In November 1980, I opened Fremont, California’s first-ever Buick dealership.  This was a very proud moment of achievement after working hard in my mother’s GM dealership for ten years, and saving the money necessary to venture out on my own.  Following are accounts of my history leading up to the opening, and the successful first years while Buick was a viable standalone franchise.

Starting at the bottom

I entered the car business as many dealers’ sons do — washing cars at my father’s dealership when I was in high school.  In 1965, my father purchased a Dodge dealership in Corvallis, Oregon, with the anticipation of buying the Buick-Cadillac-GMC dealership in Corvallis when the owner, a longtime business acquaintance of my father’s, would eventually be ready to retire.  Prior to moving to Corvallis, my father had been a District Manager with Pontiac Motor Division of General Motors for fourteen years.  His most recent assignment was in the San Francisco Bay Area, where my family lived just prior to moving to Corvallis.

In 1970, the Buick-Cadillac-GMC dealer was ready to retire, and negotiated an agreement with my father to buy the business.  My father changed the name to Signer Motors when he took over the GM store on December 1, 1970, then passed away suddenly of a heart attack on December 23.  My mother reacted to this catastrophic event with great strength, vowing to keep the GM dealership for my future even though she knew nothing more about the business than what my father had told her in conversations at home.  At the time I was a sophomore at Oregon State University in Corvallis, so was able to work between classes and on Saturdays.  I had worked my way into the sales department at the Dodge dealership, so was able to contribute in that capacity at the GM dealership.   We liquidated the Dodge dealership in early 1971. 

Suddenly a sales manager

I continued to work at the dealership until I graduated from Oregon State with a degree in Business Administration in June 1972.  A week later, the sales manager resigned.  While I wasn’t really ready to assume that position, I stepped in and took over at that time.  I continued to work in that position over the years, other than for a six-month “sabbatical leave” in late 1974 when I returned to the Bay Area for some time away on my own before my planned return to Corvallis where I expected to spend the rest of my life.  While in the Bay Area I worked as a salesman at Balestra Pontiac-GMC, where I anticipated learning more about the business.  Owner Joe Balestra was one of my father’s Pontiac dealers whom my father had always spoken highly of.

During my time at Balestra Pontiac-GMC, my many conversations with one of the other salesmen, Joe Cram, evolved into a plan for us to go into business together someday in the Bay Area.  I returned to Corvallis in 1975 and resumed as sales manager at my mother’s dealership.  I stayed in contact with Mr. Cram in the years that followed, and by 1979, he and I had saved up enough money to begin pursuit of a dealership in the Bay Area.  In July, I visited San Francisco Buick Zone Manager Doc Reilly to express my desire of relocating to the Bay Area.  The following week I called him to reinforce my desire to relocate, at which time he informed me of an opportunity in Fremont that had become available the day before.

Mr. Reilly explained that a year earlier Buick had issued a Letter of Intent for a dealer candidate to open a new point in Fremont.  The dealer’s twelve-month time limit expired the day before my call, thus reopening the point.  The following week I returned to the Bay Area and met with Mr. Reilly, and also with a person who had property and blueprints for a dealership to be built to lease to a dealer.  After Mr. Cram and I negotiated lease terms with the property owner, I applied for the Fremont Buick franchise in October 1979.

The achievement of a dream

In December 1979, as a result of my dealer application and excellent track record in Corvallis, the Buick San Francisco Zone Manager issued me a Letter of Intent that provided for my becoming Fremont, California’s first ever Buick dealer.  Joe Cram was to be a 50% investor, who would also be employed by the dealership corporation.  The Letter gave me a year to meet various criteria, including building the new facility, which I had constructed while I continued to work at the Oregon dealership.  After I had committed all of my accumulated capital and a year of my life in the creation of the new facility and business, I left Corvallis and along with Mr. Cram I opened the new dealership in November 1980 at age 29.  My mother continued to operate the Corvallis dealer­ship until she sold it and retired in 2003. 

In our first year of business, Signer-Cram Buick immediately became the top retail volume dealer out of about twenty in Buick District 2, which included all East Bay dealers and several futher north in California.  In the entire seventeen-dealer Bay Area, we trailed only two or three dealers.  However, in late 1981, Joe Cram secretly talked to Ford Motor Company about reopening the closed Lincoln-Mercury point in nearby Hayward.  He finally revealed his plan to me in December, and asked me to buy his 50% share of the dealership and pay significant “blue sky,” or goodwill.  Over the weeks that followed, he became increasingly obnoxious, causing me to pay him what he wanted for his stock in order to dispose of the seriously disruptive element.  As I didn’t have the cash to pay him, I borrowed the money from my mother to handle what had become an emergency situation.  As a result of the bitter parting, Mr. Cram and I never spoke again.  He operated in Hayward until around 1985, when he left to buy a larger dealership in Downey, California.  A short time later he failed and filed bankruptcy.

Continued sales leadership

The year 1982 was an extremely difficult one that caused me many sleepless nights.  In addition to the economy slipping into recession and taking a toll on car sales, I had to contend with drastically reducing expenses that Mr. Cram had run up during his free-spending year with me.  His role had been running the sales department, while I oversaw service and parts departments, and the business office.  Within a fairly short time in 1982, I reduce expenses by $40,000 a month in order to survive.  I also installed a new customer-friendly sales program, and replaced nearly everybody in the sales department.  As a result of this and working seven days a week, I was able to finish 1982 breaking even.

In 1983 and 1984, my dealership’s Buick sales ascended to 830 and 908 respectively, which maintained our sales leadership position and produced strong profitability.  In 1985 and 1986, Buick’s national sales plummeted drastically, as did mine.  During those years I began having discussions with Cadillac San Francisco Zone Manager Bill Kindley about opening a new Cadillac dealership in Fremont as I had done with Buick.  He continually responded that Fremont was considered a “study area,” and that Cadillac would likely have a dealer there sometime in the future, but the timing was uncertain.  He assured me that I would be considered as a candidate when the time would come.