Saturday, March 2, 2013
The World's Oldest Continuously Operated Family-Owned Ford Dealership.
A Contribution from Ed Garten -- thank you Ed!
The story of Tenvoorde Motor Co., the oldest continuously owned and family-operated Ford dealership, has the makings for a classic American rags-to-riches tale: Pioneer goes west and settles a new town. His son, an adventurous bicycle-shop owner with a passion for wheels, falls in love with the automobile and establishes the nation's second Ford dealership. Business flourishes against the worst odds but then nearly falls into the hands of strangers. Current generation of family members expands the business and looks forward to 21st century.
The roots for the Tenvoorde dynasty were planted when John Tenvoorde led a group of German Dutch settlers from Pennsylvania to Indiana and, then, to St. Cloud, Minn. A merchant, Tenvoorde was one of the founders of St. Cloud.
His son, Steve Tenvoorde, and his buddy, P.R. Thielman, nicknamed 'The Daredevils,' accomplished the feat of driving a Milwaukee Steamer 70 miles over a rough oxen trail from Minneapolis to St. Cloud to bring the first automobile to their home town in 1899.
An inventive blacksmith and bicycle shop owner, Steve Tenvoorde was hooked on this new invention. In 1901, he began selling cars from his bicycle shop in downtown St. Cloud. He signed the second Ford franchise on March 21, 1903, before Ford Motor Co. was incorporated that June.
William Hughson, founder of Hughson Ford Sales in San Francisco, signed the first Ford franchise only a month earlier, in February 1903. That business no longer is operated by the family.
The Tenvoorde name has been associated with autos in St. Cloud since 1901. It was a beginning without an ending in sight in 2013..
Indeed, the automobile proved a tough sell in that first year as a Ford franchisee. Steve Tenvoorde sold only a single Ford car that year. Today, the Tenvoorde dealership typically sells 350 new and used retail vehicles per month, said Jack Tenvoorde.
Steve Tenvoorde viewed the automobile and driving as an adventure. One of the many newspaper clippings Jack Tenvoorde has from his grandfather Steve's day describes the first 'Sociability Run,' made in 1912, when 21 cars drove from one town to another for a three-day adventure. Steve Tenvoorde led the way in his Ford. With his love for bicycle racing and inventive skills, he designed a way for the St. Cloud Band members to carry their instruments on their bicycles and accompany the motorists.
Each driver in the caravan was given rules to follow over the rough roads. The speed limit was set at an average of 15 mph with no car to run any faster than 25 mph at any given time. Even if they could have driven faster, there were problems to deal with that would have slowed them down, mostly tire punctures, wet carburetors and getting stuck in the mud.
In addition to changes in vehicles and price hikes, the evolution of the industry and the Tenvoorde family business is evident through old photographs that Jack Tenvoorde has. The dealership itself has changed dramatically.
Seven years after receiving the first shipment of Model A Fords, Steve Tenvoorde erected his first sales outlet, a one-story brick building in downtown St. Cloud. In 1916, he remodeled and added a two-story addition to include a five-car showroom and service area on the lower level and a combination engine-component and body repair shop upstairs.
His son and Jack Tenvoorde's father, Cy Tenvoorde, started working at the dealership when he was 12 and became an official member of the company when he kept the company's books in June 1921.
'My father went through eighth grade and two years of business college,' recalls Jack, the oldest son. 'He pulled the dealership through the Depression as a teenager. When he came home after 18 hours of work, he would break down in tears.'
Cy Tenvoorde and his two brothers became the second generation to take ownership of the dealership when Steve Tenvoorde died in 1943. It was not an opportune time. The dealership, like those across the nation, had no new cars to sell because factories were converted to producing military equipment like planes and tanks for World War II.
