Community//

Gary Ackerman: “Leadership is but the opportunity to serve the team you lead”

Autism is an epidemic in America, affecting 1 out of every 59 children born in our country. No other malady even comes close to those numbers. Families have to fight to get any insurance at all in most states. In Nevada, for instance, we are lucky that our state mandates coverage. Sadly they don’t get […]

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Autism is an epidemic in America, affecting 1 out of every 59 children born in our country. No other malady even comes close to those numbers. Families have to fight to get any insurance at all in most states. In Nevada, for instance, we are lucky that our state mandates coverage. Sadly they don’t get involved in the rate structure so all the insurance companies want to pay the same or a bit less than Medicaid. Our Medicaid rate is one of the lowest in the country so every time the center sees a child, they lose money! Our society needs to understand that if we can diagnose and treat these children when they are babies, it will save literally millions of dollars in support that they will need when they are adults and can’t hold down a job.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gary Ackerman.

Gary Ackerman’s presence has been felt in Las Vegas since 1922 when his grandfather started automotive dealership, Gaudin Ford. As a Las Vegas native, Ackerman graduated from Valley Highschool and went on to study Philosophy at The University of the Pacific in Stockton, California in 1974. Ackerman has since returned to Vegas and has made an impact in not only the automotive industry but in the lives of many families who have been impacted by autism. Being an advocate for autism in Clark County for the last 25 years, Ackerman takes place as the vice-chairmen on the Board of Directors for Grant a Gift Autism Foundation. Throughout the years Ackerman and his family have committed to major financial contributions to their namesake, the UNLV Ackerman Autism Center. They wanted to ensure there was a place in Las Vegas to help those affected by spectrum disorders. The Autism Center provides physicians, psychologists, and speech and behavioral therapists, for comprehensive diagnosis, treatment plan, follow-up care, and support services. In partnership with the Ackerman Autism Center, Grant a Gift supports assessment and treatment through various programs and services that help prepare individuals with autism to live as independent adults with functioning roles in our community.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My family has represented Ford Motor Company since my grandfather started our business in 1922. When I graduated college in 1974, I felt compelled to try it on and see if it fit. It did!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

It is very hard to choose one for more than 3 decades. I have been blessed to work with Ford Motor Company on a number of their dealer committees. Over the years it has to lead me to have close relationships with several of the Ford family members. We are very caught up in our family’s history with Ford, and these personal relationships, really bring that history to life again.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Also, hard to settle on just one! I started selling cars at a Ford store in Southern California after graduating from college. I had been there for about 6 months when I got my very first client that wanted multiple trucks. Of course, I panicked!!! It was in the middle of a huge, weekend sale, and I ran out into the showroom and walked up to the owner of the dealership with paperwork that was far from complete. He was unusually upset and tore the paperwork up and told me to start over. What I didn’t know was that the client had followed me and was right behind me! The owner thought I did it on purpose and wanted to teach me a lesson. It worked!!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

I am very involved in the world of autism and its related disorders. Quite a few of our team members have joined me on this journey. We really emphasize community involvement in our organization, but we don’t require or expect them to follow our personal missions. Our continued efforts have helped bring the Grant a Gift Autism Foundation into a partnership with the new UNLV School of Treatment. This partnership has been able to open a team-based clinic for the diagnosis, treatment, and support of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. We have been open a bit over 3 years and have served over 4,000 families.

Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?

