It’s slow but steady at Ellsworth auto lot

Posted Dec. 28, 2008, at 9:52 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:53 a.m.

Editor’s Note: This is a corrected version of a story that ran in the Dec. 29 print and online editions of the Bangor Daily News. The correction is as follows:

A story on Page B2 of Monday’s paper about Morrison Chevrolet in Ellsworth incorrectly stated that a Chevrolet dealership in Saco recently had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The Chevrolet dealership in Saco, Frank Galos Chevrolet/Cadillac, has not filed for bankrutcy.

ELLSWORTH — At Morrison Chevrolet, the phrase “He was born to be a car salesman” is a compliment, not an insult.

It may sound hard to believe, but customers at the auto dealership seem to agree with the sentiment.

“I love Morrison’s,” David Nichols of Ellsworth said Saturday while looking for a “more economical” pickup truck with better gas mileage.

Nichols said that he’s from “an old Maine family,” and Morrison’s is an old Maine company. The 25-year-old brought his mother and his fiancee with him as he test-drove trucks. And while Nichols did not agree with President Bush’s recent decision to pump billions into ailing American automakers including General Motors, the maker of Chevrolet, he does like Chevys — and likes to shop locally, which makes Morrison’s a perfect fit.

Despite the hard times in the American auto industry, the scene at Morrison Chevrolet seemed surprisingly cheerful — and busy — on the Saturday after Christmas.

Customers who came through the glass doors to the showroom seemed to bring a little hope with them. Salespeople shot the breeze with one another and joked with prospective buyers.

In slow moments, salespeople went up to the door and gazed out the window, looking into the quiet rows of cars and trucks.

While the recession and slump in the auto industry weren’t far from anyone’s mind at the dealership, it also wasn’t the only topic of conversation.

“We saw this coming a year and a half ago and we started positioning ourselves,” said part-owner Clyde Lewis of Ellsworth. “We can hang on for a long, long time.”

The optimistic atmosphere at Morrison’s gives rise to the hope that Maine’s auto dealerships like this one will survive the ongoing challenges.

“We’re going to sell something, whether it’s GM or not,” said P.J. Davis, who has been selling Chevrolets at Morrison’s for 21 years. He’s one of five salespeople — down from a high of seven.

Company officials say that survival will be thanks in no small part to the sense that places such as Morrison Chevrolet are part of the local landscape. It’s also due to the fact that customers have a strong loyalty to a Maine business that they consider to be, in a way, part of the family.

Great Depression roots

In 1930, just as the Great Depression was settling in across the country, the father and grandfather of current co-owner Bud Morrison drove to Portland from Winter Harbor to see about selling Chevrolets on the Maine coast.

According to family lore, the first person the men spoke with at the Portland dealership told them he didn’t think the area was ready for Chevrolets.

“But another guy said, ‘Hang on a second. You drove all the way to Portland from Winter Harbor? Well, I’m going to ship two Chevrolets to Winter Harbor. If you can sell the cars in 30 days, we’ll set you up with a franchise,’” said sales manager Tom Wheeler.

The cars sold, the franchise began, and it was successful, despite the dismal global economy after the 1929 stock market crash.

“It was pretty gutsy, a pretty big step to make,” Wheeler said of starting a business during the Depression.

The dealership has ridden through the good times and bad times in the industry ever since.

But 2008, Wheeler said, feels different.

“It’s definitely the most challenging time, and I’ve been 22 years in the business,” he said.

Signs of the tough times include the red tags on cars and trucks, part of Chevrolet’s latest sale. The extreme sales tactics do draw customers in, employees say, but the low prices mean that the salespeople make less in commissions, too.

The sale of used vehicles often generates more profit for the dealership than the sale of new ones.

“I sold a $53,000 Suburban the other day. I got paid $75, because it was a red tag sale,” said Davis. “I sold a used Jeep Liberty and made $110.”

While employees seem relaxed about the future of Morrison’s, they know that not every dealership is as well-placed to succeed.

“It’s been slow, but we’re steady,” Lewis said. “It could be a lot worse.”

Credit for prospective buyers has really tightened up in the past few months, Lewis said.

“You have to be almost an angel now to get financed,” he said.

Morrison’s staffers said that they feel lucky to be selling cars and trucks in a place with limited public transportation and rural, spread-out communities.

Another stroke of luck is Maine’s preponderance of small businesses. December is the month when people come in to buy a vehicle because their accountants tell them they need a tax write-off, employees said.

Dick and Judy McKay of Penobscot are in that position.

The couple looked at a brand-new Silverado pickup truck that was advertised as snowplow-ready.

“Dick said we need a write-off this year, so we’ve got to go buy a truck,” Judy McKay said with a laugh. “We’ve got the pick of the lot over here.”

The salespeople are amiable with the McKays — and not even a tiny bit pushy. Morrison’s success is built on repeat customers, said Wheeler.

“We’re in a small community,” he said. “You live and die on your reputation.”

acurtis@bangordailynews.net

990-8133

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