Selling cars in Suffolk

Published 10:41 pm Monday, January 30, 2012

Suffolk’s four automotive dealerships have a storied history in the city. As far back as the 1960s, dealerships that still operate today were selling cars to Suffolk residents. These days, the business has changed significantly because of technology and the economy, but the values of customer service and hometown charm have not.

Barton Ford Lincoln Mercury

Very few car dealerships can boast a diner and movie theater to entertain their customers who are waiting for service, but that’s the claim to fame of Barton Ford Lincoln Mercury on North Main Street.

Bob Barton stands in Barton Ford-Lincoln-Mercury’s North Main Street showroom. The dealership opened in 1991 when the Bartons purchased the Ford dealership from Mike Duman.

The dealership opened in December, 1991 when the Barton brothers, Bob and Tom, purchased the Ford dealership from Mike Duman. The company celebrated the dealership’s 20th anniversary last month.

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The dealership also has an older counterpart, Beach Ford, in Virginia Beach, which opened in October 1978. Bob Barton likes to draw contrasts between the big-city dealership and its small-town sibling.

“The population has grown significantly, but it still has a small-town community feel, which is nice,” Barton said of the Suffolk dealership. “It’s easier to know everybody’s name.”

Barton came to work for his father when he got out of school in 1997. His father put him in the service department, and he learned from the ground up.

The Suffolk dealership built a new building on the same lot in 2003. The amenities for service customers reflect the elder Barton’s philosophy that people who bring their cars for service after they buy are the true customers.

“We decided to take care of them first in building a new facility,” Barton said.

The building features a movie theater — it showed the Robin Williams film “Jumanji” on a recent day — free WiFi and the Mustang Annie’s diner, named after a popular Ford model and the Barton matriarch, which serves drinks and snacks such as popcorn.

Barton said the car business has changed a lot in Suffolk, mostly because of the rising population.

“More people are moving out to Suffolk, which can always mean good things for us business-wise,” he said.

But the economy has affected the company, starting in 2006 when the local Ford plant closed.

“It was a terrible time, because we had a lot of good friends there,” Barton said. “But in the long run, it prepared us for the economy downturn a few years later.”

Still, the dealership has stayed ahead of the game by taking care of its 45 employees and welcoming the changes technology has brought to the business.

“The customer can shop five different dealerships within a matter of minutes,” Barton said. “We’ve embraced it.”

Overall, he said, the dealership is glad to be in Suffolk.

“We’ve been fortunate enough to be offered an opportunity to be a part of the Suffolk community,” he said. “It’s a great place to be.”

Duke Automotive Corporation

As one of only 189 female General Motors dealers in the country, Lydia Duke has her work cut out for her.

Lydia Duke, the president of Duke Automotive Corp., shows off the dealership’s North Main Street headquarters. The company formed on Jan. 1, 1969, when Ray E. Duke acquired the dealership from his former boss.

The president of Duke Automotive Corporation keeps a hawk’s eye on the statistics — women now influence 85 percent of all new vehicle purchases in the United States.

“The days are gone when a man and a woman come to buy a car or a truck and the salesman is looking at the man the whole time,” she said. “Any store that does not pay attention today is missing the beat.”

But it wasn’t always that way. Duke Automotive started out as a partnership between two “noble” men, when Clyde R. Royals hired Ray E. Duke as a salesman at Royals’ Oldsmobile-Cadillac dealership in November 1959.

In 1963, Duke was promoted to general manager. Four years later, he began negotiations with the Royals family to purchase the business, and on Jan. 1, 1969, he officially became the new owner of Duke Oldsmobile-Cadillac Corporation.

Duke’s son, Eley, interrupted his college education to enter into a partnership with his father. The company initially had only 12 employees and was housed in one small building, which currently holds the parts and service departments at 2016 N. Main St.

In 1979, a new building that now accommodates the new car showroom and administrative offices was completed, and six years later, the original building was doubled in size.

In 1986, the Dukes purchased neighboring land and converted an old service station there into a used car department.

But in 1989, Eley’s death struck the company. That’s when his wife, Lydia, joined.

It continued to grow throughout the ‘90s. In 1990, the company acquired Pontiac, Buick and GMC lines, and in 1994 Chevrolet was added.

Also in 1994, the service station was razed and a new administration building was constructed.

In recent years, the company lost lines that General Motors folded — Oldsmobile in 2002 and Pontiac in 2010 — and also lost the original Mr. Duke in July 2004.

“The Duke family remains committed to his ideals for fair dealings and high quality service,” Lydia Duke said.