Our oldest son, Andrew, was diagnosed on the spectrum when he was 10. There was not one, certified, a neuropsychologist in the entire state of Nevada then. He is now 36 and finding his way in the world while holding down a job, driving, and maintaining his own condominium.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Autism is an epidemic in America, affecting 1 out of every 59 children born in our country. No other malady even comes close to those numbers. Families have to fight to get any insurance at all in most states. In Nevada, for instance, we are lucky that our state mandates coverage. Sadly they don’t get involved in the rate structure so all the insurance companies want to pay the same or a bit less than Medicaid. Our Medicaid rate is one of the lowest in the country so every time the center sees a child, they lose money! Our society needs to understand that if we can diagnose and treat these children when they are babies, it will save literally millions of dollars in support that they will need when they are adults and can’t hold down a job.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is but the opportunity to serve the team you lead. It isn’t where you “blow your own horn”. Due to my grandfather’s and father’s vision and foresight, I have worked in just about every position there is in an automotive store. I understand what it takes to perform in those positions and I still try to work with our teams as one of them, not one over them. We expect a lot of our team members and they know that if a guest or a client feels dissatisfied that they will eventually end up in my office complaining. We empower our staff to take care of our guests and clients and we expect them to do just that. This really is a family business and everyone on our team knows it and lives it.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

This question makes me smile as there were quite a few “ah-hah” moments as I moved along in my career.

These are all simple, looking back. Our vision is always so clear looking back! I guess the first would be when you go to work every day, go to work, don’t just go! I don’t think there is one example, there is an example every day!

Next would be, never to guess when answering an inquiry from a guest. When you guess in the business, and you guess wrong, the guest “hears” a lie. Right or wrong that is what our industry earned us a reputation and you have to prove to the guest that you are different.

Similarly, you are never half right or half wrong. When I was working in California I would be instructed to negotiate with a disgruntled customer. “See if they will be happy if we absorb half the bill”. That sort of thing. It is common in many industries but I have never been comfortable with that philosophy. If we make a mistake, our team members are instructed to “own the mistake”. We apologize first, admit the mistake and resolve the entire mistake. It often takes clients by surprise but they are always delighted. That creates real trust, more so than if they never had a problem to begin with. Trust is what creates owner loyalty and you have to earn it.

Stay in touch with your clients is another. I think it is difficult to learn because there is no immediate reward that the team member can see or touch. It isn’t really difficult but it takes self-discipline that has to be learned. It is SO much easier with today’s technology then it was when I hand wrote notes every 3 months. If nothing else, show your clients that you care enough to stay in touch. When you mix humans and machines, it is never perfect forever and they will reach back out to you if you give them a reason too. Caring about them is a reason!

Lastly on this, one of my favorite quotes is “The only decision we have, is what to do with the time we are given”. I say this to myself every day. It is a business driver as well as a life lesson. I wish I had spent more time focusing on this simple saying much earlier in life.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

This is a personal question so it will have a personal answer. I would change the way our governments, both State and Federal, view autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. Today, for the most part, they are viewed as behavioral disorders and aren’t viewed as medical conditions. This causes Medicaid and insurance coverage to not exist at all in the worst case. In the best case, it provides some coverage but nothing close to the cost of diagnosis and treatment. This is simply the most pervasive medical problem in our country, period!! It is so much more expensive for our government and our communities to provide for adults that never receive proper diagnosis and treatment than it is to provide that as early as possible. With today’s advancements, diagnosis can be done as early as 12 months old. If that early diagnosis takes place, the children have a very real chance to climb back into a position where they can provide for themselves instead of facing a lifelong journey of being supported by someone or something else.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you are right” Henry Ford. I love where this came from, of course. I guess the reason I love it so much is that it is both philosophies in business but also in life. I have always shared it with my children and our leaders in our business. It is what I hope our leaders teach our team members. I always tell our leaders that the reason they have a job is that all our team members are human, and that means they will make mistakes. If they were perfect, we wouldn’t need the leaders! It is personal because I spent many years of my life trying to prove myself to my father. Not because he didn’t believe in me, but rather because I didn’t think he did. I see evidence every day in our company of people performing at extraordinary levels because they believe they can. That is possible in all of us.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Well, the first name that comes to my mind is J.R.R. Tolkein. Of course, that isn’t possible because he passed away many years ago. I became a fan of his writing while a junior in high school. His Lord of the Rings is the classic “even the smallest of us can change the world” story and it was much like a philosophy lesson for me. The quote I used above about the only decision we have, came from this story.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

The only social media that I personally use is Instagram. It helps me stay in touch with the people I love, no matter where they are.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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