Cy Tenvoorde was forced to lay off all of his salesmen, except one. The dealership concentrated on repairing carburetors, fuel pumps, generators, ignitions, distributors, transmissions, crankshafts and re-building engines. Used cars were repaired and put on sale. It sold service by encouraging people, through advertising, to keep their cars in good repair. The purchase of a crankshaft grinder that cost a shocking $8,000 at the time eventually paid for itself through repairs.
'Dad made more at that business than he did selling cars,' said Jack Tenvoorde. 'When the war was over, Ford put in its own official factory machine to rebuild engines, and put him out of that business.'
Still, the business flourished. The dealership built a larger facility on a 3/4-quarter-acre lot in downtown St. Cloud in 1951. 'My dad paid cash for it,' recalled Jack Tenvoorde. 'He didn't believe in credit.'
Jack Tenvoorde laughed describing his uncle, who was his dad's brother and partner at that time. 'He didn't like trucks. Can you imagine? They would only stock one or two at a time. When they sold a truck, my uncle would complain, 'Damn it, now we've got to order another one.' Today trucks are the major part of new-vehicle business. The Explorer and the Expedition are our big sellers.'
A transition in ownership occurred in 1966, and the dealership nearly fell into the hands of non-family members. 'Dad had two brothers and a sister with stock in the company. They wanted to sell out. My dad bought out his brothers and sisters and became the principal owner. That's why we are here today. God willing, we will have as smooth a transition to the next generation.'
Trouble for the dealership came again in 1977 when it spewed red ink month-after-month; the dealership had not experienced an unprofitable year since Cy Tenvoorde had acquired it. Still, sales kept growing, and another expansion was in the works. On June 16, 1977, ground was broken for a new facility on 10 acres of farmland Cy Tenvoorde had plowed at age 12, to demonstrate the versatility of Ford tractors sold at the dealership.
Cy Tenvoorde was reluctant to expand, as it would require using credit, which he didn't believe in. 'Dad told us, 'I ain't signing nothing. You sign the mortgage on this one',' Jack Tenvoorde recalled. 'But life doesn't operate that way anymore. It was a good signing. We had 30 employees in 1977; now we have 110.'
The new dealership opened on St. Patrick's Day 1978, the year Ford Motor Co. and Tenvoorde Motor Co. celebrated their 75th anniversaries With the state's governor and senators along with St. Cloud's mayor on hand for the event, the groundbreaking captured headlines in national newspapers and Automotive News. The dealership must have been blessed that day; it was one of the few winter days it didn't snow in St. Cloud, recalled Jack Tenvoorde.
Since that day, the dealership, which includes one building with 45,000 square feet of floor space on 10 acres, has been remodeled four times to stay fresh with the times.
Active in the dealership daily until 1992, Cy Tenvoorde died in 1995, two days shy of his 90th birthday. Today, the dealership is operated by Jack Tenvoorde and his two younger brothers, Paul and Dave, who have worked together in the dealership for 35 years. Three of Jack's four children are in the business, and are making their mark.
Tenvoorde's daughter, Debbie, is kicking off the fourth generation as the customer service manager. 'Last year we were in last place in the Twin City region in customer service, the same place we've been for six years since the CSI came out. We gave her the job and one year later, we moved to third place in the region. We have won the North American Customer Excellence award,' said Jack Tenvoorde. 'We attribute our dealership's longevity to customer service.'
Jack Tenvoorde sees repeat customers who come back for good service as being the foundation for the future. 'Our success is based on the way we treat our customers. We give them respect. We recognize that without them we have no business.'
Son Michael has been a salesman at the dealership for the past two years since finishing college. He was the dealership's fourth top salesperson last year. He recently attended the National Automobile Dealers Association Academy in McLean, Va.
Trailing behind in the Tenvoorde lineage is the youngest son, Brian, who is still in school and works part-time in the dealership's prep center.
It will be this fourth generation of Tenvoordes who eventually take over the dealership. 'Our family has been here since its beginning and expects to be for many years to come,' Jack Tenvoorde said.
'And,' Jack Tenvoorde said, 'I hope there are more generations of Tenvoorde owners to come.