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

Green for the eighth year in a row.

Prompted by the success of the Olds/Cadillac dealership, Martin looked to penetrate the import market. In 1987, he was awarded an Isuzu/Subaru dealership. But when the market for the cars dried up, he sold the franchises to a local Pontiac dealer for $250,000. But that didn’t stop his desire to own more franchises. Martin was establishing himself as a “dealer’s dealer.” High customer service ratings were his trademark and he continued to draw national attention and respect among the nation’s auto dealers. But for a man who says he gets “bored easily,” Martin was compelled to go to another level in order to create more business opportunities.

And 1990 proved to be a banner year. Martin acquired a Dodge Car, Truck and Van franchise. He soon formed the Martin Automotive Group, intending to expand his reach in the automotive business as well as stand as the parent of any other business ventures. Wasting no time, he bought a Jeep- Eagle dealership in 1991. consolidating it with the Dodge to form Martin Dodge Jeep Eagle.

Looking for a new challenge, Martin heard the rumble throughout the industry about Saturn, a car that would be born out of the rural hamlet of Spring Hill, Tennessee. This General Motors progeny, with its straightforward, no-hassle/no-haggle policy and customer service focus, was threatening to revolutionize the way cars would be sold and serviced. But the stakes were high and Saturn was very selective about who sold their cars. “They required retailers to have $8 million to start and multiple dealerships. I didn’t have that kind of money, but I had my reputation. I thought, `If I could just get them to meet me, I could convince them that I could run a franchise.’”

Even dealers who could shell out the $8 million had to have high sales performance and the reputation to back it up. In 1991, Martin finally got his audience and they were impressed. Refusing to relegate himself to Bowling Green, he looked to return to the city where he first made his mark–Dayton. It was there in September of 1991, that Martin opened the doors to his first Saturn franchise.

With a quarter of a million dollars of his own money and another $3 million in private capital, Saturn Dayton North was launched. The franchise pulled in over $21 million in 1992, doing a 6% return on sales in an industry where the norm is 2%; within a year, Martin had paid off the loan. Located on 2.5 acres of land, the dealership is Martin’s smallest in size, but it most profitable. By keeping his service department open until midnight, and plying the Saturn philosophy of “doing whatever the customer wants,” business was brisk.

Last year, the store was ranked the sixth most profitable dealership in the nation–trailing behind much larger retailers in the Saturn’s lucrative Florida and Nevada markets. It was also one of only 10 dealerships in the country to receive the Good Housekeeping and Automotive News

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