Metro Auto Dealers' Overall Sales Nearing $1 Billion / Area Economic Impact, Success of Long-Time Families Defies National Image

Article excerpt

Back in 1921, a mechanic named Frank Clark acquired a Nash auto dealership in Ardmore. In 1923, he moved to Oklahoma City, where he acquired a Hudson dealership.

His son, Jack Clark, grew up in the business and became a dealer in 1947. In 1980, after a retirement that lasted only two weeks, he formed the current Jack Clark Chrysler and Plymouth at 6100 N. May Ave.

Now, his son, Greg Clark, is helping to run the dealership, representing the third generation in a family that has been in the auto business for 66 years.

The Clark family is just one example of numerous metropolitan area dealerships involving second and third generations. They form the core of an industry that has a tremendous economic impact on Oklahoma City and Oklahoma, with sales expected to grow to $1 billion in 1988 despite economic problems here.

That record defies national criticism, which results in dealers as a group often being rated in low public esteem. It just makes sense dealers must deserve more credit than they receive for the contribution to the economy and community, or they wouldn't be in business for so long.

The 42 members of the Metropolitan Auto Dealers Association employ more than 3,000 people with a payroll of $75 million and annual sales estimated at $900 million this year, according to W.E. "Bill" Roby, president of the association.

The names of long-time dealer families are easy to recognize - Bolen, Boyd, Coker, Cooper, Dockum, Eskridge, Ferguson Fretwell, Gootos, Harris, Hudiberg, Fred Jones, Moore, Richardson, Smicklas and Williams among others.

"Families such as these couldn't survive in an area such as Oklahoma City if they didn't treat their customers well,'' said Jack Clark. "We have to have repeat business. It's the largest portion of our sales.

"We have always said people buy a dealer as well as a car. That's why service is so important. We have to be up front with people with fair competitive prices and give good service. At the same time, we have to make a profit, or we wouldn't be here anyway.''

Because of all this, it's understandable that dealers are becoming more sensitive to stereotypes that have grown around the business. A recent column by William Donoghue of the Chicago Tribune Media Services on auto financing in The Journal Record special auto section was particularly offensive, because it continued the same old "huckster" image.

Despite that image community organizations are quick to turn to dealers for support, says Pete Lukasiak in the Automotive Executive, official publication of the National Automobile Dealers Association. They help with everything from Little League to charities to hospitals and chambers of commerce.

Even more important, Clark points out the plain common sense fact that satisfying customers is more important than ever to succeed in this day of volatility in so many parts of the auto business.

Incentives, such as 1.9 percent financing and rebates, come and go. Interest on financing goes up and down. Certain brands of cars, or certain models, go hot and cold, and each brand includes more models than ever. Servicing changes as cars become more complex with more computerized element.

In the face of all this, dealers must maintain more volume, with some selling up to 2,500 cars a year in the Oklahoma City area. That means more land, more facilities and more expensive service equipment.

While financing once was a tool to sell cars, it has become a profit center - one of many needed by dealers to stay in this volatile business. Still, most dealers realize each buyer must make the best of his or her own situation. …