One on One with…Dan Macdonald — Strong family ties key to dealership’s 70 years in the business

STRONG FAMILY TIES has been a big part of the success enjoyed by Macdonald Motors in Bridgton for over 70 years. Partners and borthers Bob (second from left) and Dan Macdonald (second from right) proudly welcomed their children, Mary and Bill into the fold. (Photo by Ken Murphy)

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

Ever since the first time Dan Macdonald dangled the keys to a new car and handed them over to an anxious buyer, America’s love affair with automobiles has never seemed to wane.

“It’s people’s independence. Their ability to say, ‘Here I am. I have arrived.’ It’s a success symbol,” said Macdonald inside his busy showroom office at Macdonald Motors in Bridgton. “Some people come in and don’t care. They simply want something to get them from Point A to Point B. But for most people, they come in looking for something that really fits their personality and they get excited about.”

In the United States, about 17 million new cars are sold each year.

“That’s an awful lot of product. One out of five (or six) jobs in the United States have a connection to the automobile industry. That’s a powerful statement,” Macdonald said. “People appreciate buying something that is American-made, but it has to be price competitive. It’s difficult, especially when in some foreign countries what people are paid in a day is what people in Detroit are paid per hour, plus there is no worker’s comp or health insurance.”

The automobile industry has certainly evolved and undergone major changes since the first day Macdonald Motors opened, and when a former schoolteacher figured it was time for him to turn in a piece of chalk for a sharpened pencil and join the family business.

Last year, Macdonald Motors — under the direction of Dan and Robert Macdonald, along with their children, Bill and Mary — celebrated its 70th anniversary. The News spoke with Dan Macdonald about the growth of the local dealership, its success and challenges it has faced.

“The longevity we’ve had is primarily due to the quality of people we have had working with us and I can’t over-emphasize the importance of the support of our customers. We have so many people that we truly enjoy seeing,” Macdonald said.

BN. Congrats on 70 years in business! What do you feel are the main reasons the company has enjoyed such long-term success?

DM. If you are going to be in any type of business that is going to last a long period of time, especially for generations, you have to have a good product that you are selling, you have to stand behind your product, you have to be fair, straightforward and honest.

It’s about selling a good product at a fair price, and exceeding expectations. That’s what we try to do.

I find what works well is that I have very good people who work here. The success of any business is having a good staff that is personable and willing to take care of customers. I like to pride ourselves that we have some very talented people. A number of our people are involved in the community — the Lions Club, Rotary, the Red Cross, fire department, Little League coaches — all those things that let everyone know that we are a business in the community, but we also support our community.

I was going over with our bookkeeper the other day the organizations — like Project Graduation, the Little League teams, the Boy Scouts who are going on a trip — that we support. We try to make this a better community through our support of these groups and the things that we do.

BN.  How many people work at Macdonald Motors?

DM. In Bridgton, we have 25 and 23 in our North Conway store, at various levels of proficiencies.

BN.  When did you first start working at Macdonald Motors, what was your first job there, and did you expect it to be your long-term career?

BACK IN THE DAY when Macdonald Motors was located in Pondicherry Square.

DM, My father started the business in 1946. I was born in 1948, born into the business. My two older brothers, Bob and Jim, grew up in the business.

People used to come to my house. We would close at noontime on Saturdays and 5 o’clock during the week. After dad sold a car, somebody might come to the house in the afternoon on a Saturday or in the evening during the week. My mother would type up the bill of sale in the office at the house. And, I would stamp the seven-day plate at five years old, take it out and tape it onto the back window. That was my job. We still use that same stamp.

When I graduated from college, I really wasn’t ready to come home and be part of the business. I had a degree in teaching. I taught for a little while. My older brother, Jim, told me I should come home and give it a shot. Forty-five years later, I’m still trying to find out if I like it or not or want to find something else to do. I had other jobs along the way — teaching, coaching, driving a truck and working at a summer camp. I’ve enjoyed the business, I’ve enjoyed the challenges and I have truly enjoyed the customers. Over the years, we have built some wonderful relationships — not just customers, but very dear friends. We enjoy people.

Both of my brothers were very instrumental in the business before I came back home in 1972. Jim started here after going to Nasson College in 1956 and worked with my father for years until he opened up his own repair shop. In 1982, the Holden brothers were looking to get out of the car business in Conway to focus on real estate and insurance, so we looked at buying their store. There was an ‘open point.’ Ford wanted to put a dealership in Tamworth, N.H. Bob contacted Ford, and we put in a dealership in North Conway. Bob and I are still partners. Bob is an attorney, so his legal skills have been invaluable (his daughter, Mary, is also an attorney, and her contributions to the business have been immense). Jim was a master of mechanical knowledge, and was a ‘fun’ guy. Great personality. Our wives have always been there if we need something done. It’s been a true family business. Sometimes, family businesses just don’t work, but we’ve been fortunate that it has all worked well for us.

