Marathon Men

These CEOs have led their companies to perennial status on the B.E. 100s list. Here are their predictions for the next quarter century.

Headquarters: Detroit, MI
Business interests: Ford auto dealership
Key executives: Steven Conyers, general sales manager; Nancy Conyers, business managers; Peter Conyers, business manager

Year Rank Sales Employees
1973 16 $7.1 million 74
1997 34 $49.1 million 92

When auto industry executives at Ford Motor Co. in Detroit went looking for a few good men to start a dealership to quell an economically disenfranchised, predominantly black inner-city, they found one in the Conyers family. The patriarch, John Sr., had spent his working life along the Chrysler assembly line, and his successful lawyer sons, John Jr. and Nathan, were ready to plunk down the needed capital to get the cars rolling.

But willingness isn’t enough. When Conyers Ford appeared on the original BE 100, comprised of both industrial service companies and a auto dealers, it was one of 13 dealerships. Today, it’s the only one left from the first list, making it the oldest black-owned auto dealership in the country. It has been a school of hard knocks, pings and repairs, but the engine is still running strong.

Conyers, who assumed responsibility for the dealership a coin toss with his brother John Jr., the congressman, says there meets that will give a business, better opportunities for success: location, capitalization, an understanding of the business and a commitment to becoming part of the community you serve.

“For many black dealers, the location was not viable and the auto manufacturers put them in areas that they couldn’t put whites,” he says of the black dealers lost over the years. “It was a problem to get capital at competitive rates 25 years ago, and it’s still a problem today. And, if you’re not in the right location, that’s compounded.” Also, many dealers go through a manufacturer’s dealer development program, “often coming from other businesses,” only to be offered a store in a locale that they know little about in a community that knows little about them–points three and four.

Conyers admits his company started at a time when government entities were more inclined to promote minority businesses. He fears those days of government support and private partnership are limited.
On the flip side, he explains African Americans can do very well under that kind of pressure. “If you increase the odds, it increases the will to succeed.” But he cautions this will come at a price: more successful black-owned businesses in the future, but fewer of them.

Conyers has mastered the “art of the soft sell.” It is just those qualities that have helped him build a loyal clientele. Part of our mission statement says, “We’re here to serve and earn the business of our community and customers.” It’s a credo he stresses everyone keep before them.

Conyers says the other part of  his corporate mission is to train new dealers. To his credit, that mission has spawned 35 African American dealers, many of whom are women, who’ve moved out of his shop and into their own dealerships.

Besides those 35, he’s training five children, two sons and three daughters, to take over all facets of the business. His eldest son, Steven, is general sales manager. Daughter Nancy is the business manager for new cars, and son Peter is business manager for used cars. Another daughter, Susan, is the former Quality Commitment Performance manager. Daughter Ellen is an attorney, handles contracts and collections and is currently waiting to get into a dealer training program to buy her own store.

A quiet pride exudes from his eyes; the legacy continues. “The issue of succession is a whole new issue for black businesses now that we have them in some number.” Conyers says he and his family have been working on a plan for the past five years. “I have qualified one of my children to be on the dealer agreements so that if something happened to me, they could step into the business,” he explains.

He has also virtually ruled out selling the business. “We’ve always said no because we’ve put too much of our blood, sweat and tears into this,” he asserts.

Equally important to Conyers is that more African Americans pick up the banner of entrepreneurship moving into the 21st . century. “We need to convince our best and brightest that getting into business for themselves is the thing to do. Before, it was getting a factory job, then into the professions–teachers, government workers–then into the corporate world. Now we need to look at the entrepreneurial world.”

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