Pinconning, Mi — Thirty-seven years after buying a run-down Ford dealership here, Dean Arbour has grown his “Arbourland” network to five stores in the rural northeastern corner of Michigan's lower peninsula.
Four decades ago, he headed north to become a small-town dealer. It has worked out well for him and his children who are now a part of his dealership network.
“I was a Chevrolet salesman and manager in Detroit during the 1960s and tried first to get a Chevy point outstate, but couldn't sew anything up,” recalls Arbour, 69. “Ford OK'd the Pinconning deal for $25,000 cash. GM's loss was Ford's gain, I guess.”
But he “returned to my Chevy roots” by ultimately acquiring a Chevrolet-Cadillac store in East Tawas, MI. “That's especially satisfying for me.” That store sells 75-80 vehicles a month.
After getting the first Ford store, Arbour began his expansion by adding an American Motors Corp. franchise in the 1970s. He retained a Jeep franchise after the former Chrysler Corp. bought AMC in 1987.
Arbour says he learned the fine points of dealering from colleagues at the old Jerry McCarthy Chevrolet dealership on Detroit's main thoroughfare, Woodward Ave.
Two of those colleagues became Chevrolet dealers, Marty Feldman and Jim Large. Another, the late Harry Demorest, had a Ford store.
“My mentor was Harry Demorest,” Arbour recalls, “But Jerry McCarthy was run by a true dealer legend, Bill Bundy, who was a real inspirational guy.
“I made $19,860 in my first year (1960, at a time when that was a decent wage) at McCarthy's — and never less than that for the following 10 years.”
Arbour has passed on his knowledge of auto retailing to his son Matthew D. Arbour and one of his two daughters, Colleen Arbour Chapleski, who work with him.
They are both college graduates. Matthew is principal at Dean Arbour Ford in a new building in West Branch, MI.
Colleen runs Dean Arbour Ford-Mercury in Tawas City, MI. The towns are within an hour's drive of Dean based in Pinconning.
“It's really a treat to have both Matt and Colleen running dealerships,” says their father as he drives a Cadillac DTS while taking a visitor on a tour of his dealership network.
Colleen, 41, has won 12 Ford President's Awards in a row, a tribute to her customer satisfaction ratings and sales performance.
Matthew, 43, and a dealer since 1990, is a marketing whiz who is tuned in to modern promotional techniques, says Dean.
His most recent acquisition has been a Ford-Lincoln-Mercury store in Alpena, MI, whose owner had rebuffed him for many years.
“I'm a persistent guy,” says Arbour, “and he finally relented after Ford sales began to fall last year.”
Arbour is growth-minded and says there are a lot of small-town stores on the market. But he is careful not to over-expand.
“We're focusing on used cars now and have just opened a pre-owned satellite lot in Oscoda,” he says.
Asked about the outlook for “country” dealerships, Arbour, who loves being in the north woods and near Lake Huron, exudes optimism.
“Dealers in the small towns are the core of the community,” he says. “I have been on the hospital board in Pinconning, and my kids serve on boards in the Tawases and West Branch and promote Junior Achievement.
“We keep the police cars, the first trucks, the ambulances and the school buses going. Plus, when sales are tight, as they are now, we know how to survive without laying off employees.”
His five stores employ 175 people, half of whom have passed the 10-year mark.
“We are among the biggest advertisers in the local newspapers and on the TV and radio states,” says Arbour.
“Who's to say Ford or GM or Chrysler — and I sell cars for all three — are over-dealered in the small towns? The factories need us, and so do the towns we serve.”