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Seekins Ford Lincoln Mercury Inc.: 1988 revenues: $29.6 million; employees: 102; rank: 30.

WHETHER THE GOAL IS mushing a sled dog team across the finish line of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest or boosting car sales, the principles of good management remain unchanged, according to Fairbanks Ford dealer Ralph Seekins.

"It was an interesting experience," the car dealer says of his participation in the 1989 Quest. "It gives you an opportunity to understand yourself as much as anything else. I had to be prepared. I had to have good people around me, the same as I do here.

"Once it starts you can't quit. It's the same as at work, you've got to go out and make today's goal."

Steady growth has been the hallmark of Seekins' 12-year tenure as owner of Fairbanks' sole Ford dealership. From 1986 to 1987, the Ford outlet's revenues climbed from $20.3 million to $23.2 million. Last year revenues rose to $29.6 million. Through the first six months of 1989, expanding business in motor homes and boats helped the dealership post another 15 percent increase over the same period last year.

In 1977, the retirement of the previous owner thrust Seekins, then 32, from a sales floor management position to the dealerships top executive post. The promotion was made possible by support from the auto company's Seattle-based regional manager, Jerry Pfeiffer, and with financial backing from his next-door neighbor, Fairbanks businessman Don Chandler.

The tall, chunky, brown-haired dealer remains grateful for the opportunity that put him in the driver's seat at Seekins Ford. "A lot of people help you as you go through life-and you don't know why. You just have to be thankful and maybe pay back the good fortune by helping someone else," he says.

As a young dealer, Seekins took full advantage of Ford Motor Co.'s management training program. He also benefited from the presence of long-term employees. Today most of the dealership's managers have been with him 10 years or longer.

Downplaying his own contributions to the successful formula, Seekins says, "I'm not as intelligent as some of the people who work for me, but I'm smart enough to surround myself with good people. That's 90 percent of the equation."

"Ralph gives us a lot of flexibility," notes Margaret Russell, the dealership's secretary-treasurer. "He says he wants the management team to run the dealership itself. But I think he's the glue that holds us together."

The 43-year-old executive had no experience driving a dog team when he decided to enter the Quest last fall. Skeptics, including most competitive mushers, predicted Seekins would scratch, if not die, before completing the grueling trail from Whitehorse to Fairbanks. Wind-whipped mountains and jagged frozen rivers line the Quest Trail as it winds across a sparsely populated wilderness where checkpoints are up to 290 miles apart. A misjudgment can plunge an entire team in a life threatening situation. But the novice musher again surrounded himself with the best talent to get the job done.

To train and provide crew support for his Team Ford entry, Seekins brought in Ralph Nestor and Jim Bennett of the Real Alaska Mushing Co. He hired Joe Runyan, a former Quest champ and winner of the 1989 Iditarod, to assemble a 12-dog team capable of going the distance.

The total package, partially underwritten by Ford Motor Co., cost $60,000. It was literally the best preparation and equipment a person could buy, and it paid off when Seekins finished a respectable 23rd out of 43 starters. He mushed Team Ford into Fairbanks after 14 days, 14 hours and 47 minutes on the trail.

As he fed, nursed, cajoled and, sometimes, forced the team onward, Seekins noticed parallels between a dog driver's responsibilities and his own executive role at the dealership. The similarities were underscored when he came down with a 48-hour case of the flu during the long push to Dawson City.

"It would have been easy not to boot the dogs. But you have to take care of business. Just like at work, the boss can never afford to have a bad day, because the whole team has a bad day," he explains.

During the race, a chart detailing the rookie's progress was posted in Ford Motor Co.'s executive dining room in Detroit. This fall, Seekins plans to show a nine-minute video of his adventure to a convention of dealers in Florida. He hopes to interest the motor company in a national campaign linking "America's toughest trucks to America's toughest race."

The dealer has not used his Quest footage in commercials broadcast in Fairbanks. "I haven't tried to capitalize on it because I didn't want to prostitute the race," he says. "I think it will help us, if nothing else, then from the subliminal effect. And basically, that's what advertising is. What I tried to do was to promote the race because of its connections to our home town. I think it's more positive if you don't try to prostitute it."

The Fairbanks dealership sold 2,600 cars and trucks last year. Sales were up through the first six months of 1989, with 1,552 cars and trucks passing out the gates of Seekins' 10-acre lot. Ford F series trucks are the dealer's biggest sellers, along with Topaz and Tempo model cars in the $12,000 to $15,000 range.

Recently, Seekins began expanding into Fleetwood motor homes and Duckworth Starcraft boats. The sidelines look promising. According to Russell, motor home sales topped $800,000, while marine sales brought in another $930,000 during the first six months of 1989.

"We don't try to target a particular market," Seekins says. "What we do is make sure we understand what the market is."

According to Seekins' demographic studies, car buyers in Fairbanks generally fall into one of two groups. Within the first group, potential buyers are single, with a median age of 22 and an income of less than $20,000 a year. A large portion of the area's military population fits this profile. The second group of customers is generally married, about 26 years old, with a combined income of about $60,000.

Community involvement of the dealership's employees plays a key role in tapping these markets. Seekins explains, "We have to have salesmen who are members of the baseball teams, who have children in school. You need people who understand some of the pressures of life on your customers and can empathize." He adds, smiling, "There's an old saying: People look for a car till they find a salesman."

With more than 100 employees on staff and a payroll averaging $350,000 a month, Seekins Ford has substantial economic and personal roots in the community. These ties are strengthened by a generous company policy of sponsoring a wide-range of activities ranging from local softball teams to sled-dog races. The dealer's own personal case of sled-dog fever was the result of years of close exposure as a sponsor.

Seekins Ford maintains several Lincoln Mercury limousines for use as loaners to visiting dignitaries. Defense Secretary Casper Weinburger, Interior Secretary James Watt and numerous visiting pastors from the Lower 48 have toured Fairbanks behind the wheel of one of Seekins' loaners.

Unrolling a set of blueprints for new quick-lube bays and a larger shop, Seekins says his current priority is expanding the dealership's service facilities. Over the past several years, Fairbanks has lost 36 full-service gas stations. Seekins attributes the trend to expanding warranty coverage on new cars and the competition from gas-convenience store chains.

The net result is that customers are increasingly dependent on dealerships for service work. While the labor-intensive work is not the most profitable end for the business - Seekins says his own goal is to break even-the quality of, service work plays a major role when it comes time to trade up for a new model, three years or so down the line.

The dealership's service facilities were strained to the limit during Fairbanks' extended spell of 50-below weather last winter. "The toughest part was keeping a healthy attitude in our own personnel," Seekins recalls. "That's hard when everybody is working 16 hours a day and 250-275 calls are backed up on the tow trucks. What people didn't realize is that our own vehicles were breaking too. Yet, those get the lowest priority."

He says his car is the lowest priority of all. Customer's cars are fixed first.

Seekins has sold all but two of the dogs from Team Ford. Between his wife Connie and their four children, life holds enough new challenges to forsake the excitement of the trail. Besides, the goal has been met.

"You can't tell someone what you're going to do. You have to show them," Seekins says. "Barring disaster, if you work hard and work smart, you can get what you want done. That's my whole philosophy. All I really wanted to do was to complete the race. Now I want to get out there and promote it."
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:The New Forty-Niners
Author:O'Donoghue, Brian Patrick
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Article Type:company profile
Date:Oct 1, 1989
Previous Article:General Communication Inc.: 1988 revenue: 42 million; employees: 150; rank: 17.
Next Article:South Coast Inc.: 1988 revenue: $26.2 million; employees: 150; rank: 33.

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