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  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.
Since ubiquity in advertising requires that he be a man of all seasons, five weeks before Halloween Rohrman transforms into Count Bobula, an undead TV pitchman who deflates high car prices with his fangs. In black velvet cape, malevolent-looking plastic medallion, and usual prescription glasses, he stands atop the grated metal floor of the parts storeroom at Bob Rohrman’s Schaumburg Ford, ready to make fresh commercial camp. “We’re going to do this thing where you’re spinning around really fast onscreen,” instructs Carolyn Byrne, the videographer at Axiom Advertising, the firm for which Rohrman supplied the seed money about 15 years ago. “But so you don’t have to spin around really fast here, I’m going to have you turn around slowly three times,” Byrne continues. “Just don’t go so fast that you get dizzy. I can speed it up in the editing room.”
“Okay,” Rohrman says warily. This is his game spirit: Like Jack Nicholson, there is virtually no role he won’t attempt. Thus, over the years, he has played Don Bob (for a Godfather takeoff), Rhett Bobler (for a Gone with the Wind spoof), Super Bob (his superhero persona), Santa Bob (for Christmas), and relationship expert Dear Bob (for Valentine’s Day). Because it seems appropriate given his current love trouble, a Dear Bob sampling: “Dear Bob, my girlfriend wants me to pop the question. What do I do?” asks the scripted beau. “Get down on your knees, look her in the eye, and say, ‘Honey, would you like your new Suzuki with low APR financing or cash back?’” Dear Bob answers.
And now here is Count Bobula—his Halloween alter ego. For maximum spookiness (and camp), strips of yellow caution tape, exhaust manifolds, and a severed toy head hang behind him—illuminated by two strobe lights and suspended in a heavy fog provided by a hand-held fogger. (The production budget—zilch.) “Fog me, babe!” Rohrman calls out often to Rick Copper, Axiom’s creative director and fogger operator. (Because finances and inventories monopolize Rohrman’s memory, names freely escape it; as a result, all living beings are “babe”—regardless of chromosomal breakdown. For the record, he is most commonly referred to as “Chief” or “Mr. Rohrman.”) A candlelit, carved Bob-o’-lantern flickers near his feet. This, Rohrman proclaims, will scare no one. “I’m a pretty pumpkin!” he announces. (Although later he threatens to leave it atop the desk of the store’s general manager, a reminder that here—and at all of his other dealerships—he looms imposingly.) Since the car business waits for no commercial shoot, the building’s HVAC system whirls constantly in the background, and the overhead pager bleats, “Sam Shalabi, you have a call on 1000. Sam Shalabi, 1000.”
On cue, Rohrman spins three times and recites his line: “Go to where you always win!”
“Perfect!” Copper yells from off camera.
Rohrman wavers, performing a couple of deliberately unsteady dance steps for effect before laughter coils his torso and places him firmly upright again. “I went too fast! I was kind of dizzy there!” He takes a sip from a bottle of water and then Count Bobula grabs hold of him once again. “Do you have a tailpipe for me to swing? I want to slice me a good deal!”
Love, the secret to his success: “What is the key to selling someone a car?” I ask from the passenger seat of a light gold Lexus RX350, the car that Rohrman is driving on this particular day. (To know his product is to drive his product, so on other days in my presence he will commandeer a light gold Prius, a white Toyota Sienna minivan, and a blood red Taurus SHO, and proudly point out the silver Ford Flex that already has been set aside for him to take for a test spin; he maintains a dealership for nearly every car manufacturer—from Lexus and Acura to Kia and Saturn.) “To fall in love with the customer,” he answers without hesitation. “That’s it! Because you’re not talking about $500, you’re talking about thousands of dollars, or for some of these cars, a hundred thousand dollars. So if you like the customer, he is going to like you.” After all, everything starts with a woo—even if it comes out as more of a “Wooooooooo!”
Evidence that there is indeed only one Bob Rohrman: Like his pioneer predecessors Abe Lincoln and Daniel Boone, he was born in a log cabin, the ninth child in a brood that ultimately would reach 11. “When my mother was pregnant with me, my parents decided to move to Lafayette, Indiana, where they rented this farm,” he cheerfully recounts. “They loaded up my dad’s work truck with everything they had and drove to the place where the guy who owned the farm lived. But when they got there, he told them, ‘The guy who is supposed to move out of the farmhouse needs to stay on the property for a couple more months. I do have a one-room log cabin in the woods right down the street from it, though.’ So I was born right in that log cabin.”
