Cadillac's Marathon Man
Reprinted with permission
Cadillac Insider Magazine May/June 1991 Cover Story
It's the day before the Boston Marathon. Runners in Boston Common are tuning up for the race and wishing each other "a good run." Tomorrow, thousands will race through Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellsley, Newton, Brookline and on to Boston in this most famous race of endurance.
In Framingham, the course is only six miles old as it follows Route 135, past R.H. Long Cadillac where Cadillac's marathon man, Charles Long, is working at his desk, just as he has for the past 65 years. Charles, as everyone calls him, has the distinction of personally operating a Cadillac dealership longer than any other dealer-principal. In November, 1990, Charles signed his latest franchise agreement with Cadillac.
In May of 1927, Charles's father, Richard Long, acquired his first Cadillac franchise and set up shop in an old shoe factory dating back to the Civil War. The basement floor was the service department, and above that were offices and the showroom. Richard Long was a man of many interests and causes. He ran for Governor in 1918 and again in 1919 against Calvin Coolidge. He lost both times but gave Silent Cal a run for his money in the first election. Two years later, he was manufacturing auto bodies for Franklin, another car maker of the time, and got the bug to make his own car. He started the Bay State Auto Company that year and produced an "assembled" automobile which he introduced at the 1922 New York Auto Show. Charles estimates that 4,000 Bay States were made during the four years the company was in business. many models were produced from a two-seat roadster to a seven-passenger sedan.
'Let's see what you can do with it.'
After a couple years,
I was running
Charles, at 16, took a Bay State roadster on several endurance runs to Canada. "Like any young person," quips Charles, "I liked to drive, perhaps a little too fast, spreading the hens and chickens around on the road. I could make Worcester to Framingham - a distance of about 20 miles - in 30 minutes. I liked taking on late model Detroit cars."
When Charles graduated from Harvard in the Class of '27, his dad handed him the keys to the Cadillac dealership. "He said, 'Let's see what you can do with it.' After a couple of years, I was running the place," remembers Charles. Those where heady times for selling Cadillacs. The LaSalle, Cadillac's sister marque, had just been launched, and Cadillac was making important advances against Packard, its biggest competitor in the 1920s.
R.H. Long Cadillac built a 2,400-square-foot showroom, a portion of the present facility, but it was inadequate for the ever-increasing floor traffic, so Charles called on customers house to house. "Thinking back, it didn't make much sense driving around at the wrong time of day when nobody was home, but we didn't have much of a facility." Good thing he had the country club. "Back then, at the club, everybody bought cars from me."
For the next 15 years, Long Cadillac, like any other business, was buffeted by The Great Depression and World War II but managed to survive. "During the war, we went around and bought any make of car we could and stored them or sold them under government regulations. We had cheap storage and about 300 cars. We even made a little money"
Today, despite an economic climate which frankly worries Charles, the dealership and the man who founded it are still going strong. Over the years, Long added Pontiac and GMC Truck and today is also a major regional supplier of GM Parts.
Charles divides his time between homes in New Hampshire, Florida, and Framingham, but remains in constant touch with his General Manager wherever he is. When he's home, he works a full day but not every day. "I do play golf, you know," he quips.
What does Charles do when he comes to the dealership? "I find fault," he says half-jokingly. "I expect everybody to adhere to our policies about treating employees and customers. We want our people to feel good about working here. And we want it to be known that we do whatever it takes to satisfy a customer."
Julian Hargraves, General Manager, has worked for Charles Long for 31 years, one of many employees who have been around a long time. "Charles treat people fairly," Hargraves said. " He expects a lot out of his people and he
gets it. At 87, Charles has more interest in this business than any dealer I know today. He takes it seriously every day. He wants to sell cars. That's one of the reasons he's not smiling right now."
Spending the day with Charles leaves little doubt about his hands-on approach to selling Cadillacs. What I've tried to instill in our sales department is to take better care of our customers, maintain good contact and follow-up, spend time on delivery; send frequent notes - constant soft sell."
