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

BE 100s Auto Dealer Robert Ross, president of Bob Ross Buick, Mercedes, GMC Inc. of Centerville, Ohio.

Instead of taking credit for Martin’s start, Shannon, who retired in 1985, speaks highly of his work ethic instead. “Cornelius came with a plan. He wanted to work three years each as a foreman, a sales rep and then sales manager and then own his own dealership,” he says. “He was an excellent employee, who was honest and never oversold the customer. I was really sorry to lose him.”

After graduation, Martin scoured the country for a store. He looked at dealerships in Poughkeepsie, New York, Philadelphia and St. Louis. Studying five-year growth trends of each city, Martin was impressed with Bowling Green, Kentucky. “It looked the best, its unemployment was low and it was one of the fastest growing areas in the state,” says Martin who could have tried to enter a large metro market. “Most prospective dealers want to be in big markets, but the way I see it is that if you’re not making any money, it doesn’t matter where you are.”

It also didn’t hurt that the home of the Chevy Corvette was also the only “wet” city for miles, where alcohol can be bought legally. Over the weekends, Bowling Green/Warren County, which boasts a population of 100,000, becomes a haven for visitors from Louisville to Nashville, who frequent its restaurants, hotels, supermarkets and malls. It also meant a constant stream of potential customers.
In April 1985, Martin began structuring the purchase of a Bowling Green Oldsmobile/Cadillac dealership. The store had weak sales and Martin saw the potential to polish a diamond in the rough. With his life savings of $60,000 plus $650,
000 in financing from General Motors and local banks, the doors to Martin Olds/Cadillac opened that September. His years in the business, particularly the seven he spent working at Dayton Shannon, taught him plenty. With renovations and an infusion of enthusiasm, Martin woke up the “sleepy” dealership. He extended business hours to 9 p.m. and began an aggressive marketing campaign, which included spending $15,000 a month in newspaper and television advertisements.

“It was a good year for me and my family,” says Martin who, with his wife, Gail, has three children, Amber, 14, Chadwick, 12, and Coleman, 9. The car maker was selling a million cars a year and Martin’s revenues topped $14 million with $350,000 in profits. Yet, the road was scattered with obstacles. “Many people had doubts: as to whether an African American could make it in this community with a black population of less the 10%.” Even GM backed by own research, was doubtful of his prospects, especially with no other minority business catering to Bowling Green’s most white community. “Many dealers I would fail, but knew the business better than ma of them,” adds Martin. Last year, Martin, who says he “has competitors, but no competition,” secured 27% of total auto sales for all dealerships in the area, making him the market leader in Bowling

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