Rohrman sold his first car at age 22 in his virgin hours of selling cars for Glenn R. Pitman, the Lafayette Ford dealer he went to work for after returning from the Korean War. “The best time to sell a car is right after you’ve sold one, because you’re on a real high. You can sell anybody! So you sell another one right away, and then you sell another one right after that!” The unofficial Pitman mantra: “There is an ass for every seat.” To locate those required asses, Rohrman called every number in the Lafayette phone book. “I enjoyed talking to people I didn’t know and finding out a little information about them. Plus, the more you find out about them, the easier it is to sell them a car.”
After shaking loose from Pitman in the mid-1960s, Rohrman paved his future with pebbles, starting his own used car business from a gravel lot situated on Lafayette’s outskirts. In an act of heartland blasphemy a few years later, he became a Toyota dealer, placing Japanese imports upon sacred American gravel. “We were sinners,” he says. “We had to go to church twice on Sunday.” But: “The first guy I sold a Toyota to came back a few days later and said, ‘I’ve never had a better car. I just love it!’ That’s what sold all of the other cars—those customers.” In the early 1980s, Rohrman descended upon Schaumburg—a brief scouting trip indicated unrivaled Toyota sales in the area but nary a Honda dealership. “The next day I called the Honda guys in California and told them, ‘I was up in Schaumburg, Illinois, where the Toyota dealer is selling 300 cars a month. I want a Honda point there.’ And that’s how I got Schaumburg Honda.”
From this point, he became an auto Titan—straddling the Illinois/Indiana divide like the Skyway and using his ever-growing revenue to add one new dealership about every 18 months. “I haven’t blown the money I’ve made on things like a yacht,” he explains. “I put the money back into the company. I enjoy working more than sitting on a yacht in the middle of the Mediterranean anyway.” (To this point, his workweek encompasses virtually every waking hour. “Just don’t call me after midnight,” he tells me when we first meet.) In Lafayette, he reigns as the hometown Warren Buffett—although he primarily dines at the Golden Corral buffet chain. (The blueprint for his exceedingly modest house in Lafayette, built by an older brother, came from a book he bought at a drugstore; he also owns a troika of Illinois residences—a house in Downers Grove and condos in Schaumburg and Chicago.)
Every year, Rohrman lopes to nearby Purdue University, where he bestows collected wisdom (life and career) on its business students. And because he keeps all matters simple—thereby confusing nothing—he advises that they follow his two basic, homespun tenets for successful empire building. First: “You’ve got to enjoy what you do; otherwise, it’s work.” And second: “Never give up. You’ll get knocked down lots of times—everybody does. But you’ve got to get up, and the ones that get up the most and the fastest are the ones that are going to win.”
He prints his own money—Rohr Bucks! His grinning mug usually beams from their center, no solemn ex-president necessary. Their small print cautions, “This note is not legal tender.” But this is a mere technicality. Each September at the Rohrman Auto Group’s annual Cash Dash event, a bonuspalooza that rewards the company’s salespeople for a job well done, Rohr Bucks can be redeemed for tens of thousands of dollars in green, standard-issue tender.
Following recent tradition, this year’s Cash Dash takes place within a spacious ballroom at a banquet hall in Kildeer, not far from Rohrman’s assortment of northwest suburban dealerships. The food is served buffet style—but of course. The mood of the 400 or so people in attendance is deliriously gleeful, their pockets ready for thick cash lining. And the moment is the immediate aftermath of the Cash for Clunkers program—60 glorious summer days of auto industry rebirth (if only briefly), when the U.S. government promised to reimburse dealers up to $4,500 every time a customer swapped a fuel-inefficient vehicle for a better one. Throughout the night, Rohrman carries a sheet of paper containing his personal clunker tally. He has scribbled on it: “1,890 clunkers. Average $4,100 per car. $7,749,000 owed from Uncle Sam.” (In total, the program inspired about 700,000 new car purchases nationwide during July and August and helped the Rohrman Auto Group to its best months ever.) “Does it concern you that the government owes you so much money?” I ask when he shows me his calculations. “No, not really,” he responds between bites of a cookie. (Within four weeks, the government had repaid him nearly in full.)
Similarly, before and after the Cash Dash, I ask about his nerves during the desperate pre-Clunker months of early and mid-2009 when national sales were off by as much as 35 percent from 2008 levels. “I was never nervous,” he answers uniformly. “We just had to control our expenses. We cut a lot of people we didn’t need because we weren’t selling as many cars, and we also shortened some people’s hours.” (And thus, he says, Rohrman Auto Group sales remained at least so-so: “We weren’t losing money. We were making money. We didn’t make as much as we did the year before, but we still made money.”)
