My wife, Nancy, and I were chatting this morning over breakfast. We were talking about my first book that I just completed, Confessions of a Recovering Car Dealer, which will be published next month. In the book’s research, I had printed out my father’s obituary from the Palm Beach Post. Dad died on January 14, 1977 at 84 years of age. Nancy said, “Wow! That means he was born in 1893!” I replied, “Actually it was 1892. He was born in September. Maybe that’s why I’m kind of different”. I meant it as a joke, but then I began to think about it and I do believe being raised by a father born in the 19th century has a unique influence on his children.
Henry Ford built his first car in 1896 and it was 1908 before he began building the Model T to sell to the public. My Dad was 16 years old then. Dad was alive while Edison was either inventing things or his inventions were being put into use…the electric light bulb, motion picture camera, the phonograph and thousands of others. The Wright Brothers flew the first airplane when Dad was 11 years old. Back in the day, Dad flew Biplanes because nobody even needed a license then to fly or drive. The radio, forget about TV, wasn’t invented until my father was a young man. Dad used to tell me stories of how he and my grandfather and grandmother gathered around the crystal radio at night in their home in Detroit listening to broadcasts from over a thousand miles away in New York and Las Angeles.
Dad’s automotive career began in Detroit in 1910 when he drove a car he helped build. His first job was with the Maxwell Company (Do you remember that Jack Benny drove a Maxwell?). After a year with Maxwell, Dad was assigned as a road man for Maxwell, working out of Denver. In 1915 he went to work for the Dodge Brothers and soon became the sales manager in Springfield, Massachusetts. During World War I, he worked for the Lincoln plant in Detroit helping prevent sabotage. After the war, he left Lincoln to return to Dodge in Toledo, Ohio.
After a short time he left Dodge and was associated with a firm building the Oakland car which was the predecessor of the Pontiac. This began Dad’s long and successful career with General Motors. The Oakland became the Pontiac in 1922. In 1926 General Motors bought Pontiac and appointed my father the general manager of the Toledo, Ohio dealership. He remained in that capacity until 1936.
Dad was then assigned as a district manager for Pontiac for all of Florida. In February of 1937, he founded Stewart Pontiac Company. He borrowed $10,000 from my mother to get started in his own Pontiac dealership (She never let him forget that). The first car he sold was to a woman named Annie Swan. You can see that original car today on display in my Toyota dealership in North Palm Beach. Dad bought it back from Annie when she could no longer drive and had it restored.
Why does this family history make me different? Hearing all of these stories and more at my father’s knee and later when I was young man coming to work for my father in 1968, gave me a unique perspective on things. It made me realize how fast things can change. I believe we’re entering an era in the beginning of the 21st century like my father experienced at the beginning of the 20th century. The cars we’re driving today will bear no more resemblance to the cars we’ll be driving in 20 years than the Model T Ford does to today’s cars.
The way cars are sold today also will change drastically. In twenty years all cars will be bought over the Internet. The car dealership as we know it today will no longer exist. The car buyer of today is far more educated, sophisticated, and demanding than ever before. The manufacturers will truly understand this and with the advent of the Internet as the purchasing medium, the car dealer’s role will change dramatically.
Today’s manufacturers and car dealers will either “adapt or die”. All manufacturers and most car dealers pay lip service to customer satisfaction but too many still don’t walk the talk. The customer truly is “king” and what she wants and how the manufacturers and dealers respond to her will dictate their success or failure.
The third generation of Stewarts, my three sons, will be running things at my dealership in the future and I’m very comfortable with the fact that they “get it” when it comes to the customer reigning supreme. I know that they will look back on their grandfather as being the root source of that invaluable insight.