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Threads:  My Father's Dealership

Letters written by me, updated August 2004
to include the period July 1968-June 1973

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Background:  Beginning when I was twelve years old, my father (seen at right in 1965) gave me a summer job at his Chevrolet-Oldsmobile dealership.

At first I did janitorial work, but after the 1964 fire at the garage, I started working in the office.  My last summer would be in 1969, between graduating from Oberlin College and starting graduate school at Syracuse University.

Monday, July 8, 1968

Well, the May-June Campaign is over for another year.  Chevrolet and/or Oldsmobile always have a selling contest going on in the months of May and June.  Each dealership is assigned a quota of cars to sell, and the dealers who sell the highest percentage of their quotas (often almost 200%) win a trip.  Sometimes they even get to take their wives along.  Last year my father won — he seems to win about half the contests — so he and Mother went on a cruise to Bermuda while I stayed at home alone for a week.  This year the prize was a trip to Hawaii, but it looks like they aren't going to be going on this one.

For a while there we were leading, despite the fact that our quota had been raised 60% over last year's.  Of course, since it's only sales in the months of May and June that count, there's always an effort to delay making out the papers on sales near the end of April, and to speed up sales that look like they're going to be made the first few days of July, in order to squeeze all possible sales into those two months.  So according to our records we sold 25 cars on Wednesday, May 1.  And we have only two salesmen.  This flood of sales on the first day of the contest gave us an early lead.

We continued selling at a steady rate of about 25 per week all through May and June, but gradually we slipped behind other dealerships.  So we decided to have an end-of-June sale for the last week of the campaign.  Unfortunately, our local weekly newspaper was taking the week off for vacations, so we had to do our advertising in the Marion Star, a daily of which Warren G. Harding was once editor.  But we couldn't advertise new cars in the Star, only used ones, because if we tried to sell new Chevrolets through the Marion paper we'd be invading the Marion Chevrolet dealer's territory.  (Surprisingly, you'll find that the competition is more intense between two Chevrolet dealers than between a Chevy dealer and a Ford dealer.  The consumer decides from national advertising which make he wants to buy, and then he shops around locally to find the best place to buy it.)  Therefore our advertising flopped.

My father also made what may have been a tactical error in putting signs on all the new cars showing a big markdown in price.  You see, we didn't want to lose that much profit, so we also reduced somewhat the amount we allowed the customer for his trade-in.  Guy comes in, sees $4300 Olds marked down to $3700.  Says, "How much will you give me on my car?"  Answer:  $1200, which means he would have to pay $2500 difference to trade cars with us.  Guy says, "But the fellows up at Marion will give me $1600 on my car.  They're giving me a $400 better deal."  We tell him no they aren't, they're charging the full $4300 for the new Olds, so the difference he'd have to pay is really $200 more up there, but the guy isn't convinced.  "Gotta get more than twelve hundred out of my car," he says.  We lose the sale.

A third factor, the probability that we'd exhausted the market by selling cars to so many people earlier in the campaign, also contributed to our getting only ten sales the last week of June.

On June 29, there were, however, several cars we knew we had sold but didn't have the papers completed.  So I put the IBM cards for these cars into an envelope, having typed "June 29, 1968," in the Date Sold column, and sent them off to Chevrolet — even though technically the cars hadn't been delievered yet.  Maybe these sales would be enough to make up for our disappointing last week.

But that afternoon my father decided that he wasn't going to win the contest no matter what we did, so he went to the post office and got the envelope of cards back!  (It helps to live in a small town and know the postmaster.)  His thinking was this:  a plan had just been announced by Ford for its dealers, and therefore the chances were that General Motors would announce it too (this did turn out to be the case).  This plan said that each dealer would be paid a certain amount, as high as $100, for each car which he had in stock (unsold) on July 1 and which he managed to get sold before the 1969's were announced in September.  The plan is an incentive to sell out all the 1968's before the 1969's come out.  Our holding back the sale cards until after July 1 meant that those cars would be counted by Chevrolet as still being in stock on July 1, and thus could add several hundred dollars to our bank account.  So I got out my little typewriter eraser and changed all the June 29's to July 1's on the cars, and sent them in again.

Well, no, not quite.  It seems there was also a May-June contest for sales managers, and Gene Cheney, who is also our accountant, was entered in that one for the prize of a trip to Puerto Rico.  Gene hadn't been doing too well because sales were slightly slower than at other dealerships, but when the penultimate standings were published, we discovered he'd somehow vaulted into first place!  So we decided to try to keep him in first by moving those sales back into June again.  I got out my little typewriter eraser and rubbed holes in the cards.  At least this time they hadn't been mailed yet.

In the first six months of 1968, Vernon M. Thomas Chevrolet Inc. has sold over a million dollars worth of automobiles, parts, and repairs.  Our profit has been in the range of ten thousand.  I see those figures every year in typing out our financial statement, but they always stagger me.


Saturday, July 27, 1968

Or how about the man who purchased an automobile part from us two weeks ago today?  Before paying for it, he handed the man at the counter a heater switch for a 1958 Chevy, along with a receipt showing he'd bought it from us for $1.75.  Since he hadn't had occasion to use the heater switch since buying it, he wanted to return it for $1.75 credit, and the man at the counter agreed.  This sort of thing happens from time to time.  But after the customer had left, we noticed the date on the receipt:  March 12, 1963.  He'd kept the part and the receipt for over five years!  And with inflation and all, the price of that heater switch is now $2.90.


Monday, May 26, 1969

In contrast to previous years, I really will have a job to do this summer at Vernon M. Thomas Chevrolet.  Before, I was the third man in a bookkeeping office designed to operate with two; but because of resignations, this year I'll be the second man.


