John Ramsey has worked and played in the local automobile game for 50 years, playing a role in car dealerships at various locations bearing his family name. Cityview asked him to lunch recently to talk about a half-century in, perhaps, the most American of all businesses. He chose Trostel’s Greenbriar.
“I have loved this place as long as it’s been here. I was friends with (late owner) Paul (Trostel) before he even opened here. I remember (current chef/owner) Troy as a little kid running around at (single dad Paul’s first restaurant) Colorado Feed & Grain,” he recalled.
Ramsey would order an elk burger, which he later told our waitress was “the best burger I have ever eaten, seriously.”
Many movie comedies have been set on car lots. What is it about that environment that entertains Americans?
“It’s a slice of life business where people can be really funny. We had a woman come into the service department once complaining about her radio. ‘It keeps playing bad music,’ she said. We suggested solutions like channel changing and talk radio but she came back with the same complaint. Her radio played ‘bad music’ and she wanted it exorcised. We uninstalled her car radio, and she was happy,” he said.
Were there other quirky moments at the dealership?
“One guy kept bringing his car in for service complaining about the smell. We had no idea what caused it until one day he drove into our service bay with his kid standing up and pissing on the back seat,” he recalled.
Another time Ramsey took a Malibu in trade from a good customer despite the fact it had “an insane paint job” that he figured would never sell. A few days later, a female customer came in, looked it over, bought it, and broke down weeping because it reminded her of “the time she lost her virginity,” he recalled.
We asked Ramsey if the Des Moines car business is different from that in other places.
“I truly believe so. In my lifetime, I am amazed that our (car dealership) business has been so blessed with so many good people. We (dealers) have all been best friends more than rivals. My oldest friend is Ron Brown (Bob Brown Chevrolet). Please stipulate that I mean that he is older than other friends. Max Holmes (Holmes Automotive), both of them, Chuck Betts, Rich Willis (Willis Cadillac) — all great friends. So was Charlie Gabus (Charles Gabus Ford). That guy was still attending auto auctions while he was in his 90s. He didn’t get into winter homes or summer homes. He said auctions were his only fun. Don Politte (Stivers Ford Lincoln) was a great guy who loved the business. Even in hospice, he was joking that he would never get out of the place, or even beyond the door of his room. Chuck Betts was the only one I avoided because he always called looking for money for one of his good causes or another. I got caller ID installed because of him, and then he would just burst in to my office,” he recalled.
Ramsey credits an older generation for Des Moines’ unique car culture.
“Those guys were giants. Bob Brown, big Max Holmes, Paul Manning (Chevrolet), my dad…. Did you know that Hummel’s is the oldest dealership in town? We are a distant second,” he said.
Ramsey says his sales skills are not the best around.
“Ronnie (Brown) has sold me all his cast off stuff for decades — clothes, furniture, Christmas lights, etc. And he always screws me. He’s that good. He even sold me a Corvette. For God sakes, I’m a Mazda-Subaru dealer, and yet he talked me into a Corvette. One day he took me to lunch, and we both came home with new Cobalts (expensive boats). That’s when I started wondering if my wife was right about me hanging out with Ronnie,” he mused.
Ramsey says he has begun new businesses with Brown out of buyer’s remorse.
“Oh, yeah, we bought so many Harley Davidson’s that we had to start a leasing business – Waukee War Hogs. That was far from the worst idea we had,” he recalled.
What was Ramsey’s signature memory of buyer’s remorse?
“First there is sellers’ remorse. In the old days, we had so many identical cars on the lot that we sometimes delivered the wrong vin number on the car. God what a headache. As for buyers’ remorse, we bought a Peugeot dealership. Before we even opened the doors, I knew something was wrong. Our mechanics received instructional manuals that were only written in French. What a red flag. Then there were the ‘special tools’ that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and which we hardly ever used. That’s a trend now in all service shops. Blame the Europeans for how expensive your service bill is. We have half a million dollars tied up in special tools, and many of them we have used once, and some never,” he explained.
Service is centric to Ramsey’s observations about the significant changes over 50 years in the business.
“We respond to what our customers want. Service centers are now nicer than elite airline clubs — bright and open with complimentary amenities. Not like the old days when your car disappeared into a black greasy hole. We have learned that service — friendly service — is the most likely thing to make a buyer become a repeat buyer,” Ramsey said.
Is service key to all big changes in the business?
“Twenty years ago today, I was able to open the hood of almost any car and fix most any problem. Today, I open the hood, and I cannot tell the dip stick from the transmission fluid cap or the brake fluid cap. Our service experts are more like engineers and electricians than old-style mechanics. Few young people know this, but a good car service technician makes a triple figure salary today, because they are in demand.
“Ironically, we are in a time when car service is least necessary. Seriously, over the decades all of us sold some junk. People talk about how things are ‘not made the way they used to be?’ Thank God. It’s almost impossible to buy a bad new car today,” he recalled.
What does Ramsey see for the future of his industry?
“I do not think ‘buying services’ are here to stay. Customers are too smart today to need them. What worries me most is that millennials are not into car ownership like previous generations. They do not care about new models. To them a car is a car, period. They prefer leasing to ownership. This could change, but it’s really interesting right now for us to adjust,” he concluded. ♦