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With long days and honest practice, my grandfather survived tough business times

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Posted: Monday, March 9, 2009 10:00 pm

It's sad to see longtime car agencies fall by the wayside. It especially affects us, who grew up in the exciting times of the 1950s and '60s, when American cars ruled the road.

My grandfather was the first Ford, Dodge and Hudson dealer in Santa Monica. He also had a parts business in the same town. Most of his financial life was not an easy ride. Times were tough during the depression of the 1930s. Cars were impossible to get during most of the 1940s.

When I was 10, he died at the young age of 64. During the short time I knew him, I had learned a lot about the smallbusiness world and how to survive when others were failing.

The first thing he taught me was: "If you want to stay in business, people have to trust you. You earn that trust by helping them get what they want and by being honest in what you do." His mission was to provide products and service that were reliable. If something went wrong, he would personally make sure it was corrected and that customers were satisfied. On occasion, when the goal was unsuccessful, he took it as a personal failure. He always questioned what could be done differently the next time.

I remember in the early 1950s, he drove a Studebaker business coupe. One day I asked curiously: "Grandpa: Why do you drive a Studebaker when you're a Dodge man?" He replied in his usually soft voice: "The Studebaker dealer does a lot of parts business with me. I want to help his company as much as possible. Besides, he's a good fellow." This was an unusual gesture, as most saw the idea of promoting a competitor as rather strange.

It was a surprise and a shock to the city of Santa Monica when he suddenly died of a heart attack. He was well-known in the business community and an active member in most civic organizations. They did not see his loss as just another businessman passing on, but the loss of a personal friend.

My mother was an only child and took his departure to heart. His kindness was not only present in the business world but within his family as well. When I was 5, he brought me a car part box home almost every night. Soon, I had a little Pep Boys store in my own bedroom! I developed an early love for cars and wanted to imitate his business ventures for many years to follow.

But my mother had other ideas. She grew up during the lean years of the car business and insisted that I take a professional route for my career path. I took her advice, but always longed to give the business a try. That was just something in my soul that needed to be satisfied.

Many decades later, opportunity knocked. A friend of mine gave me the chance to come to his dealership and see what I could do. For two years, I loved it!

Here, I learned more about people than through many years of formal education in psychology. I used my grandfather's philosophy. The result was the personal reward of many happy customers that cannot be explained in a few words.

However, Mom was right too. The products at this agency were primarily light trucks. When prices of diesel fuel went haywire, business disappeared. The three honest and persevering partners were undercapitalized and had to close their doors. But good things happen to good people. Out of the ashes, my friend discovered an opportunity that brought him new success.

Because of this experience, I was satisfied that I could succeed in any area desired. But I also learned how difficult the real world could be. These 14-hour-a-day small-business owners support the growing greed of government through huge tax burdens. They also provide jobs for people with a variety of skills. At the end of the day, they still need to have enough money left to pay rent and support their families.

But most of all, I learned how the key to success was establishing honest relationships. My grandfather's values may seem old-fashioned by today's standards. But there's no doubt in my mind that they are still the foundation for long-term accomplishment.

That's why I believe he survived the many years of a challenged career.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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