BN.  What lessons did you learn from your father, in regards to business that remain with you today?

DM. My older brothers, father and uncle all said, ‘Just be honest.’ I’ve told my people that if you tell somebody something that is true you will remember it three years later. If you tell somebody something that isn’t true, you won’t remember it three minutes later. My dad was someone who came through the Depression, and knew the value of what someone’s word and a handshake were. It’s carried on to this day. No matter what you do, you try your best to support your people and customers. I don’t call my workers ‘employees,’ they are co-workers. We are all in this boat together, with an oar in the water, and paddling in the same direction.

BN.  How did your father (Roger) get started in the business?

DM. After World War II, my dad was in the military and when he came home, he had a car repair/welding shop in the back of my grandmother’s restaurant (at the site of our old dealership at the traffic light). He was an entrepreneur at heart. He thought it might be good if he could sell something. So, after the war, he got the opportunity to be a Chrysler/Plymouth dealer. He went to Portland and picked up his first three cars. All the money that he had in the world to pay for those cars was enough to pay the shipping charges, not to pay for the cars. They asked my father how he was going to pay for them? He said he would sell them and then pay them. He was told, ‘That’s not how it works.’ So, he gave them the money for shipping and they set him up with some financing. He brought them home and sold them, went back and bought three more. He was a sub-dealer back in 1946, to see how he would do. He then became a regular dealer, took on American Motors (franchise) in 1959, he then took on International Scout truck line, and then picked up the Dodge line. These were all separate franchises. In 1977, we picked up the Jeep line, which has been a godsend.

There are protected territories. Like McDonalds, if there is one in a ‘territory,’ another one can’t come in. There were a lot of car dealerships at one time in this area. I was reading recently that since 2008, 38% of car dealerships have gone out of business. A number have been acquired by mega-dealers.

BN.  How has the automobile sales industry changed over the years?

DM. The Internet has had a tremendous impact. In some respects, it’s great because when people come in they know exactly what they want. In others, it makes it difficult. We had one customer come in and buy a vehicle, and told us that he had beaten our price by a few dollars on a new $50,000 Jeep elsewhere. We asked, ‘Where are you shopping?’ We went on the Internet to check inventory, and we didn’t see the vehicle he was talking about in Portland. We were told it was in Portland, Oregon. He lives in Maine, and was going to fly to Oregon, buy the vehicle and drive it back for a few hundred dollars. Everything is pricing. The price on the first new car I ever sold was a performance car for $2,850 in 1968. Today, the equivalent car to that is $38,000. It’s crazy how pricing has gone.

Technology has certainly driven price. Vehicles are much safer than they ever have been. We’ve seen great improvements in tires. When you can sit in your house when it is 20-below zero and you can press a button and your car starts and it’s warming up, and when you get in the car the heated seats are on and your favorite radio station is playing, that’s advancement.

At my age, it’s difficult to keep up with all the technology changes; it’s a younger person’s game. I still have a lot of people come in and wanting to talk to the “old” guy, who remembers ‘back when…’

The Internet takes the personal touch out of a lot of things, which is one of the things that I don’t like. It gives you a lot of information, which is great. But, I still like the handshake, the eye-to-eye contact, the test drives, the interactions that I have grown up with. I still think that has a place no matter what business you are in. It’s important to me to see customers, get to know them, read about them and their family members in the local paper. Again, it’s about relationships. The personal touch is what I grew up with and I’m trying not to let people here (at Macdonald Motors) lose that approach. I don’t think I’ve ever sold a car to Hawaii, but I’ve sold cars to Alaska and basically to every other state because of the Internet. I had someone in Michigan who saw a vehicle that we had, and flew his brother out with the condition that I would meet his brother at the airport. I gave the brother the keys, and he drove that vehicle back to Michigan. I shipped a car to Camp Pendleton in California. I’ve shipped some to Arizona (my brother, myself and my son live out there) and Texas. When I had a home in Florida, my neighbor saw a truck online and I shipped it down to him. Our sale numbers have gone way up.

Our move out onto Route 302 has really worked out well. I thought we would never run out of room there. Well, we built a big building out back and we’re trying to get the lot near Jones & Matthews ready for expansion. We’re running out of room. Our business has tripled since we moved out here.

BN.  What were the biggest adjustments your dealership had to make in what I gather is a very competitive industry?

