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Golden Graham

This year is the golden anniversary for Graham Automotive. “It really starts way back when my father got out of college and took a job working for Goodyear,” according to partner Tom Graham. “He bounced around, working many positions for them. He eventually was asked to run the Sioux Falls Goodyear store. At the time Ray Quinn owned the DeSoto Plymouth franchise and in 1946 he invited my father to partner with him. He left the tire business and ran that car store until 1951. At that time Ray, who was the majority owner, wanted his son-in-law to be the manager. So dad went back in the tire business and eventually purchased the Goodyear store. In 1960, he purchased the empty Kaiser-Fraser franchise building downtown. Dad wanted to put a tire store in there but the building was too big so he purchased a VW dealership. He moved the business downtown and consolidated the tire and auto businesses into one building at 115 S. Minnesota Avenue. He remained in that building until 1966 when the business outgrew the facility. Dad purchased the land where we are currently located in 1965 (just the parcel where the east store currently is located). We had some extra land so dad decided to put another tire store adjacent to the car store. It was our first additional store in Sioux Falls in 1973 and I managed that store. We ran that as a tire store until we purchased the tire store in the Western Mall from Montgomery Wards in 1993. At that same time, we expanded the car store. We tore down the existing building and expanded the car lot.”

Al Larimer is a partner and General Manager of the dealerships. In 1995 he left the Billion Automotive Group and became General Manager and partner with Graham Automotive. “I was running the tire stores and the car store and working my fanny off,” says Graham. “Al had just left the Billion organization and he came over to talk to me. I knew it would be a perfect fit right away. We struck a deal on a paper napkin. He started work the next day. He has done an outstanding job. He was a great fit because in the first place he was a much better car guy than me. Up until the time Al joined us, the product mix we had was not strong. We both agreed that VW was the future. He took a chance partnering with us also but we both recognized this would be a good deal. I applaud him for recognizing that he could do well here. Up until then we were just limping along. Al is a great car guy and partner who works tirelessly to build our business.” “The car business is my life and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with any other company”, says Larimer.

“We continued to grow over the years and about 2000 we purchased the property just across the street to the west from the Sioux Falls school system. The building sat empty for a couple of years before we purchased it.”

“It was really ironic how we got into the car business,” according to Graham. “We were a tire company and the only reason we got into the car business was because we needed to fill more room in a building. The only reason Dad got the Volkswagen franchise was because he had a place to put it and he had previous car experience. There were other individuals that wanted it. Dad was a good operator. The Volkswagen brand was the first small car success story in the United States. Everybody knew the VW bug was selling. Dad had to travel to Chicago to get the franchise. Mom inherited some money from her father and they used that money to start the franchise. That amount it took to purchase the franchise is not a lot of money now but it sure was then.”

“The first manager was Dale Tuttle (Dale passed away three years ago). Dale was very active in the community and really helped us grow the business. We were always pretty good at picking good people to work with us. We have many people that have worked for us for decades. Employee turnover kills you in business. If we have a good employee, we want to take care of them and have them for a long time. It is too expensive to replace them. We currently have 400 employees in the Graham companies. We are responsible for many families and we want them to be proud where they work. We treat them like I want to be treated. They are like family. Every location has that same philosophy. If they don’t share our philosophy, they don’t work for us very long.”

Originally their only brand was Volkswagen. They added the Audi franchise which is owned by Volkswagen in 1974. In 1983, they purchased the Saab franchise. Years later, Dean Kjelden, who owned Ben Hur Ford at the time, sold the Suzuki franchise to them. “Our main lines always have been VW and Audi,” says Larimer. “The Audi and VW brands we represent are strong nationally and internationally. Their innovative design and German engineering are two strong reasons we have such a strong customer base. They continue to improve the performance and engineering year after year. VW intends to become the largest car company in the world and they are working hard to get there. We are excited about their attitude. We are very pleased they are building cars in the US. US production will increase as the company continues to grow. VW has even lowered its price on a couple of its best selling models, the Jetta and Passat. Not only have they lowered the price, they have increased the size of the vehicles. We are also excited about the debut of the new Beetle. The Beetle has been around for as long as Graham Automotive. We are extremely proud of the business we have built and even more proud of the loyal customers that continue to purchase car after car after car from us.” Graham adds, “We have a lot of loyalty and it comes from the brands and the service they get from Graham. Our service department is also instrumental to our success.”