In matters of business, his blithe spirit can be used as cover for Columbo-like misdirection and cunning. “A long time ago, we were working on an arbitration case together, and the attorneys were doing what they normally do—blustering,” recalls Paul Batchen, the general manager at Rohrman’s Palatine Lexus dealership. “They said something to him, and he goes, ‘Don’t ask me! I’m just a dummy!’ It’s at that point where you go, ‘Yeah, dumb like a fox.’” Of course, to outfox his opponents—whoever they are or whatever the means—with any regularity is to breed contempt. “There are people in the business who don’t like him, but they’re usually jealous of him,” Gene Kowalis, Rohrman’s friendly rival of more than two decades and the colorful proprietor of Orland Toyota and Orland Lexus, told me shortly before his death in October. “That’s what that amounts to. Hell, I’m jealous of him. But do I want 40 stores? No!”
In matters of negotiation, Rohrman swings granite fists—his best interests and bottom line paramount. In fact, no Rohrman purchase (neckties, watches, millions of dollars in electrical work) comes without a negotiation. “He would negotiate the purchase of a french fry if he thought he could get it for a few cents less,” says Lew Neuman, his architect/friend, trusted friendship being a prerequisite to doing business (or perhaps shared business interests a prerequisite to friendship). “That’s just his nature.” Also in his nature—disciplined and exhaustive stands whenever he believes he is in the right and blunt assessments of job performance and personal behavior. “You never have to worry about what he’s thinking, because he’s going to tell you,” says Pam Bockwinkel, his Illinois comptroller. “You may not like it, but he’s going to tell you.”
I have witnessed the Rohrman chill—Antarctic in its fierceness—when he promptly drops folksy charm for a direct articulation of exactly what he’s commanding. “Don’t try to fool me,” he bluntly tells a new hire who tries to whitewash his previous employer’s reputation. “I’ve been in this business too long. I’d just as soon see you resign before you try to fool me.” (“Bad hire, quick fire” is a well-tested Rohrman maxim.) Says Paul Batchen, “He’s not unlike a good attorney. He already knows the answer to whatever question he’s asked, and he knows when you’re trying to tap dance around that answer.”
All is good at the Cash Dash bacchanal, however. Rohr Bucks of every denomination (the usual tens, twenties, and hundreds, along with the occasional thousand) have been tucked into small envelopes and poured into large plastic containers that sit atop the room’s dais. Rohrman’s salespeople stand before them in groups of three, determinedly plucking purple currency in hopes of a big money score. (Their pulls coincide with their sales—that is, the more cars they sell the more pulls they get.) A few feet away, office managers—drawing from fat stacks of actual cash—change out Rohr Bucks for real money. (The Rohrman exchange rate: one dollar for one Rohr Buck, allowing most everybody to walk away with at least a few hundred dollars.) “I got you this year! I got you this year!” one salesman giddily proclaims to Rohrman, fanning him with a cluster of hundreds. From time to time, Rohrman will survey the tote boards that are monitoring how much cash he has handed out on this night. “Here’s somebody with $4,400 and another with $4,070,” he happily announces to the room.
“Many years ago, he said to me, ‘Cash is king. If you’ve got the cash, you’re king,’” recalls John Barrett, the general manager at Schaumburg Honda. “That’s where he’s at right now. He has the cash. So when somebody else is failing, he is in a position to take advantage of it.” Along these lines, I should mention the tie Rohrman wore to the Cash Dash—carnival in theme, rich in symbolism—upon which a stout lion rested comfortably on top of a collection of more ornate elephants, tigers, and stallions.
“You’re looking sharp there, babe!” Rohrman teases one of the managers at his Oak Brook Toyota dealership, whose snazzy Friday office attire includes a brown suede sport jacket, bronze-colored tie, and tasseled leather shoes. “Are you getting married this weekend?”
“No, I’ve made that mistake twice already, Chief,” the manager retorts.
“They say the third time is the charm,” Rohrman parries back.
“Or three strikes and you’re out!”
This inspires deep and intractable hooting, chortling, and giggling, followed by a substantial pause. Rohrman then offers the consideration of a thrice-married man: “I’ve heard that, too.”
“I love them all,” he offers to me unsolicited on a particularly contemplative night. (I am told that on other contemplative nights he will express a similar sentiment to close friends—a rare outward display of melancholy.) He loved Shirley first, with whom he has five children who are now grown, with sixteen children of their own. Next, he loved Linda, with whom he built his business and doted upon his grandchildren. (She made the Rohrman kingdom regal, dressing him in fancy threads imported from Hong Kong—one of his few outward displays of wealth.) Most recently, he loved Ronda, from whom he has parted clamorously. There are three ex-wives because he has but one true love. “The car business is the love of his life. It’s his everything,” says Pam Bockwinkel. Rohrman does not protest. “Each of my wives told me that: ‘The car business is number one. I’m number two.’” Business is also potent balm for all that ages and ails him—heartaches included: “I pay so much attention to the business that it takes everything else away.”