DM. I think most dealerships are making less money percentage-wise on a car sale than years ago. You are open more hours. We used to close at 5 o’clock. Now, we never close before 6 o’clock during the week. It’s usually 7 or 8. If someone is here, we’re going to accommodate them. Saturday used to be noon, now its 4, 5 or 6 o’clock. Maine law doesn’t allow us to be open on Sundays, thank God for that.

Every “center” of your business — sales and service — has to achieve a “little” profit so hopefully at the end of the month, quarter or year, it’s black not red.

BN. You have seen many changes in automobiles from styles to the latest technology. What were the biggest changes that had major impacts on consumers?

DM. Fuel efficiency. We’ve seen increases in mileage, safety standards and ‘comforts’ people like to have today, you are also increasing the price. When I first started selling cars, I sold air conditioning to about 5%. Most cars didn’t have ‘air.’ Today, if I have a car without air conditioning, I should probably use it for fill. No one is going to buy it. Or, it might be one I sell to someone in Alaska.

BN.  Which cars were your favorites? Which cars faded quickly? Which cars have been the most consistent big sellers and why?

DM. Being in this for 60 years, it’s been a fun time to see a lot of different models. Several, I’ve really enjoyed. One of my favorite cars was the AMC Pacer. It was like a fish bowl on wheels. I had a yellow AMC Pacer station wagon with woodgrain sides. I loved it because no one else wanted to drive it. My actual favorite car of all time is a 1999 Plymouth Prowler, which is a little two-seater roadster that I got new. I have a lot of fun with it. It’s never seen a snowflake, hardly ever seen a raindrop, I take it out Memorial Weekend to my house, and I bring it back on Columbus Weekend to store it away. It’s 17 years old going on 18, but it has just 6,000 miles. A lot of those miles were put on by my son, Joe. When he comes home, he has some fun with that car.

I guess I could say that my favorite car is the one I can sell the easiest.

One that faded away? Every manufacturer has one. Chevy Citation. Ford Maverick. Ford Pinto.

As for longevity, Lee Iacocca came out with the Dodge and Chrysler minivans in 1983, and they are still going strong today. They remain our ‘go-to’ vehicle. Pickup trucks have remained strong. Dodge has taken the truck from being just a work vehicle to something today that is family-oriented type vehicle. You can still have a heavy-duty truck, but by the same token, many are the main family vehicle. And, you used to think a truck was a man’s truck. Today, we sell a lot of pickup trucks to women. There is no gender boundary on a lot of vehicles today. I had a guy buy a Town & Country minivan, and he calls it his ‘Man Van.’

BN.  What do you believe are the characteristics of a good car salesman?

DM. Being honest. Straightforward. Listening to what the customer’s wants and needs are. When people are ‘credit challenged,’ we have avenues that can help them, if they are honest and will pay. One of my favorite sayings is, ‘Bad things can happen to good people.’ It doesn’t mean that something negative can happen to someone — they get blindsided — and that makes them a terrible person. We have avenues that can help people rebuild their credit. Out here, if you don’t have a car and may not have a job.

You sit down with someone and find out what they really want, some of their “electives” that may not fit their budget, and see what you can do. When I first started selling cars, financing was for 18 months and the average payment was $65 to $75 per month. We’re selling cars now that the standard financing is for 66 to 72 months, and a lot of people are doing 84 months. Payments are often greater than $500 a month. We do leasing, which has become very popular. Someone who wants “items” but doesn’t fit in their budget, a lease may work and stay within a budget.

BN. What has it meant to you to have Bill join the family business?

DM. It’s meant the same to me when my dad had his sons come back into the business. We’ve created something as a family, and a way to keep the family in the area. We wanted to create an opportunity for the boys. They know the door is always open, and that we would never force them to come into the business. My youngest son, Joe (who is involved in real estate and financial planning), lives in Arizona. It means a lot that Bill came home, just as it meant a lot for my brother, Bob, when his daughter, Mary, came home. She’s been with us for over 20 years now (at the Conway store). The idea is for Bill to take over for me when I step aside to get my golf game in line.

BN.  At the end of the day, we all hope to put a stamp on the job we do. Considering your years in the business, what do you feel you were able to accomplish and what can you take great pride in when you look back over your work career?

DM. I’d like to think that I made somewhat of an impact on some people’s lives. I’ve had some young people come on board that didn’t really know what they wanted to do but became good salespeople, office people, good technicians. I had one fellow who graduated from high school on June 10 and joined me on June 11 and that was 29 years ago. He took four years off to join the Marine Corps and came back.

I’d like to think that when I spend my time down on Kansas Road at the Forest Cemetery when someone rides by they might say, ‘He wasn’t too bad of a guy.’

“I would like to leave the business here a little better than when I got here. When I walk out the door and turn my key over to somebody else, it is better today than when I first walked in the door.”

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