His family is big on small-town stores PINCONNING, MI - Thirty years ago, Dean Arbour, age 32 at the time, decided it was time for a change.

"I was selling cars for Jerry McCarthy Chevrolet in Detroit," he recalls, "and frankly wanted to find a small-town Chevy dealership to buy. Our kids were small and we were anxious to get out of the fast lane and settle down near the lakes and the forests."

But Chevrolet was a hot franchise in those days and openings were scarce. Mr. Arbour's application for an open point in Port Clinton, OH, on Lake Erie, was denied. So he somewhat reluctantly turned to Ford.

"I approached Phil Novell, the Lansing, MI, district manager for Ford (later the general sales manager), and he found me a point in Pinconning, in the east-central part of the Lower Peninsula on Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay.

"The town then and now has about 1,300 people, but we've prospered here and created a family business by adding Dean Arbour Ford-Mercury stores nearby at Tawas City and West Branch, MI."

His daughter Colleen, 34, runs the Tawas store, son Matt, 36, the West Branch store.

Says Mr. Arbour, "We like to think Chevrolet's loss was Ford's gain, but it's a dream come true for me and something many dealers are unable to realize in their own families."

What the Arbour story also points out is the enduring strength in small communities of well-run dealerships.

Tawas City and West Branch each has about 2,000 residents, with Ford and GM-brand stores that as Mr. Arbour says, "keep the hospital, the police and fire departments, the school buses and the entire community on wheels."

He adds, "We're among the biggest employers and probably the biggest advertisers. It's hard to imagine towns like Pinconning, Tawas City and West Branch carrying on without dealerships like ours."

The three Dean Arbour stores average sales of about 130 new and 150 used vehicles a month, benefiting from a statewide reputation that Mr. Arbour and his general manager Larry Studley, 49, have achieved for fair prices and highly trained sales and service personnel.

"I took a Dale Carnegie course 45 years ago and its ideas still work," says Mr. Arbour. "It's said that too much training at smaller dealers only feeds people into larger dealers, but with us, they've stayed on and, to their surprise maybe, done as well as their peers in larger cities."

Five of the Pinconning store's eight technicians have attained certified master status and one, who started with the dealership 15 years ago at age 17 while still in high school, has $200,000 in his 401K account.

"I found Larry Studley in 1984 running a party store in Sand Lake, MI, and he's come up through sales and F&I to be the general manager," says Mr. Arbour. "He has a special capacity for training young employees and so I offered him 20% of the stock last year as an investment in our future."

The Pinconning store also is dualled with Jeep, which accounts for about 10% of the business and gives the dealership a link to Chrysler Financial as well as Ford Credit.

"Jeep is still a good line to offer in these Michigan winters," says Mr. Arbour, and "brings us Chrysler trade-ins we might not otherwise see. The other day our three-store web site (www.deanarbour.com) found us a pre-owned Dodge Neon buyer who drove all the way across the state from Petoskey to take delivery."

The web site is managed by son Matt's wife and the CFO for the stores is daughter Colleen's husband, an accountant based in Tawas City, where the Arbour network has a recently-built building.

Unlike some smaller Ford dealers, Mr. Arbour is a champion of the new Blue Oval awards program and plans to apply for the designation at all three locations. He just received a Time Magazine Quality Dealer award and is regarded as a shoe-in to qualify for Blue Oval.

"Blue Oval will keep us alert to sales and service follow-up," he says, "and be a terrific marketing tool in our ads and on the Internet."

Unable to land the Lincoln franchise because "our towns are considered too small," (although Tawas City does have a GM dealer with Cadillac), Mr. Arbour says he's been looking at Korean car franchises to fill an entry-level gap left by Ford when it upgraded the new Focus.

"Daewoo builds some great products at really bargain prices," he declares, "but I wish they'd change those names of Lanos, Nubira and Leganza."