Deana’s Auto Biz sits on a pie-shaped patch of asphalt, maybe only 10,000 sq.-ft. (929 sq.-m.) in all, at the corner of U.S. Highway 30 and SE 6th Street in Pendleton, OR.
The dealership has no service or parts departments and sells less than 100 pre-owned units per year. The 2-room office, no larger than a shipping container, has two desks, a sofa and a dachshund named Marley.
Deana’s Auto Biz is the automotive equivalent of Floyd’s Barber Shop in the vintage TV program “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“This is just a little, little, little show,” says owner Deana (pronounced DEE-na) Eckman. “This isn’t any big gig at all; it’s just me and my daughter. Before that, it was just me.”
However small, Deana’s Auto Biz has survived over the years, serving the transportation needs of the residents of Pendleton, which saw its last new-car dealership leave town years ago.
Eckman hasn’t always been a dealer. The Portland native moved to Pendleton, about 150 miles (240 km) to the west, after high school to work in production and as a janitor in the now-shuttered Monsanto fiberboard plant in nearby Pilot Rock. After 12 years, life in the plant began to wear on her.
“I just wanted to do something different,” she recalls. “I have a few family members in the Portland area who are in the car business. One of them said why don’t you try selling cars? I always liked cars so I thought I’d give it a try.”
She applied for a job and ended up getting hired at the now-closed Comrie Oldsmobile/Cadillac in Pendleton. Eckman sold new and used cars there from 1989 to 2001 and later served as finance manager.
Buoyed by the confidence and experience gained over 12 years with a franchise dealer, she decided her next step would be to open her current business.
“I just wanted to get out on my own,” Eckman says. “I rented a lot from a lady who was moving out of state, then I purchased our own property five years later.”
The auto industry was booming in 2001 when the National Independent Automobile Dealers Assn. listed 54,622 member dealers. The recession slashed that number to 36,418 in 2009. About 40 million used cars are sold annually by franchised dealers, independent dealers and private parties.
Over the years, Pendleton, population of about 17,000, had been known as wheat and rodeo town. It’s the birthplace of the Pendleton Woolen Mills, and although company headquarters is now in Portland the company’s iconic blankets are still produced in the original facility.
Pendleton’s unemployment rate is 7.4% and per-capital income $22,893, according to U.S. Census Bureau.
“The economy is pretty stagnant,” says East Oregonian Managing Editor Daniel Wattenburger. “We haven’t come back as strongly as the urban areas.”
“Everything has kind of tanked,” says a representative of the Pendleton Chamber of Commerce. But Deana’s Auto Biz has survived.
“I had a low overhead and for 14 years it was just me,” Eckman says. “I stayed small and just rode it out. Sales were not really affected.”
She and daughter Shelley Whitney, who joined the dealership last year after working as a manager of a Wells Fargo Bank branch in Pendleton, are proud of their store’s hometown feel.
“We like to sit down and get to know our customers,” Eckman says. “I’ve got customers who come in just to visit. They appreciate us being a female-owned dealership. Guys do a great job, but women just have a little more finesse and are better listeners.”
Whitney says post-transaction relationships are important. “We regularly touch base with customers. We see them around town and at the grocery store. We send them birthday and Christmas cards.”
Eckman spends $400 to $500 a month for small display ads in local newspapers, but she says the majority of her business comes from repeat business and referrals.
“Word of mouth spreads quickly in a small town, and the dealerships that last are the ones that do right by their customers,” says Andy Friedlander, NIADA’s director-communications.
Trying to find quality pre-owned vehicles has become more of a challenge for Deana’s Auto Biz since the local franchise dealers left town.
“When we had new-car dealers here, I used to purchase used cars from them that they had been carrying for 60 or 90 days and wanted to get rid of,” she says. “Those were the easy days, when you could hook up with a local dealer and take a look at their front line stuff. That really made it easy. But now things have changed.”
Another challenge: “Franchise dealers have become more aggressive in pursuing used-car sales, which has taken some of the market share away from independents over the past several years,” says Friedlander.
Eckman today acquires most of her stock at auctions in Portland and Spokane, WA, online and through trade-ins. Enterprise and Hertz rental agencies are steady sources as well.
“You just have to know what the market is, who you’re selling to and what’s selling the most,” she says. “If Chevy Cruzes are hot, we try to keep one or two in stock. It’s a blue- collar area so we have to keep prices moderate.
“We watch what we sell. If it’s a good product, and it seems like we can’t keep it on the lot, we try to keep it going like that. Younger people want navigation (systems), so we try to (stock) those vehicles.”
Deana’s Auto Biz is still able to offer finance and insurance products such as service plans and gap insurance. Service work is referred to local shops.
“We’ve cultivated relationships with some really good mechanics here in town,” Whitney says. “They’re certified, they do a good job and they understand we have a business to run. They take care of us.”
Whitney’s experience in the lending industry brings specialized expertise to the business. “For the past 12 or 13 years I’ve (focused) more on the subprime market,” she says. “I worked at American General Finance, Citi Financial, and then Wells Fargo. If anyone has had any credit blemishes in their past, we know how to work with that.
“It takes a little more elbow grease to get something like that done but we can get it done, that’s for sure. We have great relations with lenders who cater to that kind of clientele.”
Like many car dealers, Deana’s Auto Biz wants to grow, but not in the same way new- car dealers do. There will be no new shiny showroom or added acreage.
“I think we’re going to stay here,” Whitney says. “There’s plenty of space to accommodate what we want to do. We don’t want to expand the size of the car lot. We want to keep it small because it’s just my mom and me working here.”