Don Massey Cadillac, Inc.
Don Massey Cadillac, Inc.
Sales: $979.9 million (1998)
NAIC: 44111 New Car Dealers; 44112 Used Car Dealers; 81111 Automotive Mechanical and Electrical Repair and Maintenance
Don Massey Cadillac, Inc. operates one of the top auto dealership groups in the United States, as well as the world’s number one Cadillac dealership at its home base of Plymouth, Michigan. Six of Massey’s other locations are also ranked among the top 40 Cadillac showrooms in the world. Massey dealers also sell Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs, Chevrolets, and Hondas. The company’s 17 dealerships are located in Michigan, Colorado, Kentucky, Florida, North Carolina, California, Tennessee, and Texas. Don Massey Cadillac has been owned since inception by the company’s founder and namesake, who continues to serve as its president and CEO.
Don Massey was born in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, just be-fore the start of the Great Depression, and got his first taste of the automobile business at 14, when he worked for a summer at a Dodge dealership in Jacksonville, Florida. A decade later, married and living in Michigan, he entered the business full-time when he took a job selling used cars at a Wayne, Michigan, Desoto/Plymouth dealership. Massey was a natural salesman, and soon moved to a better job at nearby Paul McGlone Chevrolet, where he was promoted to Assistant Used Car Manager within a year, then was named General Manager a year after that. Massey’s tenure coincided with McGlone becoming the number one Chevrolet dealership in the world from 1958 to 1960.
In 1960 Massey was warned by his doctor that his health would deteriorate if he continued to maintain his heavy work load and bad eating habits. Deciding that he had no choice but to retire, he quit his job. However, after several months of relaxing and eating properly he found that he had improved enough to go back to work. This time he opened his own used car lot in Wayne, and the business was such a success that he was able to retire for good just five years later. Thinking he had sold his last car, he gave up the lot and moved to neighboring Plymouth, Michigan.
Massey quickly discovered that retirement didn’t agree with him. As a way to stave off boredom, he decided to buy “a little store that sold a couple hundred Oldsmobiles and fifty-sixty Cadillacs per year.” He told Automobile Dealer Magazine, “I thought that it would be the perfect retirement…. I’d work three to four hours a day, and take it easy, take care of my health. Well, I got here January 1, 1967, and a blizzard dropped three to four feet of snow right on top of us. While I was digging out to do inventory on New Year’s Day, I sold seven cars. I don’t recall getting home before nine o’clock any evening since.” Within a few years Don Massey Cadillac had become the top-selling Cadillac dealership in the world, a position it would consistently retain. The company later branched out to sell Rolls-Royces and Bentleys as well.
Massey’s sales ability was legendary. While working for McGlone Chevrolet, he once reportedly went in for a doctor appointment and ended up selling cars to the physician, the nurse, and the receptionist. On another occasion, when he was buying a house, he leased two cars to his realtor, sold a car to the home’s former owner, and also sold three to his realtor’s partners. Massey discussed his sales philosophy with Automobile Dealer Magazine. “I think that a lot of salespeople are actually afraid that they are going to sell a car. Many salespeople walk up to a customer believing they are not going to sell that customer a car. Well, I believe that a customer is sold when they walk in. If we don’t unsell them, they are going to leave in one of our cars. You have to take the time to acquaint yourself with the customer.” His approach was not aggressive. “I don’t go straight for the wallet. I walk up, I talk to the customer, I try to get to know them and I listen [but] I never let them feel hurried, rushed, or pressured…. Many times I show them something that’s more fitting to their needs and desires than what they were initially interested in. Usually, I make a friend.”
Expansion in the 1980s
In 1981 Massey acquired the second dealership in what would eventually become a string of 20. Capitol Cadillac of Lansing, Michigan, 70 miles west of Plymouth, had been in business for many years, but its owners wanted to sell out. They contacted Massey, who made the drive over to Lansing and quickly decided to buy it. Some problems were encountered with integrating the second dealership into the organization, but ultimately both were able to function well together.
Several years later, Massey’s wife Joyce was seriously injured in an automobile accident in Colorado. Massey stayed with her while she was undergoing a lengthy recuperation in a hospital near Denver. One day he experienced a minor problem with the rear end of the Chevy van he was using to transport her wheelchair, and he took it to a local Cadillac dealership for repair. He declared to the staff that he would rather pay a Cadillac dealer to fix it than have it worked on under warranty at a Chevrolet dealership, diplomatically omitting the fact that he had also gone there to satisfy his curiosity about how the place was run. After several hours the service manager reported, to Massey’s surprise, that they could find nothing wrong with the vehicle. Explaining again what the problem was, and offering advice on how to diagnose and correct it, Massey went off to lunch with the dealer, whom he had befriended. Upon their return the service manager reported once again that there was nothing wrong with the van. Massey immediately turned to the dealer and said, “Sir, why don’t you sell me this place?” The man was surprised at the sudden offer, but Massey told him that he thought the staff’s poor work was tarnishing his reputation, and noted that the dealer looked like someone to whom this would be disagreeable. The man seemed to be taken aback by his bluntness, so Massey quickly left to rejoin his wife at the hospital. Several hours later, the dealer appeared, carrying his financial records. The sale was finalized in the spring of 1986.
