When Adam Lee’s grandmother and grandfather emigrated from Lithuania and Poland, respectively, in the 1890s, he says it was still possible to work hard, save money, and start a car dealership in Maine. That’s just what Mr. Lee’s grandfather, Joseph Lifshitz, did. Working first as a peddler in Lewiston and then at a string of other jobs – including one in a shoe heel factory that he purchased – Mr. Lifshitz borrowed $1,100 in cash from a silent partner, Lewis Bernstein, in 1936 and started the fledgling dealership now known as Lee Auto Malls. Eighty-three years later, the company is thriving, with 19 new and used car dealerships and the highest annual volume of car sales in Maine.
Mr. Lee says that someone needs a lot more money to start a car dealership now than his grandfather did in 1936, but that doesn’t mean other opportunities don’t exist for New Mainers. “The state is desperate for workers. We need people!” he says, noting that Maine’s economy has always been built on the labor of immigrants. In previous generations, immigrants to Maine came primarily from Europe. Some already spoke English when they arrived.. Though an Irish brogue could be so thick that Americans sometimes found the newcomers hard to understand and immigrants had to overcome their fair share of prejudice. These days, New Mainers are likely to have fled dire circumstances in Africa or the Middle East. They don’t look like the Irish or the Canadians or the Finns, but they come with the same basic needs and many skills. And they face obstacles to integration that are arguably greater than those faced by previous immigrants.
Chairman of the Board of Lee Auto Malls, Mr. Lee is one of the most successful businessmen in the state. He urges business owners to reach out to the newcomers. “Hire them! We all need employees. Put yourself out, overcome whatever prejudice or fear you might have. In the past, there was prejudice against the Canadians, the Jews. Just like in the past, immigrants have skills that will benefit your businesses.”
To immigrants, Mr. Lee has advice about car ownership. “If you don’t have much money, start with a less expensive car and pay in installments, a little bit every month. Move up gradually until you can buy the car you really want. It takes 2-4 years to establish credit history, and you can trade in for a really nice car eventually, when you are ready.” He warns car buyers to be careful when choosing a used car dealer. Some are honest, but not all.
Mr. Lee notes that his company has created a Sharia loan plan, which means that practicing Muslims can buy a car without paying interest – paying interest is against Islamic principles. In the Sharia loan plan, the buyer pays a down payment and then arranges a financing plan. The size of the down payment determines how much is due each month.
Lee Auto Malls prides itself on looking at the whole picture of a client. While it is impossible for newcomers to have already established credit when they first arrive in the U.S., the company is “prepared to be a little flexible,” and to work with the client. Mr. Lee recommends that a car buyer who doesn’t speak English well should take someone along who does. He believes in extending a welcoming hand. Doing so is both good for business, Mr. Lee says, and is only fair to pay forward his ancestors’ positive experience as immigrants. He celebrates the thousands of Mainers whom he says are working hard to integrate New Mainers into the fabric of the state.
“We need new Mainers, and this wave of immigration will strengthen the state.
I urge others to join the Mainers who are helping these newcomers to thrive.”