Tuesday, June 10, 1969

I haven't had time to do much of anything since commencement, actually.  I got back here on the evening of June 2, Monday, and at 7:45 on Tuesday morning I was hard at work at Vernon M. Thomas Chevrolet.

But you, last week, were still working on papers!  Good grief.  I wonder if it would be possible for me to do something so academic after having left the academic atmosphere of Oberlin for the summer.


Tuesday, July 1, 1969

The new Truth in Lending act went into effect today.  Said act is making my job a lot more complicated, because a large part of what I do consists of typing up finance papers on car sales, and those papers now have to contain some additional information.

One piece of information is the Annual Percentage Rate, a term which the sponsors of the act hope will become "a household word" because it can be used to compare the interest rates which are charged by various lending institutions.

One deal I typed up this morning had a fantastic A.P.R.  The lady bought a 1961 Buick and wanted to finance $148.50 of the amount we charged her for it.

Now there's a minimum finance charge of $15.00 which we must charge in all cases, so the finance charge was about 10% of the principal.

But she wanted to pay it back at ten dollars a week, which meant she would have the whole thing paid in about one-third of a year.  Therefore, the finance charge per year was about 30% of the principal.

And then when you figure in the effect of her not having the full principal at her disposal for the full one-third year, the rate must be almost doubled again.  The Annual Percentage Rate that went on the contract was a whopping 55.50%.


Wednesday, July 23, 1969

You remember the time at the close of our junior year when I worked out a math problem making many errors along the way, but, because I came up with the right answer, turned it in and got full credit?  Seems to me that that incident led to some comments about my intellectual honesty.

Well, I've realized now what may have inspired that attitude in me.  At the garage it's common practice to bend the rules about signatures for the sake of convenience.

In theory, all the papers — order, customer's financial statement, contract, disclosure statement, application for title, application for memorandum, and assignment of title for the trade-in — should be filled out according to the terms of the sale and then signed by the customer.

But it takes the fastest typist in the office (me) half an hour or more to prepare all these forms, during which time the customer doesn't like to sit there and wait; and besides, many sales are made at night, when no one is even in the office.

Therefore, almost without exception the salesman hands the customer a stack of forms and has him sign each one before any of the blanks have been filled in.  Signing some of these forms that way is exactly equivalent to signing a blank check, since by signing the form you promise to pay a certain amount in a certain number of equal monthly installments.  An unscrupled dealer could fill in numbers which are twice as big as those quoted to you by the salesman.

However, for some reason, everyone trusts us, even strangers who've never done business with us before.  I've never heard of a single customer who asked that the form be filled out before he signed, or even read what he was signing.  That's a bit amazing, really, considering some of the conservative, cautious farmers who buy cars from us.  Somehow they just trust our salesmen's word.


Saturday, August 9, 1969

After having overspent my allotment on Wednesday, I had to do something to make it up the next day, so I saved the garage $2,178.00.  Here's the story:

When the papers on a car deal have been typed up, they're put into an open file until we've received all our money on the deal.  Then usually my father will look at the name on the papers, say "Yeah, they paid that, I remember it," and file that set of papers away.

I'm not as involved in the selling of cars as he is, so I had to do it a different way:  I got out the cash-receipts journal and compared the money we'd actually taken in during the last month with the money we were supposed to receive on each deal.

Almost all the deals checked out as paid for, but on one where we were supposed to receive $2200.00 we had gotten only $22.00.  I checked our records and found that we had received a $22.00 check from the customer and had deposited it in the bank that way.

After some tracing, it was determined that the check was actually a $2200.00 check, but the amount was written in figures as "$2200 --" and in words as "Twenty-two — Hundred — DOLLARS."  Not only had our Richwood bank passed it as being for $22.00, but a Columbus clearinghouse bank and the customer's own bank had agreed, and the customer's account had been charged in the amount of $22.00 — with the canceled $2200.00 check being sent to the customer as a legal receipt showing they had paid us that larger amount!

The customer hadn't noticed the discrepancy in his bank balance, and if he never had noticed it, we might never have gotten the money or even known that it was owed us.  But my discovery led to a phone call to the customer, and he came down to the garage the next day to write us a check for the difference.


Vernon M. Thomas Chevrolet had two salesmen.  In 1971, they were Gerald Mosher (left) and Tommy DeGood.

By then, I was employed at Marion CATV, 15 miles away.  I took these pictures as part of my new job.

My father (seen here on the right) had bought some advertising time on my station.  These images were for one of his commercials.

I used available light and the station's 35mm camera, loaded with black-and-white film.

At Marion CATV's little darkroom, Art Plantz then developed them and made them into slides.

The commercial consisted of  an announcer reading some copy, accompanied by about half a dozen of these stills.


Wednesday, June 13, 1973

My father has sold his auto dealership.  He's almost 64 years old now and figures he'd better retire and get his investment back now, while he can.

As it happened, it took well over a year to make the sale.  One has to find a qualified buyer who has a few hundred thousand dollars on hand or borrowable, and Chevrolet has to approve the buyer's qualifications.

The buyer we found [Gerry Mills] was the owner of two auto-parts stores, one in Springfield and the other in New Carlisle, Ohio.  He's about 40 years old and apparently made his money from his businesses, so he should be able to make a go of the dealership here in Richwood.  But during the first six months or so, he's keeping my father on as a consultant.  This should allow him to ease into retirement gradually.

At his retirement party, Vernon Thomas unwraps
a gift from his employees:  a shoe polisher.



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