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Why Is This Man Laughing?: A look at Chicago area car dealer Bob Rohrman

Bob Rohrman is one of the area’s largest car dealers in the midst of an epic downturn for the auto industry. He just sued a plastic surgeon for allegedly wooing away his third ex-wife. But, hey, for this irrepressible TV pitchman, the tank is always half full.

What’s the secret to selling a car? “To fall in love with the customer,” says Bob Rohrman.  

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When Bob Rohrman laughs, which is often, he starts with a hoot—usually a “Woooooooo!” of Pavarotti proportions. From hoot, he chortles. And from chortle, he giggles, a sound that resembles snickering and that he typically reserves for self-realizations and simple truths. Of course, the Rohrman guffaw works in reverse as well: Giggling can build to chortling, which can crescendo with a hoot. Laughter of any kind knocks him from his pins, staggering him almost like vertigo. Rohrman, 76, laughs most famously in the presence of television cameras, which catch him at least once a month filming goofy (and ubiquitous) commercials for the 14 Bob Rohrman Auto Group dealerships in Illinois that extend from Westmont to Gurnee and nearly all suburban stops in between. His familiar face is full with play, permanently mustachioed, and capable of animatronics. In these parts, he is to car deals what Tony the Tiger is to sugar-covered cereal. For added effect, he, too, employs a cartoon feline jungle creature as his mascot, Rohrie the Lion, who bellows the promise, “There is only one Bob ROOOHHHRRR-man!” toward the end of each commercial.

Because Rohrman is often laughing, he laughs even when trouble lurks all around him, which lately seems to be all the time. To start with the obvious, he stands as a big deal in a broken-down industry—there but for the grace of clunkers!—qualifying as the 22nd largest auto dealer in the country, with annual revenues totaling about $850 million, according to Indiana Business Magazine. (In addition to his giant paw prints in the Chicago area, Rohrman owns another dozen or so dealerships in his native Indiana, where he numbers among the state’s wealthiest individuals.)

And since trouble travels, it has followed him home, where until recently he lived with Ronda Kay Dannacher Rohrman, 47, the third of three former Mrs. Rohrmans. Some alleged particulars: About two years ago, Ronda began a furtive relationship with a local plastic surgeon, whom Rohrman sued last June for alienation of affection, an antique legal means of financially punishing those who steal the hearts of the theretofore happily hitched. “I’m an open book,” he told his Illinois divorce attorney, Enrico Mirabelli, who shared the tale of the Rohrmans’ love woes with the Chicago Sun-Times, which sent the story up the newswire, where it inspired nationwide gawking from sources as disparate as Fox News and the constitutional law guru Jonathan Turley.

“I said to him, ‘So you made the news, huh?’” says Lew Neuman, the architect and friend who has designed many of Rohrman’s dealerships. “And he said, ‘Wooooooooo, yeah, babe, what do you think about that?’”

Rohrman insists he thinks nothing of any of it—and to observe him is to believe him. “I’ve seen him cold at football games, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him sweat,” Neuman claims. So while the times are troubled, Rohrman is not. Enrico Mirabelli says, “I told him, ‘You remind me of a blind guy walking through a minefield, just whistling and happy, oblivious to all the danger around you.’” Pam Bockwinkel, the comptroller for Rohrman’s Illinois dealerships, adds, “August [2008] is when it really started hitting us across the board at all of the stores. When September wasn’t going much better, I asked him, ‘What do you think?’ Because at that point, everybody was all doom and gloom. He looked at me and said, ‘Babe, this could be really good for us. Those dealers that make it to the other side are going to be stronger and better prepared for what comes next.’”

“I used to worry about everything,” Rohrman explains. “That’s when I was younger and just starting out. I always would worry about losing all of my money and getting poor again. After I decided it was too easy to make money, I didn’t worry anymore.” Here, knowing what only he knows, he snickers.


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