3rd-generation business emerges from recessionLaurén Abdel-Razzaq
Automotive News -- February 7, 2011 - 12:01 am ET
DETROIT -- When his CFO, and boyhood friend, was diagnosed with lymphoma, Mark O'Brien mobilized his dealership for a bone marrow drive. He even shaved his head in solidarity.
That's what family does, and that's what Roy O'Brien Ford is about.
"Dad always said treat your customers better than you expect to be treated," said Mark O'Brien, chairman of the dealership his grandfather Roy opened 65 years ago.
Roy O'Brien began selling Fords in metro Detroit in 1946, buying an old firehouse and reopening it as a used-car dealership and service center. Eventually he passed along the business to his son, Roy Jr., who controlled the company until his death last May.
Now Roy, Jr.'s son, Mark, is at the helm of the dealership in St. Clair Shores, Mich.
It took Mark O'Brien 35 years to get into the family dealership. He worked at his maternal grandfather's grocery store for 11 years during his teens and after graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in business. It was a small store where workers knew the customers by name.
When he moved to the dealership, O'Brien brought this mentality with him and extended it to his employees and customers.
"We try to hire people we would want to have over for dinner," he said. "For our customers, we always try to give them something more than they expected."
Whether that something is a free tank of gasoline with the purchase of a new vehicle or fixing a broken taillight during a routine oil change, O'Brien says it's part of his plan to attract and retain customers.
"You have so many choices, you don't have to come here," he said. "But we have to ask: 'What can we do to put ourselves first in your mind?'"
Until Jan. 1, O'Brien, 54, was general manager of the dealership. In the new year he passed along the position to his youngest brother, Roy Patrick, after 19 years. Although five of Roy Jr.'s seven children ended up in the business, they were never pressured to take over.
With two daughters and two sons of his own, O'Brien says he wants to adopt the same philosophy.
"They have an interest in the business world, they have an interest in this business, but I'm not going to push them to make a decision to get into the car business," he said. "I would really like my children to try something completely on their own."
When the dealership suffered during the recession, everyone felt the belt tightening. Management eliminated 401(k) matching and stopped replacing workers who retired or left. Through this attrition, the staff has dropped to 106 from 135 employees in 2004.
But new products have helped turn things around. From 2009 to 2010, revenue rose 34 percent and the number of new and used vehicle sales increased by 261 units.
And over the past year, the dealership has begun spending on green technology.
In November, metro Detroit's Eco-Green Energy installed three hybrid lamps at the front of the dealership at an estimated cost of $40,000 before tax rebates. A combination of solar panels, wind turbines and backup batteries powers the lights.
O'Brien said he plans to have solar panels installed on the dealership roof by year end. The panels, which he estimates will cost $100,000 before rebates, will let the dealership operate on its own power most days.
And O'Brien hopes to have geothermal heating implemented throughout the building by 2013. At a cost of $150,000 to $200,000 before rebates, O'Brien says the technology is expected to pay for itself in eight years.
The decision to implement green technology was also prompted by O'Brien's family instinct.
"Maybe one day our grandkids will look at the utility bills and say, 'Thanks, grandpa, you took care of us.'"
|On the rise|
|Unit sales increased at Roy O'Brien Ford from 2009 to 2010.|
|New vehicles||Used vehicles|
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