Signs of Smallville USA

Driving in northern Michigan, billboards of four dealerships stand out. Each has grown from a single location into two- and three-store groups. Since the scenic northern Michigan has no big cities, the communities these dealers serve are markets, lacking competing franchises of the same brand. In towns with names such as Roscommon (population 858) and Pinconning (pop. 1,291), Dean Arbour, Bob Feeny,

Driving in northern Michigan, billboards of four dealerships stand out. Each has grown from a single location into two- and three-store groups.

Since the scenic northern Michigan has no big cities, the communities these dealers serve are ‘single-point’ markets, lacking competing franchises of the same brand.

In towns with names such as Roscommon (population 858) and Pinconning (pop. 1,291), Dean Arbour, Bob Feeny, Scott McNamara and Bill Marsh are almost institutions.

They keep school buses, ambulances, fire engines and patrol cars operational on a 24/7 basis. They are the biggest advertisers for the local radio and TV stations and the county weeklies. They sponsor youth baseball teams, July 4 parades and Christmas parties.

While the volumes these dealers attain is small by the standards of the metro Detroit market to the southeast, they are more than sufficient to enable each of these dealers to invest in new or expanded facilities.

No metro-centric publicly owned dealership chain will purchase any of these dealerships, but their principals could care less. They like where they are and enjoy success in their own right.

An old axiom is that 20% of the dealers do 80% of sales and 80% of dealers do 20% of sales. Well, the upstate quartet is happier to be in the latter 80% although three of them started out in the metro Detroit market.

They're resigned to the fact that being “country” dealers, they'll probably never appear on the cover of a dealer magazine or end up with a manufacturer's mega-volume sales award.

Too small, too out of the way? Yet where would the auto makers be without their kind? Moreover, where would the residents of small communities be without small dealers to provide jobs and services?

Here's a rundown on Arbour, Feeny, McNamara and Marsh:

  • In Pinconning, Arbour is a Ford-Jeep dealer who draws customers from nearby Bay City all the way up the eastern Michigan shoreline of Lake Huron. As a Chevrolet salesman in Detroit, he wanted a Chevy franchise outstate. When the factory said no, he grabbed an ailing Ford store in Pinconning so as to be close to the great outdoors.

    Dedication to customers and to Pinconning itself has led to his expanding into nearby communities of West Branch and Tawas City, where his son and daughter run Ford-Mercury dealerships, respectively.

  • Feeny has dramatically expanded as the Chrysler-Dodge dealer in Midland. Son of a Detroit area auto parts dealer, he relocated his store three years ago into a new facility employing 73 persons.

    He bought a floundering Chrysler-Dodge store seven years ago in Gaylord, 120 miles north of Midland, and now has 23 employees there next to a new shopping mall anchored by Wal-Mart and Lowe's stores. “Gaylord is on a roll,' says Feeny. Brother Dan has a Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep dealership in Palatine, IL.

  • Marsh, based in Traverse City, the north country “metropolis,” became an Internet pioneer for his Buick-Pontiac-GMC, Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep and Saturn stores.

    Billboards stretching from central Michigan up Interstate 75 into the Upper Peninsula point drivers to www.marsh.com. He pioneered running Web photos of vehicle inventory.

  • In central Michigan, McNamara is another alumnus of Detroit's dealer ranks. He took over a struggling Ford-Mercury franchise in Roscommon and built it into such a profitable enterprise that he was able to renovate his facility and snare a small-town rarity — a Lincoln franchise.

He has expanded into a Ford-Mercury-Lincoln store in a nearby Grayling and a Ford-Mercury point a few miles south in Gladwin.

“My goal is to build a group of seven or eight dealerships in north-central Michigan,” he says. “After being in the Detroit market, it was quite a change coming up here. But employee and customer loyalty is its own reward. That's what you get in these towns.”

TAGS: Dealers Retail
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