Both Al and Tom are “old school” when it comes to customer service. “Our customers are the most important asset we have so we protect them with the best customer service in the business,” says Larimer. “Our vehicles provide the best value in the industry. But that value can be minimized with inferior customer service. All of us at Graham believe in our products and the value of customer service to back them up.” This creates a lot of stability in their workforce. A number of employees have been there for over three decades. Al has a hand in every transaction to ensure that the level of service is always there. “I have an office in the back of the Audi showroom but you will not see me there very often. I have a small office on the VW side that is visible to our customers. We have so many repeat customers and I have a lot of people that come in to my office every time they visit the dealership. I like that. I have made many good friends after selling them a vehicle.”

Graham has three locations in Sioux Falls, all located next to each other. The VW/Audi dealership is just west of the Saab/Suzuki and used lot on 41st Street, and the Certified used VW/Audi dealership is across the street north of the dealership. “Whether you purchase a new or a certified used Audi or VW you are assured of receiving the best value in the industry,” according to Larimer. “These brands have historically held their value better than their competitors. This gives our new car customers confidence that they will receive top value when they trade in their vehicle while giving our certified used customers that same confidence that they are buying a quality car that will continue to hold its’ value. The Saab and Suzuki lines are not as strong as the VW and Audi. Those manufacturers are continuing to improve and build those brands. They are building them better and the warranty is better than the competitors. People are not as familiar with those brands. Every day we are convincing people of the value of those two franchises.” The Suzuki/ Saab dealership also sells Grahams used cars that are not certified. “Our goal with used non-certified cars is to purchase the best vehicles that provide exceptional value and offer them to our customers,” adds Larimer. “We stand behind these cars just like we do our new car franchises and our certified used cars. You will never be disappointed with a car purchase from Graham.”

“The Sioux Falls market is unique in the car industry in that we have so many top-notch family owned companies,” says Graham. “It hurts us that we are competing with other family dealerships. You have to be really good to survive. The family owned dealerships care about their customers. All of the dealerships are well run and it is tougher to compete against a well-run family dealership, but it is good for the customer and good for Sioux Falls. We have good honest competition and that is good for everyone.”

“The car business has changed tremendously since we started,” says Graham. “When we first got started VW would not allow us to deviate from the list price. Now with the Internet everyone knows your business. It has changed our world. The buying public knows what they will pay for a car. There are virtually no secrets any longer. If the old time car dealers would come back today like my dad, they would find that there is no business transacted on paper. It is all done electronically. We had to embrace that technology or fall behind. The manufacturers made it mandatory. Our advertising has even changed. We used to do everything in newspaper and some television but now we have other mediums that we use. The great majority of our customers will tell you that price is not the primary reason to buy from us. We are not always the cheapest but we must be competitive. Price is not the most important factor. The buying experience and our reputation is more important to our customers. We sell cars all over the country. The Internet has helped us in that respect. By the same token we do not have many of our customers going to other dealers to buy if we do not have the particular model they are looking for.” Tom has an Ipad, blackberry and laptop on his desk. “I use technology but not well. I am learning. My employees are very kind to me. They humor me when I do not understand technology.”

“I still do business the same way I did 50 years ago. My philosophy has not changed. I believe that it is important to our growth. I was raised this way, I learned this from my dad: treat your employees well. They are more important than customers. If you treat them well, they will get you the customers. The business has grown so big, I just wish I were 40 years old again.”

The future is bright for Graham and the franchises they represent. “We have had conversations about purchasing another VW dealership in a little larger town close to us,” according to Graham. “We think we will be able to take our selling philosophy to other towns and make it work. We have made it work with our tire stores. Expansion is in the future. We are excited about the future of both Audi and VW.” With that continued growth, Graham is looking to expand its sales force. “We are looking for talented sales people that want to represent some of the best brands in the industry and back them up with extraordinary customer service,” says Larimer. “Any takers out there?” he says with a wry smile.

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