Jeanette Shammas, Auto Dealer Powerhouse, Dies

Jeanette Shammas.

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES — Jeanette Shammas, a key figure in the Downtown auto dealership business and the widow of pioneering dealer Nick Shammas, has died. She was 93.

Shammas, the president and owner of the Shammas Group, passed away on Monday, March 17. She had been active in the family-run business until the last days of her life, coming to the Downtown headquarters daily. She also represented the Shammas Group, one of the largest dealer groups in the country, at meetings with manufacturers.

“She was very interesting in that she was very quiet and reserved. She didn’t bang the table or yell,” said Darryl Holter, her son-in-law and CEO of the Shammas Group. “She had a very calm demeanor, which is kind of refreshing.”

Jeanette Hilland was born in Chicago in 1920, and her parents moved to Los Angeles four years later. She grew up in Hollywood and attended USC for a year, though the family’s economic situation forced her to drop out. She worked for See’s Candy and then Bank of America.

While living in Hollywood she met Nick Shammas, a used car dealer. They married in 1942.

During World War II Nick and Jeanette operated a plant that made nuts and bolts for the war effort. In 1955, they purchased Felix Chevrolet and moved it to its current location near USC, where it stands out for its large Felix the Cat sign.

In the following decades the couple added a string of dealerships, including outlets for Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Cadillac, among others. They also owned commercial property including the Petroleum Building in South Park, along with the Workmen’s Auto Insurance Company. Their businesses employed nearly 1,000 people.

Nick Shammas died in 2003, and though many might have expected his 82-year-old widow to take a back seat in the business, that wasn’t the case.

“She came out even stronger. I think I saw more of her after he passed,” said Jan Perry, who represented the Ninth District on the City Council from 2001-2013 and frequently worked with the Shammas Group.

Perry, who currently serves as general manager of the city’s Economic and Workforce Development Department, added, “She was extremely charming and sociable. She was always surrounded by a group of people. She would be the focal point of any conversation.”

Jeanette Shammas took a particular interest in theater, Holter noted, pointing to contributions she made to Center Theatre Group and the USC School of Dramatic Arts. She was also a strong supporter of the growth of Downtown. She lived in South Park and played an important role in forming the Figueroa Corridor Partnership, the business improvement district for the area stretching between the southern end of Downtown and USC.

Holter recalled one other aspect that stood out.

“When we would have a lunch meeting, which happens a lot, she would always order a glass of sauvignon blanc,” he said. “She had one glass at lunch for the last 25 years. So when we would go to places they would know to have a glass of sauvignon blanc ready.”

Jeanette Shammas is survived by two daughters, Diane and Carole Shammas, her son-in-law Holter, and a granddaughter, Julia Shammas Holter.

A memorial service will be held this Friday, March 21, from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. at Bovard Auditorium on the campus of USC.

copyright 2014 Los Angeles Downtown News