Over the next decade other Cadillac dealerships were purchased around the country, including ones in Littleton, Colorado; Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee; Orlando, Florida; and Charlotte, North Carolina. In the latter city, Massey acquired two Cadillac/Oldsmobile dealerships that had been owned by golfer Arnold Palmer. At the same time Palmer also sold him a Chevrolet, Buick, and Geo dealership in Cave City, Kentucky, and a Quincy, California, showroom that carried the full line of General Motors products. Later, other acquisitions were made in Englewood, Colorado; Downey, California; and Dallas and Houston, Texas.
Massey also opened three Saturn dealerships in the Detroit area after General Motors began to manufacture this new name-plate. The first debuted in the fall of 1990, with the other two appearing over the next several years. Also in Detroit, Massey purchased a local competitor, Dreisbach & Sons Cadillac, re-naming it Massey Cadillac. Dreisbach was the only Cadillac dealership still located within the Motor City. In the fall of 1995 Massey Cadillac’s Nashville dealership also opened a separate Honda showroom, the company’s first association with a Japanese nameplate.
A Philosophy of Minimal Interference
Massey’s acquisitions were not micromanaged from above, but were generally allowed to operate much as they had previously done, so long as they were profitable. Personnel changes were kept to a minimum, with the exception of the departing dealer/owner who would be replaced by a new general manager. Massey tried to find a person for this position within the ranks of existing staff, if possible. Commenting on his acquisition philosophy, he told Automobile Dealer Magazine, “In Cadillac, we already know we’ve got the right cars, so if we’ve got a reasonable location and if we’ve got the right people, we’re going to win.”
Massey’s salesmanship and personal involvement extended to the company’s advertising, with the owner himself reading copy for radio commercials in his distinctive southern drawl. His down-home style proved a hit with listeners in the growing Detroit metropolitan area, which the town of Plymouth had become a part of in the decades since Massey first set up shop there. Other promotional efforts were as low-key, and included cosponsoring a Plymouth-area ice sculpture contest and holding a free barbecue cookout at the dealership on the Fourth of July. While waiting to have a car serviced at Massey’s Plymouth dealership, a customer could get free coffee, a shoeshine, and even a haircut. The company’s flagship store, which displayed 14 vehicles under a U-shaped skylight, also ran the New York Stock Exchange ticker above the entrance to the service department.
Offers to buy his company began to appear in 1998, as Don Massey neared the age of 70. One which was nearly consum-mated involved American Public Automotive Group of Indianapolis, Indiana of Indianapolis, Indiana, which offered a re-ported $300 million. The deal fell through, and American Public subsequently declared bankruptcy. Late in the year General Motors Corp. reached a deal with Massey to purchase all three of his Saturn dealerships. GM was reportedly seeking to create a group of 50 to 75 dealerships which could be spun off as a publicly owned company. The automaker also bought a Cadillac showroom in Ann Arbor, Michigan, from Massey in early 1999, but GM’s offer to purchase the rest of the company’s holdings was rejected. By this time Massey’s annual sales were approaching the $1 billion mark.
The Don Massey Commitment: We believe that when you buy or lease a Cadillac, you deserve to be treated like a Cadillac owner. And when you take your car in for service, you have the right to expect the type of consideration traditionally reserved for Cadillac owners. We intend to keep the tradition alive.
At the beginning of the 21st century, Don Massey Cadillac remained one of the most successful auto dealer groups in the United States. With its owner at an age when many would retire, and with no designated successor in place, the company could go in either of several directions. But whatever its future held, Don Massey and the company he had founded had made their mark as leaders in the field of selling cars.
Don Massey Cadillac, Inc.; Capitol Cadillac Corporation; Don Massey Buick, Inc.; Massey Cadillac, Inc.; Crest Cadillac, Inc.;
Massey Chevrolet, Inc.; Arngar, Inc.; PMO Motors of Kentucky; Joy Agency, Inc.; Massey Enterprises, Inc.
AutoNation, Inc.; Avis Ford; CarMax Group; Hendrick Auto-motive Group; Mel Farr Automotive Group; Phil Long Auto-motive Group, Inc.; The Meade Group; Troy Motors, Inc.
- Don Massey opens a used car lot in Wayne, Michigan.
- Massey “retires,” then buys a Cadillac dealership in Plymouth, Michigan.
- Company purchases Capitol Cadillac in Lansing, Michigan.
- First Saturn dealership opens.
- Massey sells its three Saturn dealerships to General Motors.
- Cadillac dealership is sold to GM; offer to buy entire company is turned down.
“Cadillac Dealer’s Toughest Foe Soon Will Be His Own Dealership,” Detroit News, January 17, 1996, p. B3.
Crain, Keith, “Holiday Retailing is a Picnic for the Cadillac King,” Crain’s Detroit Business, July 12, 1999, p. 6.
Roscoe, Michael, “The Extended Forecast… More Cadillacs!,” Automobile Dealer Magazine, July/August 1996, pp. 20–28.
Roush, Matt, “Don Massey Buys Dreisbach & Sons Cadillac,” Crain’s Detroit Business, January 8, 1996, p. 3.
Sedgwick, David, “Dealer Pushes Cadillac Style,” Detroit News, October 28, 1991, p. 7F.
——, “GM Bids for Big Dealer: Massey Heads $1 Billion Empire,” Automotive News, February 15, 1999, p. 1.
——, “Massey: Selling His Stores?,” Automotive News, November 16, 1998, p. 4.