He met Ronda while she was working as a customer relations manager at Oak Brook Toyota in the late 1990s. They married in Kauai, Hawaii, three days after Christmas in 2002, in front of a tiny audience consisting of Ronda’s mother and two teenage daughters (Amy and Molly). His family remained away and leery—30-year age difference and all. After the Hawaiian vows, Rohrman, Ronda, Amy, and Molly reassembled in Downers Grove to make pleasant domestic life together. Small vestiges of their contented nuclear family abound today. Ronda is still listed in his cell phone under “Wifee,” Amy and Molly still appear in any Rohrman commercial that demands female foils, and pictures of their smiling faces still adorn his Lafayette office. But at some point during the ensuing years, marital strife turned up—the exact moment now the subject of messy litigation.
Scenes from their litigated marriage: According to the alienation of affection lawsuit, Rohrman alleges that Sami Bittar, a Chicago plastic surgeon who counted a Rohrman family member among his patients, seduced Ronda with expensive meals and gifts and contacted her continuously via e-mail and cell phone for “the purpose of initiating sexual relations and romantic rendezvous.” Not long after, Rohrman filed for divorce. A brief reconciliation followed—as did more straying with the surgeon, Rohrman claimed in an interview with the Sun-Times last summer. “He had kind of stolen her again,” Rohrman told the paper. “I don’t know how he did it.” In April, Ronda restarted divorce proceedings, which officially concluded in August with a confidential settlement. (Ronda offered only a one-line response to my interview request: “I don’t think what I would have to say about Bob Rohrman would be good for you to print.”)
In June, Rohrman leveled the alienation of affection charge against Bittar in DuPage County’s 18th Judicial Circuit Court—the Rohrman chill in full freeze and on display for all to see. “He did it to prove a point and to prove that he’s in control—to her, to the doctor, and to anybody else who wants to mess with him,” says Ryan Rohrman, his 25-year-old grandson and the used-car manager at Schaumburg Honda. “I can guarantee you that’s what it was.” Lew Neuman adds, “I always tell people who are dealing with him for the first time, ‘You better think twice about what you do here, because this is a man who is extremely resourceful, and if he catches you pulling a stunt, he’ll come after you and you’ll be sorry.’”
For his part, Bittar denies any role in souring the Rohrman marriage, and the doctor has moved to have the suit dismissed, a motion that resulted in a judge requesting that Rohrman replead his complaint by late December. “We believe Mr. Rohrman will be unable to plead or prove [Ronda’s love and affection for him],” Bittar’s lawyer, Michael Connelly, wrote to me in a letter. “In a separate legal proceeding, his former wife has provided sworn testimony that prior to [the] time of the alleged relationship, she was having significant stress and was unhappy in her marriage to Rohrman. Most certainly, we deny the alleged relationship was the cause of the Rohrmans’ marital breakup.”
“No, he is the reason,” replies Rohrman. He has asked for a rather arbitrary $50,000 in damages, though the odds against winning anything are thought to be long. “Most courts and states are hostile to the claims, viewing the affection already alienated before the entry of a second man or woman,” Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, explained on his blog, jonathanturley.org. (The alienation of affection accusation itself is obscure and rare—available in only eight states.) But because Rohrman is unmoved, he is immovable. Enrico Mirabelli says, “I told Bittar’s attorney, ‘There is a way to resolve this case, but we need your client’s autograph on a document that says, “Pay to the order of.”’ For us, money is no object. We have every intention of seeing this suit through to the very end.”
For now, Rohrman must sing. It is the mid-October dedication ceremony of the Rohrman Performing Arts Center, a gorgeous new wing of his alma mater, Lafayette Jefferson High School (class of 1952), the funding of which he kick-started with an initial gift of $3.5 million. Even the bathrooms and closets bear his name. “That’s what $3.5 million will get you,” he jokes. They have asked him to speak; he informed them that he would prefer to sing—his life mantra and Sinatra’s national anthem of hard-bitten life reconsidered: “My Way.” “It’s just like that song—I did it my way, babe,” he tells me again and again. (You know, regrets, he has a few, but, hey, babe, way too few to mention. He did what he had to do, saw it through, no exemptions. . . .)
His performance comes with a warning. “I know I’d do better if I had had training at the Rohrman Performing Arts Center, so hold on to your hats,” he tells the 1,000 or so people in attendance. He personally invited about 400 friends and family members, including three priests and each of the ex-wives. (The priests show; the ex-wives do not.) On a computer monitor, the “My Way” lyrics begin to scroll. Backed by generic karaoke accompaniment and amid healthy sound system reverb, Rohrman warbles them completely from start to finish (“The record shows I took the blows / And did it my waaaaaaaaay”)—perfectly spotlit against a crimson velvet backdrop on the giant auditorium stage he helped refurbish. When he concludes, those in the crowd rise for bemused clapping and playful shouts of “Bravo!” He, of course, is laughing.