Who will Claim Ford Country?

TC's long-established Bill Marsh auto family has

purchased a Ford dealership just 27 miles

away from powerhouse Fox Grand Traverse. As Ford's fortunes rise, is this town big enough for both of them?

REGION – Just three years ago, General Motors and Toyota were the giants of the automotive industry, Ford was bleeding, and here in northern Michigan, the Sleder family was leading Grand Traverse Auto.

The scene has certainly changed. After a GM bankruptcy and much-publicized Toyota recalls, Ford sales and buzz are surging, while Fox Grand Traverse is the local Ford dealer with new owership and a new name. And now, Traverse City's first family of auto – the Marshes – have launched a Ford dealership of their own in Kalkaska.

It's shaping up to be a battle for "Ford Country" in and around Traverse City, and the contenders are formidable. Fox Grand Traverse, formerly Grand Traverse Auto, has been selling Fords for decades here, and is now run by Fox and its District Director, John Cueter.

One key point in its favor: Fox GT is the only dealer allowed by Ford Motor Co. to sell its vehicles in Traverse City, giving it the chance to sell the most vehicles in the biggest population area around. As Ford's prominence and buzz have grown nationally, formerly sluggish sales at the dealership have done a 180-degree turn.

Nevertheless, the Marsh family – already operators of GMC, Chrysler, Dodge, Buick, Jeep and Hyundai – didn't hesitate to acquire Dan McCormick Ford in Kalkaska, just 27 short miles to the east of Traverse City and Fox Grand Traverse, last fall. At the time, Bill Marsh Jr. made no secret that the family-owned company had craved the 'big blue oval' for some time.

"Obviously the cause of our interest was Ford, and we'd love to bring Ford to Traverse City, but I think Fox Grand Traverse would have something to say about that," he says.

So what kind of strategy does each dealer have in the works? Both say they intend to stay focused on what they know and run best: their own businesses.

The Marsh Way

"Theirs is a quality organization, I'm sure, but we're focused on what we do. We've invested a lot in the people here," Mike Marsh, one of the three Marsh brothers now running all the family's dealershis, told the TCBN. "We've incorporated a lot of training and a whole new operating system."

In particular, Marsh is banking on te hope that two staples of its other dealerships will take hold at the new place as well.

Because the company as a whole represents so many differing auto manufacturers and vehicles – ranging from a one ton GMC pickup to a Hyundai Elantra to a Dodge Viper – it's able to cross-train salespeople to sell customers whatever they need, regardless of the badge on the car.

"It's more value to the customer,"Marsh explains. "If a customer wants a truck, we can show them the GMC, the Dodge, and the Ford, and let them decide."

Marsh also points to its "non-negotiating" pricing plan, where the prices for all vehicles are posted right on the car. "It's what customers want and, more importantly, it speeds-up the transaction, which all the recent customer research shows is critical to customers."

The organization is also banking on a good reputation spreading from Grand Traverse to Kalkaska County. "Our name means something in Traverse City, but we're Bill Marsh here in Kalkaska, and we think this is a good market. There's lots of traffic driving by, it's a great community, and we're getting involved and making a mark here."

Fox Leading the Pack

Making a mark is precisely what John Cueter believes he and his team at Fox Grand Traverse have done since they've taken over. Anyone with a newspaper, radio, or TV would acknowledge the dealer's increased advertising presence, but there's a twist: Many of Cueter's promotions have been community-based, including fundraisers for Father Fred, Toys for Tots, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters. "We believe heavily in giving back to the community and branding the Fox name through the community."

Yet even beyond the staff changes and training and advertising and boost in inventory, likely the biggest benefit to Fox is its size. Fox Grand Traverse sells hundreds of Fords per year, earning them "Select" status with the manufacturer. And, as Cueter is quick to point out, volume buying from Ford means volume pricing for the customer.

"Eight or nine times out of ten, our price is going to be better. Volume takes care of a lot in this business," he says.

Cueter disputes Marsh's contention that customers prefer a non-negotiable price. "They'll say they don't want to, but customers want to negotiate. Sometimes they want to be able to get us to knock something off the price or throw in a CD player."

Meanwhile, both are making investments in their own facilities. Marsh Ford in Kalkaska is planning to "green up" and brighten the sales lot in a "Phase One" re-do; Fox Grand Traverse's update will include new paint, signage, and showroom improvements.

The prize for the winner of this battle is significant; Ford is on the upswing. In the five-county area surrounding Traverse City, Ford new car sales for the first quarter of 2010 were up 64 percent over the previous year. The manufacturer is predicting a hugely profitable 2010, and Ford captured the 2010 Motor Trend Car of the Year with its Fusion Hybrid.

Both Marsh and Cueter agree that something about Ford today is indeed different – changed from how it operated a few years back, and unique compared to its competitors.

"There's such a sense of pride, workmanship and family," Marsh says.

Cueter adds that not a day goes by when a customer doesn't walk in and mention that they'll be buying a Ford because the company turned down government bailout dollars.

So who will win the battle for Ford country? Most likely, the region and the customer. Taken together, the dealerships maintain hundreds of good-paying jobs – and a little competition has never hurt the prices customers pay. BN