Selling Into The Stratosphere

With an empire anchored by four of the covetedSaturn dealerships, Martin Automative Group CEO Cornelius Martin is flying rings around the competition

mostly credited by the acquisition of the Saturn store in Des Moines and the Chevrolet/Geo dealership in Lexington. Since acquiring his first franchise in 1985, sales in every one of his dealerships have shown an average increase of 8%-10% per year. With that track record, and the potential for future acquisitions, Martin projects 1997 sales to top $150 million.

Contributing to this success is Martin’s astute knowledge of the automobile business. Unlike many car dealers today, Martin doesn’t just depend on showroom salesmanship. He’s gotten oil under his fingernails. “When I was younger, I planned to own a garage or repair facility. As a black person, I thought that I would never be able to own a dealership,” he recalls. With that in mind, Martin attended West Kentucky State Vocational School in 1969, where he learned auto maintenance and management. A year later, he worked as an auto technician while majoring in business at Wright State University in Dayton. After a year in college, Martin left to work full-time.

Today, having done everything from wash to repair to sell cars, Martin applies the same diligence that built his career to fashion his business. He says many dealerships fail because their owners get “dealeritis,” and venture head-on into a dealership with out doing their homework. With a combination of market research and forecasts, demographic studies and sheer instinct, Martin keenly assesses the viability of a dealership. His strategy has helped his dealerships stay afloat and alerts him when there is a lull in auto sales. While many minority dealers have difficulty establishing successful stores, Martin’s system has worked well for him from the very beginning.

In 1978, with his reputation as a technician known throughout Dayton, Martin was recruited by Bob Shannon, of the former Dayton Shannon Buick Co. Then 29, Martin agreed to come on board only if Shannon would help him acquire a dealership. “Back then, you just didn’t go and set up your own franchise, especially as a minority. You needed someone who could take you under their wing and sponsor you.” Under Shannon, Martin worked his way up from shop foreman to sales representative. Shannon, who is white, had been in business since 1949 and was well-respected in the industry and the community. “He introduced me to the right people. If it was not for him, I would not have been where I am today,” recalls Martin.

In 1982, Martin entered the grueling, two-year General Motors Minority Academy Dealer Program. He alternated months between GM’s campus in Flint, Michigan, and Shannon’s dealership, studying the machinations of the business. Despite Shannon’s admiration of Martin, the eventual resentment from other sales reps who also wanted their own dealership became stifling. “There was a time when the animosity was so great that I had tears in my eyes. I almost felt as though they hated me,” says Martin.

This was not the first time Shannon had shown an interest in helping African Americans. He also provided the mentoring nudge for former

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