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Mr. Touchdown.

For seven years, Mel Farr Sr. was a football hero--a two-time All-Pro running back for the Detroit Lions. Today, he's Detroit's super hero--the car dealer with the flowing red cape whose TV commercials show him soaring above his competitors.

Of course, Farr isn't really Superman, but he's quite a bit like Clark Kent. Beneath his street clothes, you sense the trim, muscular physique of an athlete. And Farr certainly passes the "mild-mannered" test" When he speaks, you lean forward to hear.

But when it's time to sell cars, something magical happens. "I transform into a salesperson," Farr says with a grin. "It's like the curtains are drawn open and the spotlights hit you. . . . . Hey, you're on stage!"

Farr, the 1992 BLACK ENTERPRISE Auto Dealer of the Year, has been giving a standout performance. In the midst of the 1991 recession, sales at Farr's four auto dealerships grew by 16% to $106 million. Farr's flagship store, a five-acre Ford Motor Co. dealership in the Detroit suburb of Oak Park, Mich., has kept right on selling more than 300 new and used cars a month.

David S. Smith, manager of minority dealer operations at Ford, says that Farr had the sixth-highest volume of Ford car sales of any Ford dealer in 1991 and ranked second in sales in Escort and Festiva economy cars. "I just find it amazing," Smith says.

Automotive News magazine reports that 904 new-car dealerships shut their doors in 1991. According to Robert A. Hill, executive director of the National Association of Minority Auto Dealers (NAMAD) in Detroit, more than 70 of those dealerships were minority-owned. Farr, however, kept expanding. He purchased a Ford dealership near Cincinnati last summer, and named his son, Mel Jr., general manager.

How has Farr thrived amid the worst auto dealer blood bath since 1982? "My attitude," he says matter-of-factly. Instead of fretting over the economy, Farr uses zany and aggressive TV ads to target the greater majority of people--the ones who have jobs and need cars. "Hell, 92% of the people are working," he reasons. "We're going to concern ourselves with that 92%."

Not that Farr doesn't believe in the recession. He has simply decided not to let it affect his destiny. "I don't have control over the economy. I don't have control over interest rates. But I do have control over myself."

Mel Farr: The Beginning

Mel Farr had to learn to be a superstar. But that wasn't easy for black men borin in Beaumont, Texas, in 1944. His parents, a truck driver and a domestic worker, set a good example. But they couldn't shield him from racism. "I couldn't go to the thearer and sit wherever I wanted to sit," he recalls. "I could not ride in the front of the bus. That was my background. That's what I lived."

But Farr refused to submit to such a life. Blessed with sized and speed, he became the star running back at segregated Herbert High School.

In those days, universities in the South didn't recruit black players no matter how good they were. So, Farr accepted a football scholarship to UCLA in 1963, where his skills as a running back made him a two-time Consensus All-American. He left after three years to join the NFL draft and was the Detroit Lions' No. 1 selection. But Farr, then only 22, had already begun thinking about life after football.

"I figure I'll be able to play pro ball for only eight years," he told me Detroit Free Press at the time. "If I'm going to make my million dollars, I have to be a starter. Only the starters get the business breaks that go with professional football."

Farr signed a three-year, $94,000 contract--not bad in 1967. He repaid the Lions by making the Pro Bowl in his first season and by being NFL Rookie of the Year. Now Farr planned to make some really big money--a fatter contract and a wave of commercial-endorsement deals. Farr figured he was on his way to his million dollars. He was wrong. The Lions would not renegotiate his contract in 1967, and companies showed no interest in having Mel Farr for a pitchman. "I got $500 for being Rookie of the Year," says Farr. "That's all."

It may have been the most valuable disappointment of Farr's life. It sent him back to the University of Detroit where her earned his B.S. in polotical science in 1970. That same year, he helped Ford create a black auto dealer's development program.

Over the next seven years, Farr worked at Ford during the off-season to master the auto business. Not only did the experience prepare Farr for his success, but it also paid off on the athletic field. "I thought it made me a better football player," he says. "I had that fulfillment of learning something else, so I could go out and play with reckless abandon. If I got hurt, I knew I could do something else."