The company now employs 45 people. The matriarch of the family, Alma C. Duke, remains on as a director.

“So much has changed,” Lydia Duke said. “[The recession] was kind of like a horror movie. You began to get news that things are drastically changing in our country, and you were just praying you had made enough money to ride the storm out.”

She said she foresees an even greater future for the company.

“We plan on keeping on keeping on,” she said. “What I hope to see is a big 50th anniversary party in seven more years, and I hope the recession has faded away, it’s just a bad memory.”

Mike Duman Auto Sales

Mike Duman told his wife they could lose their shirts if his purchase of a closed Ford dealership in 1980 didn’t work out as planned.

Mike Duman shows off his Suzuki and used-car dealership. Duman has been a Suffolk car dealership owner since 1980.

“We could lose everything,” he recalls telling his wife, Fran. “Everything we had was tied up in it.”

Duman never intended to get into or stay in the car business. In 1970, at the age of 19, he started selling cars at Smith Corner Motors in Portsmouth. He worked 40 to 50 hours a week while attending school at Old Dominion University.

Just 10 years later, after working as sales manager and general manager for two area Datsun dealers, he was having that fateful conversation with his wife.

“It wasn’t my intention to stay in the car business,” he said, “but once it gets in your blood, it’s hard to get it out.”

It all started when Fran sent him to the store. Driving down North Main Street, he saw that the old Albert Ford dealership appeared to be empty.

Soon, he was getting bank loans and selling himself to the Ford district manager. Within three days of that meeting, at 29 years old, he had become the youngest Ford dealer in the country.

“I guess the rest of it is history,” he said.

Not being a Suffolk native, he admits he didn’t know very many people, even though the city had only about 30,000 people at the time. So he made the rule that he had to meet every single potential customer who came on the lot.

In 1984, he began a used car operation, and four years later, his Ford-Mercury franchise became Ford-Lincoln-Mercury.

Finally, in December of 1991, Duman sold the new car dealership and continued to run the used-car operation. The next year, he renovated a former Buick-Pontiac-GMC dealership at 2300 Godwin Blvd. and moved his operations there. He since has acquired a franchise to sell new Suzukis.

Duman said it has been hard to stay afloat at times, especially in recent years.

“If I had to start over again, I’m not sure I would take that leap of faith,” he said. “If you were treading water three years ago, you’re probably out of business. If you were doing well, you’re probably treading water.”

Duman relies on the diversification of his business to keep afloat.

“You’ve got to have every single department contributing to the bottom line, or you will go broke in short order,” he said.

Starr Motors

The story goes that Starr Motors got its name in the middle of the space race.

Clay and Eddie White own Starr Motors, which their parents started in the 1960s.

It was 1962 when Charles and Nell White began their used-car dealership at 2425 Pruden Blvd. Younger son Clay White says nobody could ever get a straight answer from their jocular parents about why they named their dealership Starr.

“There were all these other dealerships popping up — Galaxy Motors, Moon Motors,” White said. “She said they wanted to be different, so they did star with two R’s.”

Regardless of how it got the name, it has outlasted a lot of other dealerships and now is the second-oldest dealership still operating in Suffolk.

Nell White died in 2002, but Charles White is still around.

“My dad’s very active, but more in the role of adviser,” Clay White said. “Telling us we still don’t know what we’re doing.”

Clay and Eddie White, who both started working there as soon as they graduated from college, now own the dealership. It has undergone a lot of changes since the era of the space race, though.

Charles White built his own car carrier that could handle seven cars and would go to Washington, D.C., to buy used cars, White said. That area, he said, had a large turnover of vehicles because of people who came to work for two years and then left.

In the 1980s, the prime interest rate was in the 20-percent range. Starr Motors started renting cars and doing buy-here, pay-here for customers.

The store began selling new cars in 1990, beginning with Jeep and Eagle and following with Chrysler, Plymouth and Dodge in 1993.

In 1994, the business moved down the street to 2584 Pruden Blvd., where it has remained. Having started without even a salesman, they now have about 50 employees, including about 30 in the service department.

These days, the economy has made the car business difficult, White said.

“It’s never been as hard as it is now,” he said.

Even so, the dealership managed to keep from laying anyone off in 2008 and 2009, when many companies were shedding jobs in the midst of economic turmoil.

“We’re all very proud of what we do here,” White said, mentioning that he is grateful to his parents, his employees and his customers for supporting the business.

“We try to fulfill hopes and dreams,” he said. “We’re trying to put people in their dream cars.”