From the high-volume Matthews-Hargreaves Chevrolet dealership in a Detroit suburb to a run-down Ford Mercury store in a remote northern Michigan village, pop. 1,133, was a leap in 1992 for Scott McNamara, a 23-year-old “kid” at the time.

He recalls how he became a dealer principal at that young age:

“I had made it to sales manager, but I always wanted to be a dealer — ever since starting out as a salesman down there in Royal Oak. Chevy stores weren't available, so I took over — with Ford's help — this Ford point in Roscommon. It had only eight employees and was selling 15 new and used vehicles a month, if that.

“It was a challenge. Twelve years ago, the industry was just coming out of a recession, and nobody gave you a chance. I may have been the youngest Ford dealer anywhere — which is a nice thing to talk about — but it leaves a lot of folks wondering what I know about running an auto retail business.”

McNamara proved the skeptics wrong, and then some. His sales in Roscommon, a county seat in a county of the same name with 20,000 residents, have risen to a monthly average of 125 new and used vehicles. He has completed a $500,000 renovation of his namesake dealership. He has a Lincoln franchise now and 35 employees.

Striving to build a group of about eight Ford-brand stores, McNamara purchased a Ford-Mercury store in Gladwin in 2000, and a Ford-Lincoln-Mercury dealership in Grayling in 2002. Both are county seats, too, but larger than nearby Roscommon. He added a Rotunda quick-lube building on his Roscommon campus.

Ford has honored McNamara's achievements with three President's Award citations in a row.

How did a young man do so well in such a relatively short time?

“It was my determination to be hands-on,” says McNamara. “Then it was my employees who stayed with.”

That includes the McHaffys, a father and three sons in sales; Erine Adams, a woman who runs the service department; and F&I manager Todd Johnston, who helped make leasing popular in northern Michigan.

Customer satisfaction ratings hit the 83% mark, topping the Detroit regional average, even as volume grew.

McNamara says, “I was able to advance my game plan for adding Ford stores sooner than expected, which gives my staff an added incentive to become managers themselves. Ford Credit was most helpful in this regard. It isn't always the case in country markets that dealers can find funds to expand, but we've been fortunate.”

McNamara, married with two children, lives in Roscommon, 200 miles north of Detroit. He's not without competitors. The Don Nester Chevrolet-Olds dealership is across town. Like McNamara, Nester went north from a Detroit area dealership and belongs to a group of upstate dealers, such as Ford-Jeep dealer Dean Arbour in Pinconning, who learned their craft in the big metro Detroit market to the south.

“One thing that's worked here is leasing,” says McNamara. “Out-state folks used to avoid leasing, but Todd Johnston made them see the advantages of it and we can run up to 75% leases in some months. It ties the folks back to us for return of their off-lease units.”

Johnston shares the leasing sourcing with Bank One if a customer wants a payment choice besides Ford Credit. When Ford Credit pulled back on subprime in 2002, McNamara added AmeriCredit and Household Finance as providers. “Subprime is key for many shoppers here just as it is in big cities these days,” says Johnston.

The four McHaffys handle sales and leasing for McNamara. Among the holdovers from the previous ownership, Ray McHaffy and sons Bill, Lenny and Ray Jr. — give the place a family atmosphere, as does the fact that Erine Adams' husband Rodney is a senior master technician.” The shop averages 750 repair orders a month.

McNamara ventured into offsite selling, holding sales at a nearby Wal-Mart store.

Would he expand his fledgling group to other brands? “I'm pretty loyal to Ford, since they've been so supportive,” he says. “Besides, nobody else has that new F-150 pickup truck.”