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

Des Moines or Texas is like running one next door,” says Martin. Never allowing a distant location to limit him, in 1985, he purchased a Cessna 182 aircraft, which is now being used by Ron Tardiff, the vice president and CFO.

“It’s hard for people to understand, but the airplane is not a luxury, but a tool, like a computer or calculator,” notes Martin of his $6 million Beechjet 400. He sometimes hits two or three cities a day in a matter of hours. Having outgrown the range and seating capacity of his current plane, Martin has an option on a $8 million Learje
t 45 that seats nine and can get him from Bowling Green to the West Coast without a fuel stop.

Martin’s penchant for change and diversity is not only reflected in his choice of car franchises but also in the founding of Martin Management Group, the umbrella linking all his business concerns. The $4 million management company includes: Martin Automotive Group; The Corporate Center at Hartland which leases office space to Trans Financial Bank and Fruit of the Loom; Co-Mar Inc. and Co-Mar Inc. of Dayton Inc., the aviation companies; Martin Land Development and Martin Automotive Group Insurance Agency Inc. The relationship of all these companies is synergistic, keeping money flowing back to its chief executive. The Martin Land Development develops the land that is leased to Martin Automotive Group for its dealerships. Martin Automotive Group Insurance Agency Inc. covers 80% of the dealerships’ extended service warranties. The Corporate Center at Hartland is the headquarters for Martin Management Group, to which all five companies pay a management fee.

Martin, like most smart business people, surrounds himself with the right people. Many of his 266 employees have salaries that are 10%-20% above the norm, according to Martin. To manage the dealings of Martin’s other business ventures, he recently hired Tommy Dennard as vice president of support operations. Dennard, who was a vice president and regional CFO at Sara Lee, brought the experience of managing multiple companies, skills Martin needed with the company’s anticipated growth.

Also by his side is Bruce Browning, vice president of used vehicle operations. “Unlike other dealers, [Martin] will take his time, money and effort to develop his people rather than look elsewhere for someone already qualified,” says Browning who has worked for Martin since Day 1 and climbed up through the ranks from a sales consultant. “He can sell people on his vision and get buying. We have a very low turnover rate because of this and some employees, who have left for what they thought were better opportunities, have returned,” he adds.

Currently, Martin is considering two new business ventures outside of the automobile industry that he plans to have in place by the end of the year.

For all his fortune, he is also willing to share the wealth. He contributes some $100,000 annually to institutions of higher education, such as Western Kentucky University where he serves on the Board of Regents, Wilberforce University, his

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