Inevitably, serious knee and shoulder injuries took their toll on Farr. "After my first four years, I was shot," he remembers. "I couldn't bust a grape."

A slight exaggeration. Farr made the Pro Bowl again in 1970. He played three more years to earn enough money to buy his first dealership. When the Lions decided to trade him in 1974, Farr retired. "I gave the game up. The game didn't give me up," he says proudly.

Farr then began looking for a dealership to buy. But Ford executives were not convinced that Farr was ready to go it alone. "They thought I needed more experience," says Farr.

On The Road To Success

Farr sought out John Cook, a former Ford dealer who had helped train Farr, but who had left the auto retailing business. Farr and Cook reached an agreement, with Farr putting up $40,000 of his own money. In 1975, Cook-Farr opened for business at Greenfield Ave. and 10 Mile Road in Oak Park, Mich.

The relationship was successful, but stormy. "John and I had two totally different ideas on what it would take for this dealership to make money," says Farr. One crucial dispute involved advertising. Two previous Ford dealers had tried to operate at the Cook-Farr location and failed. Farr thought he and Cook could beat the odds through intensive advertising. He says that Cook disagreed. "I thought he was holding me back," says Farr.

So in 1978, Farr bought Cook out and became sole owner of Mel Farr Ford. (Cook, who manages a Chevrolet dealership in the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, refused to comment on his dealings with Farr.) During his partnership wiht Cook, Farr had concentrated on selling cars but was unfamiliar with the financial side of the dealership. "I thought I was buying a profitable business," Farr says. Instead, "I had bought a company that was on the verge of bankruptcy."

To make the matters worse, 1979 brought Farr face to face with an enemy that nearly destroyed his business: Ayatollah Khomeini. The Islamic revolution in Iran and the hostage crisis sent world oil prices soaring. Lines formed at gasoline pumps, inflation rose, the prime interest rate touched 20% and the economy nose-dived. The few people buying cars were looking for fuel-stingy compact models, and Ford had little to offer them.

"All we had to sell here were the dinosaurs and the Pinto," says Farr. "1979 was a tough year. 1980 was even tougher." He notes that 1980 car sales fell to 1,286 from 2,111 the year before. "I had to scramble around at the end of the week to make sure that I had enough money to cover my payroll."

But a man who'd spent seven years bouncing off 250-pound linebackers wasn't going to be stopped by a mere recession. Farr laid off half his employees, including his cleaning crew. At day's end, he'd change into jeans and clean the place himself, often with the help of his sons, Mel Jr. and Michael.

Still, scrubbing his own floors wouldn't have been enough to save Farr's business. He turned to the federal government for help, appealing to President Jimmy Carter to make available Small Business Administration (SBA) loans for automobile dealers. The Carter administration listened, and $400 million in loan guarantees was authorized by Congress. Farr borrowed $200,000 from the SBA and an equal amount from Ford.

Superman To The Rescue

The money helped his business survive its greatest crisis. Those desperate times also led Farr to launch the TV ad campaign that made him Detroit's best-known car dealer. "Things are so bad I might as well go for it," Farr recalls thinking. "If I go out of business, I'm going to go out with a bang."

So in 1979, the first "Mel Farr Superstar" ad appeared on Detroit television. At first, Farr himself directed, wrote, videotaped and edited the ads, as well as starred in them. "I hated it," says Farr. But audiences loved it. The low-budget, amateurish look of the ads made them unforgettable.

Then in 1981, Farr made a series of commercials in which he flew over Detroit like Superman, dressed in a business suit and a red cape. "A lot of people didn't like it," says Farr. "But they remembered it." Indeed they did. Today, the ads are a Detroit tradition.

In 1986, Farr hired local TV news reporter Charlene Mitchell to be his advertising manager. Today, she oversees a $1 million-plus annual budget. Mitchell says continuous, relentless advertising is the foundation of Mel Farr's success. "There are a lot of car dealers who go for that flash in the pan, and they don't get the result they wanted and they stop," she says. "Well, you can't just do it once or twice. You've got to do it across the board."

