The Entrepreneurial Spirit

Webster defines an entrepreneur as, “one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risk of a business or enterprise.” Most all dealers and many boat builders have the entrepreneurial spirit. They are in business because they love it and don’t want to work for someone else.

One of my older brothers was a classic entrepreneur, starting at a young age. In high school, Jim worked at a gas station for spending money and soon bought his first car out of his earnings. After fixing it up a bit he then sold it for a profit and bought another car. He kept doing this all through school, buying and selling cars and each time, making a profit and trading up the year and model of the car.

Taking a big risk

After getting out of the Navy, he bounced around between several jobs but didn’t like working for someone else. So he finally bought a run-down Lincoln Mercury dealership “on a shoestring,” as they say. Over the next thirty years his business grew, he became incredibly successful, and made a ton of money as an entrepreneurial car dealer.

Jim had a great sense of humor and was also the best salesman I have ever known. He frequently combined humor with his sales technique with great success. I remember one time he was trying to work a sale of a new Lincoln to a guy he knew. But the guy kept hedging on the deal and Jim was having trouble closing the sale. Finally the prospect said, “This sounds like a pretty good deal. But I think I’ll go home and ask my wife if she thinks it is OK if I buy the car.” Jim said, “Okay, and while you are doing that, I’ll run home and ask my wife if it is OK to sell it to you.” The prospect started laughing and said, “Alright you S.O.B., where do I sign?” And the deal was made.

Another time, a customer from a town 40 miles away came into his showroom and was looking at a particular model car. He asked Jim, “How much for this car if I buy it now for cash and no trade?” Jim told him the cash price. The prospect said, “That much? I can buy it for a $1,000 less from my hometown dealer?” Jim said, “Well why don’t you buy it there?” The guy said, “He doesn’t have one in stock.” My brother shot back, “Well when I don’t have that car in stock, my price is a $1,000 less, too.” He sold him the car.

Betting the farm

After three years in the Air Force, I spent 30 years in the corporate world working for someone else. After I retired from corporate life, I didn’t want to work for anyone else anymore. So I bought a Chevrolet dealership about 40 miles away from my brother’s dealership (he went with me to check out the dealership), and became an entrepreneur for the first time. I have pretty much been an entrepreneur ever since and much prefer it to working for someone else. But I quickly learned what it was like to assume risk and bet the family farm, so to speak, on a business. I signed personal guarantees for floor plans, sweat out the ups and downs of the car business, had people lie to me about their trade-ins, spent long hours every day at the business, and arm wrestled with young factory reps who had never had their own business. I have walked in the shoes of boat and motor dealers…only in the car business.

My partners in this blog, Skip Hegel and John Underwood, have also been boat dealers and entrepreneurs. They have lived the risky life of owning their own businesses. I also know that a lot of boat builders are entrepreneurs and some even started their boat businesses in their garage. A good example is the late Connie Ray who founded Sea Ray boats when he started building some runabouts in his garage. As a District Sales Manager early in my corporate career, I once called on a prospect that was building runabouts in a garage. Unfortunately, he did not have the success of Connie Ray.

As we struggle through the horrible economic downturn we are in, I am sure that many entrepreneurial dealers and builders have thought that maybe working for someone else might be the better way to go. But then they look at the unemployment rates and probably decide to do everything they can to keep their businesses going.

Those who can’t…or haven’t…teach?

What amazes me in all of this economic chaos is how many trade magazine columnists, who have never been dealers or entrepreneurs, are writing columns giving tips regarding what dealers should do to survive the downturn. Huh? How would they know? They haven’t walked the talk. Those of us who have had experience as entrepreneurs aren’t even sure what all the answers are. There are just too many variables from dealer to dealer and various markets. Sure there are some basics one can write about that dealers should do to survive, and those who have made it this far pretty much know what they are. But until writers have walked in the shoes of an entrepreneur, their credibility suffers immensely in my opinion if they are trying to give dealers tips on survival and success.

As we enter this New Decade…the struggle for survival as entrepreneurs hopefully will ease up a bit. So hang in there! Continue to do the logical things you know about like lowering your inventory as much as possible without hurting business, reducing the number of brands you carry to keep floor plan costs down, watching cash flow and reserves closely, continuing to keep expenses down where practical, and basics like that. I also recommend talking with other dealers to get ideas from them on how they are hanging in there during these tough times. Also consider a 20 Group as there are countless benefits in that. I always learned something new and helpful when I had opportunities to meet with other Chevy dealers.

So….Hang in there, and may it be a Happy New Year….and Happy New Decade for you all. And may it be better than the last decade.

About Ben H. Sherwood

Ben H. Sherwood is a marine industry veteran and a marketing consultant who operates Sherwood Marine Marketing in Pleasant Prairie, Wis. For more info, click About on the main menu.

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