Three plaques hang outside Waxahachie Chevrolet dealer’s Frank A. “Tres” Blankenbeckler III’s office, one for each 25 years as a GM dealership.
As the owner of a company founded by his grandfather in 1926, he is still holding out hope for another plaque, even though GM sent him a letter May 15 that stated the Detroit automaker’s intent to cancel by 2010 the franchise contract for what appears to be Chevy’s longest-running continuously-owned Chevrolet dealership in the state of Texas.
“The key thing we’re trying to appeal to the GM corporate office is to let us continue to be a GM dealer,” Blankenbeckler said, adding that he has no plans to just go quietly into the night that is the shrinking American automotive industry.
“I’m fully convinced in my mind I’m not going to do nothing,” Blankenbeckler said. “I owe it to my grandfather and to my employees. … We’d like to appeal to GM to not enforce their intentions regarding this letter. ”
For a dealership that has spent more than eight decades building a Chevy legacy in the Ellis County seat, as for more than 1,000 other dealers who got similar letters, the letter delivered by UPS and plastered with a large, red label, was a shock.
Blankenbeckler thought state franchise laws would shelter dealers to some extent.
“That’s a non-event in Texas. Your contract is continuous and the dealers are protected,” he said.
But if the parent company goes into bankruptcy as many expect, there’s some concern that the terms of the rather vaguely worded “intention” letters could be in jeopardy.
That’s not a possibility Blankenbeckler wants to talk about or even entertain.
“I hope they can do this outside of bankruptcy,” Blankenbeckler said, adding that he’s not unsympathetic to the automaker’s plight.
“The manufacturers need fewer dealers, there’s no question about that. But there’s a way to ramp that down for a soft landing,” he said.
The rub is that as a business, Carlisle is probably a lot healthier than GM. While the manufacturer teeters at the brink of bankruptcy regarded by many as a foregone conclusion, Carlisle is strong, Blankenbeckler said, pointing to average sales numbers during the past five years that amount to 415 new cars for the dealership.
Carlisle has about 45 employees and sales estimated at $20 million a year in the past year.
“We’re alive and well and financially very strong, both from a corporate standpoint and an ownership standpoint. We’d be as financially strong as the top 5 percent of the dealers in the U.S. This is not an issue of a distressed company,” he said, adding that he’s very concerned about public perception among its customer base, so reassurance is key.
“We are here to do business now. We’re not out of business. We’re ongoing,” he said.
Blankenbeckler’s grandfather, Y.C. Carlisle, had held a Ford dealership in McGregor, moving his family in the mid-1920s to the vibrant center of Waxahachie, where cotton was king. In February 1926, Carlisle Chevrolet was founded downtown by Y.C. Carlisle.
Those were heady days for Chevrolet, which boasted in an ad in the March 17, 1928, Literary Digest that it had produced a quarter million cars since January.
The ad touted the Chevrolet Coach, on sale for $585, as “Bigger and Better.”
“Beauty, Performance and Comfort – at Amazing Low Prices. … A body type for every driving preference.”
Carlisle’s daughter, Neil, would grow up to marry Frank Blankenbeckler Jr., a lieutenant colonel with the 9th Armored Division in World War II.
Blankenbeckler Jr. earned a Bronze Star for courage at Remagen Bridge and the Battle of the Bulge, and never mentioned it to his son.
“He never once talked to me about it,” said Tres Blankenbeckler, who was startled to find the decoration in his father’s possessions after his death. “He was one of the Greatest Generation.”
Blankenbeckler Jr. practiced law in Dallas prior to joining the company owned by his wife’s father.
In Waxahachie, he was active in civic affairs, helping to found the YMCA and Baylor Medical Center at Waxahachie.
In 1966, Carlisle bought 10 acres of bare land for $1,000 an acre and, in 1976, exactly 50 years to the month after the dealership began, the Carlisles moved to the corner of U.S. Highway 287 and Interstate 35E.
A career rock in a time of change
The longevity of Carlisle jobs is legend in town – and in an industry where turnover is often the name of the game, the dealership has had two office managers in the past 85 years.
