Well, maybe not everything, but all of the important stuff.
Dave Carey was a bit of a wild child who, as a teenager, was busted for taking the family car to the racetrack – and winning – because his parents found a large trophy tucked away in a basement hiding place. At 6-ft and 163 pounds he had a lean, athletic build and was very strong but completely lacked athletic ability. And although he was smart and creative, he wasn’t the college type, either. Instead, he was a car guy who could fix anything, a lifelong volunteer fireman, and he could sing three octaves with the best of them.
His business career was short, as was his life.
He’d worked his way up from mechanic to parts manager and then service manager at a Chevrolet dealership in my hometown of the Poconos before he found his true calling as a salesman. It was a natural fit – he knew everything there was to know about cars, and he found true pleasure in spending time with people or “shootin’ the shit,” as he called it.
I had only a brief time to watch him work first-hand – between my freshman and junior years in high school. A close family friend and consummate businessman connected Dad – the car guy – with a car dealer from Scranton – the money guy. They took over a languishing Chevy dealership in the Poconos that my Dad ran while the majority-owner-money-guy was mostly silent.
But just two years into this exciting new venture, when sales were climbing and the business was starting to thrive, he developed brain cancer.
Multiple surgeries and many associated health setbacks took a tremendous toll and tragically robbed this “people person” of his ability to communicate. A brief remission of maybe six months gave us some false hope in spite of his initial prognosis, and then the cancer came roaring back. In total, he was gone in just over two years from that fateful CT scan.
Looking back, I had no idea how much this good man had taught me; honestly, I don’t think he ever knew either. I put those things into use every day.
More than anything, he was himself. There was no “putting on airs” with Dad. If you were one of the few people he didn’t like, you knew it.
I worked at the Chevy dealership for those couple of years (as did my mom, who did the title work) washing cars, hosing down the lot, cleaning up the shop, etc., so I was always around to see what was going on. Amazingly, my tobacco-chewing-redneck-in-a-leisure-suit Dad would talk to customers on the lot with a big ol’ “chaw” of Red Man still in his cheek. The car he drove always had brown, wispy, teardrop-shaped stains down the driver’s side and left-rear door from his spitting out the window. Granted, it was a different time and place where tobacco was not quite the social taboo it is here and now, but nonetheless it was gross. But people overlooked it and bought their cars from him and only him because they knew exactly who and what they were dealing with. He was very authentic. If only some of our modern day politicians had even a modicum of that authenticity streak in them…
Then, as now, there’s not a lot of money in selling cars, especially for a small-town dealer with low volume. So you need to make the profit elsewhere through the service department, selling accessories and add-ons, etc. In the snowy Pocono Mountains where road salt is as common as the Rhododendrons and Mountain Laurel, it would be easy to make up some profit selling rust proofing to every customer. Ditto for Scotch Guarding the seats. But many of Dad’s customers bought a new car every three to five years and would never benefit from that service, so he took a long-term perspective.
Treat people right, don’t try to get rich overnight, and always tell them what you think is best for them, not you. You can imagine how refreshing this was in the car business, where salesmen rank lower than even lawyers and senators on the list of most unethical professions! In fact, his integrity in the business was so well known that people would call our house – I answered many such calls – to say “Dave, it’s time for a new car.” He knew what they wanted and they had complete confidence that he would find them the right car. You can’t buy that kind of loyalty; you can only earn it over many years of consistent behavior.
Community service and volunteerism was a big part of my family growing up. Mom helped cancer patients and delivered Meals on Wheels, and Dad was the president and longtime Chief of the local fire department, as well as the treasurer of our church. I know that there was no ulterior business-development motive for this public service, because they did all of this long before going into business or even sales. But there’s no doubt that it ultimately became a huge pipeline for sales prospects once the integrity was well established.
Humility and Hard Work
This one is quick and easy: There is no room for a “Not My Job” sentiment when you’ve come from very humble beginnings. You learn that you reap only what you sow, and that you don’t ask someone to do something you’re not willing to do yourself. Maybe these are quaint, small-town values, but they are indispensable truths in running a business.
I could go on at length about the many things my father taught me about business, but maybe the most important lesson came from his circumstance, rather than his words or deeds. Now that I’m a father, I get very tearful when I reflect on everything he missed in life: the many adventures of his two sons, their weddings, their own business ventures and community involvement, and most importantly, the lives of his five grandchildren.
I learned that life is fleeting and the opportunities to leave a positive mark on this world are few, so priority and perspective are critically important. No one should miss their children’s concerts because of a meeting. If an employee has a unique family issue or need, we should do what we can to accommodate it.
There is no doubt that we tend to sanctify the loved-ones who pass too soon, and I’m sure my family and his many friends have done that with my Dad. It is equally true that there is no such thing as perfection, and we’re all fallible. But it is the constant, imperfect pursuit of these values and ideals that make the journey meaningful, valiant, and worth doing. And somehow, almost fatefully, it ultimately makes it profitable because these traits ultimately build trust.
Dad was certainly well-loved and trusted, and that’s why the funeral home was standing room-only that horrible rainy day in April.
- Duane A. Carey, President