One thing Charles knows after 65 years of experience is the importance of a good service department. "The role of Service is to get satisfied customers who will repeat," he said. "It's that simple. You have to be fast, courteous and professional. We want our customers to say, 'These people are pretty sharp, they're professional, they took my car right away, they had my keys ready when the work was done.' we get lots of letters from our customers about how good our service is, but I think it can be better still. we can make it faster and more efficient by doing a good interview with a customer to make sure the problem is fixed the first time. we are working very hard on this." Long Cadillac currently has a CSI rating of 95.
Tim Hutker, Service Manager, understands Charles Long's service philosophy. "Treat the customer as king and give him the best deal at the best price. Don't let anybody walk out without a smile on their face. One of Charles's main concerns is to fix it the first time. It's a good feeling, especially lately. we've had a lot of people showing up at our Service Department."
Charles Long instructs his sales force to introduce their service customers to Tim in Service and tell them about the monthly customer clinics. "We invite customers in and answer their questions. We focus on the warranty books, explain service manuals, answer any questions they have. These clinics build a solid rapport with customers who attend."
On the sales force, especially in lean times, Charles tries to impress upon his salespeople the importance of constant customer contact. "Nothing get me so burned up as seeing a friend down the road who bought one of our cars and he doesn't remember who sold him the car. I flip. I really get after the salespeople. I tell them that they have to follow-up for their own good. We have a computer that tells each salesperson when to call on people and send out personal cards, in their own handwriting, hopefully legible, with nothing more than a friendly message. No hard sell, just a way of making the customer aware that we are interested in them. It's a way to find out about anything wrong with the car or tell them about a rebate program. And always ask for a referral. That's what I try to encourage. I do enforce these policies and it's not easy."
Aggressiveness, loyalty and dedication mean a lot in Charles Long's book, and these are the qualities he finds in William LeLand, his Sales Manager, who adds another Long footnote to Cadillac history. Bill is the great grandson of Henry M. LeLand, the founder of Cadillac. "I've always been around cars," said Bill, "and that's one of the reasons I started working for Mr. Long in the part department nine years ago."
Bill LeLand understands his mentor's no-holds-barred philosophy, and applies it eagerly. "When you are selling Cadillac," he says, "you are selling the very best and you have to be patient. Not only know your product, but also your competitors, inside out. You have to demonstrate this knowledge and it usually takes three weeks to sell that customer. But it's well worth that time because of the loyalty that you will get from these people later on. A Cadillac customer who feels comfortable with you will continue to come back, and that's what it's all about."
In a tough market, many techniques are necessary. "We have our salespeople do cold canvassing," said Bill. "We have them stop, whether it's a business that has a Cadillac out front all the time, or a restaurant owner who may be driving a competitor's car. They go in, give them a brochure and business card. Let them know we sell Cadillacs and that when they are ready to replace their luxury car, give us a chance to show off the Cadillac and the dealership."
Does it work? "We've attracted quite a few customers. We'll give them a car for the day, and take their car and clean it and try to do a little more to get them to drive a Cadillac."
As you watch Charles move about his dealership, his first love (Harvard being his second), you realize that here is a man that lives to work. His General Manager might want him to relax more, but his answer is simple. "Get the bottom line where it should be and I'll spend more time in Florida and New Hampshire." To Charles, work isn't really work. "I think the car business is very exciting and still fun," he said.
He is particularly excited by the product he has watched grow and evolve over all these years. "The Cadillac today is a very fine automobile. It's quiet, has good performance and is trouble-free. I'm not biased either because in past years I have not been shy about speaking up if something wasn't quite right. I especially like the DeVille. It's just about as perfect as a car can be."
Charles continues to monitor and refine the business he spent a lifetime building. He has more goals. He wants to bring the Dewars Trophy to his dealership, and that means attaining the highest Complete Customer Satisfaction score. And he wants to weather the current economic downturn which has hit his community hard.
So - can we expect Charles Long to continue his run as senior Cadillac dealer? Charles answers with a story: "The city slicker says to the country boy: 'Have you lived your whole life here?' To which the country boy answers, 'Not yet.'"