Some of these True Stories have been difficult to write and frankly bring back many good and bad memories. Although this story has a happy ending, it also brings some pain…the pain of making a very difficult decision.
The Early Days
I’ve never been a quitter, it is not in my DNA. I walked away from my first job in a dealership in my early 20s after going from wash boy to General Manager. I went to work for a dealership as a salesperson and did what I had to do. You can read about that in True Story #12.
I was a Buick dealer in 1986 and got out in 1988, and it was a disaster I still have not written about, but will in the future. Once you’ve had your name on the front of a dealership, it is hard to walk away, but I had no choice.
From there, I went to work for the man I bought the Buick dealership from. He owned a Chevy dealership in a fairly rural town in North Texas and I was hired as the General Sales Manager. The dealership was doing poorly and I didn’t have much time to turn it around. I gave it my best shot, but I think since I was well known in the business, I didn’t get a lot of cooperation from people inside the dealership. I felt like I was hitting brick walls everywhere I turned and the man who hired me was never there.
One day the General Manager of the Chevy store, who was a truly nice guy but had his back against the wall, called me in and fired me. It was less than 90 days from when I started. I remember he had tears in his eyes, and I understood. The dealership could not afford my salary.
Starting Over, Again
It was time to regroup and take stock of myself. It was 1990 and I was 33-years old. I’d been a dealership owner, a General Manager twice, and had started over twice, facing it again. To make matters worse, I had gone through a nightmare divorce that started in 1987 and was nowhere near finalization by 1990.
I needed to clear my head, but I needed to make money too, so decided to start at the bottom once again. I had a friend who was the GM at a Cadillac dealership in Dallas and went to see him. He told me he didn’t have any manager openings, and I told him I just wanted a job selling cars. He looked shocked, gave me a hug, and said: “Welcome to Lone Star Cadillac.”
I worked hard there. It was more laid back than any place I’d been. I was used to working until 9 PM or later six days a week if there were customers, but this place closed at 8 PM during the week, and at 6 PM on Saturday. I had a new Sedan DeVille to drive and on weekends, I could drive something like a convertible just by asking. I had no stress, was making decent money, working fewer hours than I ever had, and life was OK. I was fairly sure I could go for years like that.
The Phone Call
Then came the call. A man slightly younger than me had purchased the Ford dealership in Garland, TX with some partners. A number of my former employees went to work there and told the dealer he needed to contact me. He called one day out of the clear blue and I said I wasn’t really looking. He asked if I would just agree to talk to him, and I did.
He wanted me to oversee a new department called the Business Development Center (BDC), which is where one person oversees all the incoming phone calls and emails, which there weren’t many of at the time, but the numbers were growing. Salespeople would take shifts in the room, and I would help them sell cars.
Somehow I could not see myself cooped up in a room all day. I liked live interaction with customers, where the action was. I politely declined. He called me back in a few days later, with the same offer except this time for more money. I again politely declined. He called me back a third time, this time to say he found someone in the dealership to take the boiler room job, made me a really nice offer as a sales manager, and I accepted. I saw something in this dealership. It was dead last in DFW in volume and I knew I could help change that. My first day was a Saturday in the summer of 1990.
We rolled up our sleeves, put together a great team, and things started taking off. The guy with whom I worked side-by-side and I got to be great friends, and he eventually would become my General Manager a decade later, but I digress.
Becoming No. 1
Sometime in late 1992 we outsold the long-time #1 Ford dealer in Dallas-Fort Worth for the first time, and we never looked back. In the meantime, the guy who hired me got his second dealership based on the quick turnaround we had at the dealership I was at.
Sometime between the second and third dealership the owner purchased, the privately held auto group we were a part of bought a dealership in Portland, OR and a dear friend of mine – who was my General Sales Manager – took the head job in Portland and moved, and I took his place.
Within a year, the dealer who hired me got his third dealership and moved his office away, promoted me to General Manager, and we continued to grow, now in the top ten in America in Ford sales volume.
Becoming a Partner
One day in 1996, I got a shocker of a phone call from one of the dealership partners. The man who hired me was going off on his own, and the partners wanted me to purchase his shares of the dealership. Previously, I had little interaction with the out-of-state partners but jumped at the chance. Paperwork was done, and in a matter of a few weeks, I was the managing partner of the biggest Ford dealership in the Lone Star State.
Every department in the 35-year old facility was bulging at the seams. On Saturdays, we had to take the cars off the showroom and set up folding tables and chairs for people to buy cars. We had more service work than we could take in, so we immediately started plans for a new facility that would take us from 9 acres to 29 acres, with all new buildings.
It took a couple of years to complete everything and then we had a huge grand opening. As was the plan, we went to a much higher level of sales in every department. Of course, with that, came a substantially higher overhead, but I quickly adjusted to that.
By 1999 we were selling over 700 new Fords and about 200 used, but we had many months where we did over 1000 vehicles. By this time I was heavily involved in the Ford National Dealer Council. Because of our success, I had the opportunity to buy one of the failed Ford Auto Collection stores in Oklahoma City (True Story #27) and I jumped at the chance.
As if I didn’t have enough on my plate, Ford put on a full-court press for me to take over a Lincoln-Mercury and Mazda dealership. Without disclosing details, I could get into it for nothing, which frankly was what it was worth. Oh, and I took over a Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram dealership also, this one in Dallas, near downtown.