Office manager Rachelle Plyant has been at Carlisle for 37 years. The woman who held the post before her, Tommie Connally, had been there for 48 years.
“She had one job in her life,” Tres Blankenbeckler said.
“We don’t have turnover here. In this business, that’s totally unheard of,” he said.
The dealership’s last two service managers have 57 years tenure at the dealership between them.
Longstanding employer-employee relationships make the staff at Carlisle like family – and made Monday’s meeting where Blankenbeckler revealed “the letter” particularly difficult.
“I told them we were strong, and that I loved every one of them and considered them part of my family. There wasn’t a person among them I wouldn’t have at my dinner table,” he recalled.
“I told them I’m concerned not to be with them on a go-forward basis,” he said, adding that he reassured them that other employers would be very lucky to get them if they ended up having to leave.
“The good rises to the top, that’s the truth,” Blankenbeckler said.
State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, wrote a letter to Fredrick Henderson, CEO and president of GM Corp. in Detroit, on the dealership’s behalf.
“The employees of Carlisle Chevrolet/Cadillac have built a lasting trust with the residents of Waxahachie due to the courteous, competent service they have provided their customers over the past 80-plus years in business. To lose this local dealership would be a devastating blow to the overall economy of our area. … I’m asking that you give careful consideration to rescinding the decision to terminate the contract of Carlisle Chevrolet/Cadillac. This family-owned and operated business is extremely important to the community of Waxahachie,” Pitts wrote.
Jerry Dean has been general manager of the dealership since 1990, but, as of next year, he will have been in the auto business for half a century; his father was in it before him. His father-in-law managed the Earl Hayes GM dealership in Dallas.
On Dean’s desk sits a Larkspur blue model of the 1957 Landau convertible he went off to East Texas State in, his high school sweetheart beside him.
“I still have the blonde; I wish I still had the car,” he said.
“When I started in 1960, GM had 55 percent of the U.S. market share. Imports were very few, GM was still the largest manufacturer in the world. The only competition was Ford and Chrysler,” he said. “When a person talked about buying a car, they were either Ford people, Chrysler people or Chevy people.”
The oil crisis of the early 1970s gave gas-miser imports like the tiny Civic a real foothold on the American automotive landscape.
Dean still loves Chevrolet, casting an admiring glance at a burnt orange 2010 Camaro about to be delivered to a customer.
“We don’t want to attack GM. We like GM, we like our product lines. We’re crazy about our dealership. I’m 70 years old and I’ve been doing this every day since 1960. I’d very much like to continue to do that,” Dean said.
“We’ve got absolutely superb people here and we endeavor to do business the old-fashioned way. We try to have very good understandings, on a day-to-day business, with our customers and our employees, so when we go home at night, we can all sleep well.
“Hopefully, we’ll continue doing what we love doing,” Dean said.
The Next Generation
Austin Blankenbeckler is the fourth generation of the Carlisle-Blankenbeckler family to join the business. At 26, the son of Tres and his wife Alice holds a finance degree from Ole Miss, and he works in the dealership’s finance department, having worked his way up from washing cars as a kid.
“I was basically raised by the employees here – employees would take me to school, I’d come in and shoot quarters every Saturday,” he said.
Sharp, young and working his way up, the younger Blankenbeckler represents the next generation of customers Chevrolet would like to woo with offerings like the revived 2010 Camaro. He feels the oldest, continuously-owned Chevy dealership in Texas brings the best of its legacy to a company needing to keep its niche in the domestic auto market.
“It’s an American story – the American dream of having a family business. People want to do business with a family business in a community like this,” he said, referencing an old company advertising jingle.
“We still love baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet,” he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Waxahachie Autoplex, which holds the Buick and GMC General Motors franchises at its IH-35E site, did not receive a letter cancelling its GM contract. The dealership also operates the Ford-Mercury franchise with Ford Motor Company. Carlisle’s cancellation may have an impact on them if they end up being the only remaining new car dealer in town – depending on what happens with the GM parent company, said general manager Tim Butler. Bossier Dodge, which had already closed pending a sales deal with Waxahachie Autoplex, was notified las week by Chrysler it will lose its franchise June 9.
E-mail J. Louise Larson at email@example.com