Talking Shop with Nick Underwood

Monday, December 20, 2010
Nick Underwood is a truck salesman at Lutesville Motors in Marble Hill, Mo. (Fred Lynch)

Nick Underwood knows a thing or two about cars. He was born into the car business and today carries on the family tradition at Lutesville Motor Co. in Marble Hill, Mo. This year, his family's dealership is celebrating 75 years in business.

Question: Share the history of Lutesville Motor Co.

Answer: The dealership was started in 1935 by my grandfather, Roy Underwood, and a partner, J.P. Long. The original location was a small garage building in Glenallen, which is still standing, but is pretty rustic. The dealership was first called Long and Underwood Motor Sales. In 1936 it moved to a larger location in Glenallen where the dealership stayed until 1944. In 1944 the dealership was moved to its current location and the name was changed to Lutesville Motor and Tractor Sales. In the same year J.P. Long sold his interest to Lon A. Choate and once again the name was changed, this time to Lutesville Motor Co. and Underwood Tractor Sales. Mr. Choate remained a partner until 1945, when he sold his interest to Roy. Roy continued operating the dealership selling Ford vehicles as well as Ford tractors until his death in 1957. At that time, his wife, Margie Underwood (my grandmother, Rick's mother, and Dave's mother-in-law) became the dealer. She ran the dealership with the help of nonfamily managers until 1965, when her son-in-law (Mary's husband) Dave Thomas took over as general manager. He served in that capacity until 2006. Margie passed away in 1972 and the ownership was transferred to Rick Underwood and his sister, Mary Underwood Thomas. Mary passed away in 2007 and ownership was transferred to her husband Dave Thomas.

Q: How has the business grown over the years?

A: I believe the first year they only sold one new vehicle. I may be wrong on that, but let's just say that the beginnings were humble. Sales and inventory were both very limited. You'll have to remember that they started selling cars in the middle of the Depression. This year we'll sell about 700 new and used vehicles. Total sales will be somewhere around $14 million. A lot of people don't realize how many vehicles we sell. They assume that we're small because of where we are. Right now we have about 200 new and used vehicles in stock.

Q: How has the way people buy cars changed over the years?

A: One of the biggest single changes has been loyalty. At one time customers were loyal to a single brand and to a single dealership for years and years. Now, people may own a Ford, then a Toyota, then a Honda, then a GM, etc. We are still fortunate to have loyal customers that have been buying from us for years and years. We have some families that have been buying here for three or four generations. Competition has certainly increased, as more and more brands have sprouted up over the years. In the last 15 years competition in the used car market has certainly increased. The Internet has changed things significantly as more information is available to customers. Customers can easily get an idea of what their vehicle is worth, and they can easily find what our vehicle costs.

Q: What sales advice would you offer a new salesperson coming to work at your dealership?

A: You have to make yourself memorable to the customer. Really, sales people are selling themselves as a brand, and they need to make that brand memorable. Someone starting off here has to realize that we treat customers the way they want to be treated. We don't treat everyone the same, because different people demand different accommodations. What works for one customer doesn't work for the next.

Q: How would you describe the climate for car sales right now in this economy?

A: One word: improving. Our business has been good, but I know it's been tough for a lot of other dealers. Not just locally, but nationwide there are a lot fewer new car dealers today than there were five years ago. The recession has taken its toll on the car industry. We've seen business improve this year over last and last year was better than 2008; 2006 through 2009 were challenging years. Nationwide the industry saw new vehicle sales drop from a high of just under 18 million vehicles in 2000 to just over 10 million sales last year. That's roughly a 44 percent drop in 10 years. Lutesville Motor has been blessed the last two years, and I expect our business to continue to improve. We have benefited from Ford's recent surge in sales. Ford Motor Co. currently has the right products and the right image. The local economy hasn't been hit as hard as the rest of the country, but it's improving as well.

Q: What is your favorite car?

A: I don't have an icon from the '60s or '70s. I tend to fall in love with the new vehicles, and, let's be honest, I like what's selling. My dad always jokes and says "that's my favorite color," referring to any color as long as it's sold. Right now my favorite is the 2009-2011 Ford F150. They are the best trucks we have ever had. I think they are the best trucks any brand has ever had.

Q: Your dealership is off the beaten path. What makes it worth the drive for your customers?

A: We do a lot of business with customers in Cape Girardeau, Jackson, Perryville, Mo., Dexter, Mo., etc. We have really tried to figure out why people are willing to drive to us. What we've come up with is our employees make the difference. This may sound kind of canned, but it's the truth: Our employees care about our customers and treat them accordingly. We have to go the extra mile because of our location. If everything else were equal, then a customer would buy from their local dealership. We have to give them something to make the drive to Marble Hill. We're not blessed to be on a highway with 15,000 cars per day driving by, but what we lack in location we make up for in service. We want to make each customer happy, because we don't want to sell you one vehicle, but a lifetime of vehicles. Really we want to sell your whole family a lifetime of vehicles. Too many dealerships get stuck on selling one vehicle today.

Q: Who owns the dealership now?

A: Currently Rick Underwood, my father, and Dave Thomas, my uncle -- Rick's brother-in-law -- both own half of the dealership. Rick remains active in the dealership, working six days a week. Dave is retired, but his daughter, my cousin Mitzi Rhodes, works full time at the dealership. I am the general manager. There is no other Ford dealership in Southeast Missouri that has been in the same family for 75 years. There are dealerships that have been around for longer, but not in the same family. I think this is important, because it shows our family's commitment to the customers. We aren't planning on going anywhere. I hope that in 25 years we'll still be here celebrating our 100th anniversary.

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