Paul Shamo, general manager of Mel Farr in Michigan, thinks Farr has no trouble inspiring sales success. Shamo credits a relaxed management style that frees him up to move cars fast. "Mel pretty much lets me do my thing," Shamo says. "He's not negative on trying something new." Like the time last year when Ford called Shamo and begged him to take 50 Festiva subcompacts off its hands. Shamo got Farr's permission to take 100 and sell them at $3,995 each at a $400 loss per car. They sold 84 in a month--a record for any Ford dealership. USA Today reported the Festiva sale nationwide.

"And the bottom line is, we didn't lose money on it," says Shamo. Many would-be Festiva buyers traded up to Escorts or Tempos; others bought Festivas, then loaded them with add-on items.

Another reason for Farr's success is his willingness to make deals even with people who have shaky credit. Farr set up his own finance company--Triple M Financing Co.--in 1990 so he could make deals that couldn't be done through Ford Motor Credit Co. And Farr doesn't play around when it comes to deals. If a payment is two days late, his people will start calling customers. If payments are two weeks late, Farr sheds his Superman cape and becomes "Repo Man."

Branching Outside Of The Auto Business

As Farr's Ford dealership settled into steady profitability, he began branching out, with mixed results. His second dealership, a Lincoln-Mercury franchise in Waterford, Mich., has been a success. With Mel's brother, Miller Farr Jr., serving as general manager, the dealership had 1991 sales of $25.4 million.

But a 1985 foray into soft-drink bottling went sour. Farr sold the business in 1987. He also bought a Lincoln-Mercury dealership in Aurora, Colo., in 1986, but sold it 30 months later because it was too far away to manage properly.

These two failures barely slowed Farr down. Back in 1983, he recognized the growing success of Japanese cars in the United States and applied for a Toyota dealership. "The Nissan and Toyota dealers were making a lot of money," says Farr. "And hell, I want to make money, too."

But it took six years for Toyota to give him a franchise. When Mel Farr Toyota opened in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., in 1989, it was only the fifth black-owned Toyota dealership in America. Bob Weldon, general manager of Toyota Motor Distributors, praises Farr's business acumen, but warns that he faces tough sledding. "Obviously, as an import dealer in the city of Detroit, he has his work cut out for him," says Weldon.

Farr himself gripes about one Japanese policy--the failure of their automakers to recruit black dealers. "The imports do not have a meaningful training program for minorities," he says. "It's unfair for them to come into our community and ask to buy their cars, and we can't sell them."

As chairman of NAMAD, Farr is using his influence to make Japanes automakers see the light. "It has worked miracles," says NAMAD Executive Director Robert Hill, who is also the executive director of the Black Ford and Lincoln Mercury Dealers Association. Hill says that thanks to Farr's persistent lobbying, Toyota and Honda have begun talks on setting up mor minority-owned dealerships.

Meanwhile, the Mel Farr empire continues to expand. Last May, Farr purchased a Ford dealership in the Cincinnati suburb of Fairfield. Mel Jr., now 25 years old and fresh from a two-year stint in the NFL, serves as the store's general manager. Mel's 24-year old son, Michael, still plays for the Detroit Lions; his daughter Monet, 17, attends Marian High School in Birmingham, where she made the All-Catholic League tennis team.

Farr himself has stayed active. In February, he purchased Superstar I, a Mitsubishi turboprop that flies him back and forth between Detroit and Cincinnati. "I'd like to be one of the largest chains of auto dealers in th country," Farr says. "We'd probably need nine or 10 strong ones, and we could do it."

Farr has a long way to go if he's to catch megadealers like former race car driver Roger Penske. But Farr is racing into the '90s with more momentum than a fully equipped Ford Mustang. His competitors may be starting to worry that the man in the red cape could be a Superman after all.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
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Title Annotation:B.E. 100s Auto Dealer of the Year; Mel Farr Automotive Group
Author:Bray, Hiawatha
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jun 1, 1992
Previous Article:109 years and going strong.
Next Article:Overview: holding on for future growth.

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