Dealer Knew What He Wanted

BOWLING GREEN, KY – Since his college days in the late 1960s, Cornelius Martin knew he wanted to be a car dealer. Now ...

Cliff Banks

May 12, 2005

6 Min Read
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Ward’s Megadealer 100 BOWLING GREEN, KY – Since his college days in the late 1960s, Cornelius Martin knew he wanted to be a car dealer. Now he is a megadealer, the head of one of the top dealership groups in the nation.

His company has exploded in over size the last several years. Early in his life, Martin, an African American growing up on a farm, thought owning a garage and working on vehicles would be the best he could do. But working in a dealership cemented his love of the business and convinced him he could do more.

Today, Martin Management Group, with annual revenues of $372.4 million, is No. 86th on the 18th annual Ward's Megadealer 100, the oldest and most-comprehensive ranking of the country's top automotive dealer groups.

Cornelius Martin: Owns 15 dealerships.

Martin's 15 dealerships combined to sell 16,556 vehicles in 2004.

Martin Management also runs several real estate and insurance ventures and owns Co-Mar Aviation, which oversees full-service, fixed-base operations for the Bowling Green airport.

Martin never thought his company would become so large.

His first love is cars, he says. He was 14 and living on a tobacco farm in Greenville, KY, when he and a brother (Martin is the youngest of 15 children) bought a '57 Ford with the money they earned.

The brothers transformed the car into a tuner. “Of course, it wasn't like the kids do it today,” laughs Martin referring to eye-catching wheels, spoilers and assorted aftermarket accessories. The vehicle didn't last long. It was wrecked in a year.

In 1968, Martin started working at a General Motors Corp. dealership washing and fixing cars. He then attended Wright State University in Dayton, OH, in 1969. He left after a year to work fulltime at the dealership.

Martin Franchise Portfolio

Martin Cadillac

Bowling Green, KY

Martin Kia

Bowling Green, KY

Martin Dodge, Jeep, Chrysler

Bowling Green, KY

Fairfield Ford

Fairfield, OH

Planet Ford

Centerville, OH

Saturn of Bowling Green

Bowling Green, KY

Saturn of Charleston-Huntington

Hurricane, WV

Saturn of Dayton North

Dayton, OH

Saturn of Dayton South

Dayton, OH

Saturn of Des Moines

Des Moines, IA

Saturn of Ontario

Ontario, CA

Saturn of Tempe

Tempe, AZ

Martin Chevrolet

Hurricane, WV

Martin Chevrolet

Carlisle, OH

Thoroughbred Chevrolet

Lexington, KY

Lincoln Mercury of Dayton

Dayton, OH

Hurricane Hummer

Hurricane, WV

Hurricane Saab

Hurricane, WV

In 1977, Bob Shannon, owner of the Dayton Shannon Buick Co., began recruiting Martin to be a service technician for him. By then, Martin had determined he wanted to own a dealership. He figured he could pull it off. But for an African American in the 1970s, owning a dealership was a bold and ambitious notion.

Martin, who was 29 at the time, told Shannon he wanted to be a car dealer, and that he would work for him if Shannon would help him to one day to own a dealership.

Shannon agreed. For the next several years, Martin worked a methodical plan at the Buick dealership, running the service department for three years and then selling cars for three years with the intent of learning the business.

Even with Shannon's mentorship, it was not easy. Not only did Martin have to overcome the challenges that come with being a black man in the South, he also had to deal with resentment of co-workers because of his deal with Shannon.

“The office politics were certainly an issue,” Martin says. “Sometimes, fellow employees didn't see the hard work or long hours; they only saw the results that came from that hard work.”

Martin stuck with it. in 1983, he graduated from General Motors Dealer Academy in Flint, MI and began looking for an opportunity. But he did not jump at initial opportunities, turning down a dealership in Buffalo, NY.

Instead, Martin meticulously studied the growth trends of several cities, narrowing his choices to St. Louis, MO, and Bowling Green.

He settled on Bowling Green because of its low unemployment rate and the growing population. In April 1985, Martin purchased his first store, an Oldsmobile-Cadillac dealership that was averaging a modest 20 new-and used-vehicle sales a month.

Martin transformed the dealership through renovations, aggressive marketing and extended business hours. By 1990, he began acquiring other dealerships.

In an interview at his office in the Martin Cadillac Kia dealership (he added the Kia franchise when GM eliminated the Oldsmobile brand), Martin answers questions thoughtfully.

He does not mention the challenges he encountered except when prodded. He believes it is more difficult to become a dealer today than when he bought his first store.

“Getting the financing to buy a dealership is so hard today,” he says, noting he used approximately $60,000 of his life savings, along with $650,000 in capital from GM and the banks to buy his original dealership.

Today, he notes, personal investment can run into the millions of dollars to acquire a dealership. In fact, Martin has been stymied in attempts to get into some markets because of the huge investment required.

“Just too much money,” he says, adding that “Some markets are tougher politically to get into than others.”

Being flexible is part of his strategy. “When buying a store, you need a Plan A, a Plan B, and sometimes a Plan C,” he says. “Sometimes Plan C is deciding not to buy.”

Martin has branched out across the country with dealerships in California, Arizona, Ohio, Iowa and West Virginia.

Raising capital, hiring the right people and dealing with an increasingly difficult legal environment are some of the challenges he cites.

“How do you prevent possible lawsuits?” Martin asks. “Sometimes you're shooting in the dark. We're constantly monitoring our people and looking to hire the best. And we try to develop strong processes for our team.”

Martin never buys a dealership without doing his homework first. The store must be strong, even if it's poorly run.

He determines the health of the franchise; and studies the long-term forecasts, demographics and growth trends of the area before investing.

For Martin, the health of the franchise is critical. “So much of a dealership's profitability depends on the franchise,” he says. “Performance of the manufacturer affects the profitability of the dealership.”

Revenue for his stores was down in 2004 from 2003, including the return on investment, says Martin. Some of it is due to the troubles facing some of the domestic brands, specifically GM. Like other dealer groups, Martin is looking for more import opportunities to compensate. But there are few of those dealerships available.

He is excited about the Saturn brand, however. “Its future is bright,” he says.

There is a set process in place for when the Martin group acquires a dealership. Six vice presidents will take the operations and administration teams into the new store for a few days to introduce the group's practice for conducting business, otherwise known as the Martin Doctrine.

'We have strict controls and reporting processes,” says Martin. “There is a common policy manual that everyone has to follow from day one.”

Martin, 56, and his wife Gail have two children in college and one in high school. Martin is not sure if they will follow him into the business. “We'll look at it in the next five to seven years,” he says. “Probably, we'll have them work for someone else to work their way up the ladder, and then bring them back here.”

As for himself, he says, “I figure I'm good for another 10 years at least.”

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