Things rocked on for a few years. Oklahoma City was making a little money, the Dodge store was as well. The Lincoln-Mercury Mazda dealership was losing money, and the big Ford store was doing well profit-wise, but the volume was waning and this dealership was built on big volume.
By mid-2005 the Ford business started to really nosedive nationally. Ford had not introduced many new models, and our diesel trucks were a disaster with all the problems with the 6-liter Powerstroke (True Story #18).
My partners and I decided to try to sell the Oklahoma City store while it was worth pretty good money, to sell the Lincoln-Mercury Mazda store for whatever it would bring, and by this point, the Dodge store was already sold.
Selling dealerships is neither quick nor easy, but I got the dealerships sold and came out OK on them. I was back to just the big Ford store at the start of 2006, but it wasn’t as big as it used to be. Volume had fallen from 9000 new vehicles a few years before, to about 4000 by 2006. I had cut the staff from 400 to roughly 200, the hardest task of my career. These were people who were employees, but they were also family.
The End of the Road
As we started 2006, I was beat. I was tired, felt somewhat defeated, and was burned out. Looking ahead, I saw the car business becoming very difficult. It was then I knew I had a decision to make. My choices were easy…settle in for a rough five years or get out. It was then I realized I wasn’t having fun anymore and I always said that when it wasn’t fun, I would be done.
I met with my partners and as per our agreement, they had to first option to purchase my shares of the dealership, which they exercised.
On May 15, 2006, I walked to my car, briefcase in hand, and drove away for the last time. Before I put the car in reverse, I looked back to see dozens of my staff standing there, many with tears in their eyes, waving, and I drove away.
My partners kept the dealership for about a year, and sold everything, ironically to the guy who hired me in 1990. The new showroom I built was bulldozed and is a Racetrack service station now. The entire dealership moved across the street into what I built as a used car showroom.
When I left the dealership for the last time, I headed straight for Arkansas to a place I owned there and turned off my cell phone. I knew the automotive press was going to hound me, so I gave my longtime, wonderful assistant Judy a written statement to send to the reporters.
I granted only two interviews. One was to Terry Box at the Dallas Morning News, who is a car reviewer for me today, and one to the Detroit News, with which I had a great relationship for many years.
Here are some of my answers from the Detroit News interview:
Q. I was asked why I got out.
A. Honestly, I think I finally just burned out. The Texas economy has been very difficult for several years, and I was tired of fighting it. Having a huge store, then downsizing it, was a much more difficult job than I thought. This was all about me. My partners have been very good to me. Ford has likewise been good to me, and, as I said to a reporter after meeting (Ford Americas Group President) Mark Fields, I felt better about the future than I had in a long time. Ford has a plan, and they are sticking to it, and I believe they are on the right track.
Q. I mentioned the business was not fun anymore, and they wanted me to expound.
A. I enjoyed building Prestige Ford. We went from last place in Dallas to No. 1 in Texas. In April of 2002, we beat Galpin (the largest Ford dealership in the world) and were No. 1 in the country. All that was fun. Going from 400 employees to under 200 was not fun.
Q. I was asked to reflect on my time as Ford National Dealer Council, Ford changes, Jac Nasser, and the turn-around plan after Nasser was fired.
A. I got a nice e-mail from Jac yesterday actually. It’s been a fun ride. I got involved in the dealer council process because I was so angry about Ford buying dealerships and competing with its dealers (again, True Story #27). I’d always wanted to help the dealers and represent them. Those were very difficult times, and dealer relations were at an all-time low. It’s funny now, but Ford and the dealers were both making money hand over fist, yet neither side was satisfied.
Q. I was asked about the Firestone tire saga.
A. Firestone (True Story #9) was a tough one because it took so much of my time. Ford did a lot of things right with the Firestone issue and never got any credit for it. Nobody today really knows how much Ford spent trying to do the right thing when it should have been Firestone footing the bill. The dealers deserved a lot of credit for saving the Explorer.
Q. They wanted to know about the Blue Oval initiative.
A. I endorsed the Blue Oval plan (True Story #29) only after making a ton of changes to it. The FDA (Ford Dealer Alliance) and some other dealers thought I was the anti-Christ, but looking back, it was a really good program that took Ford’s customer satisfaction ratings to another level and made the dealers a ton of money. I’m most proud of being on the forefront of FordDirect (True Story #30) and also for the startup of today’s Ford used car certification program.
Q. I was asked about the future of Ford.
A. It’s a product-driven business, there’s no doubt, but reporters have a short memory. A few years ago, Ford was being praised for having the broadest range of trucks and SUVs. Toyota and Nissan rushed to catch up. Gas goes to three bucks a gallon, and now Toyota and Nissan are geniuses and Ford and Chevy are idiots.
Q. They asked if there were any stopping Toyota?
A. Absolutely, and that’s nothing against them. I have much respect for Toyota, but they’ll get too big and make mistakes. They’ll either get greedy and price their cars too high or de-content them. Or, they’ll start messing with their dealers. Whatever car company’s turn it is to have the hot hand, always does.
Q. I was asked where I saw the “big three” in 10 years.
A. I see all three healthy, but much smaller companies.
Photo Credit: Dim Tik/ShutterstockTags: True Stories From a Former Car Dealer