg said. "We don't have enough of that in the United States."
Rosenberg said he is lucky to be in the position to give back to the community that has helped him build a successful business. "I come from a very poor background. It wasn't easy for me. There was no reason for me to succeed except the guy upstairs knows I have a very charitable heart," Rosenberg said. "He's allowed me to do this. As crazy as it seems, I really believe that."
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|Prime Motor Group President Ira Rosenberg (center) supports the American Heart Association and efforts of the Maine chapter's Directors (top clockwise) Brenda Quinn, Jennifer Labadie, Rita Zanichkowsky, and Carrie Fortino.|