It was eight years ago, on a bright spring Sunday, that Freddye "Action" Jackson first met Bob Long. Jackson had been with East-West Lincoln Mercury in Landover for only a year, but he had already made good his promise to be their number one salesman. As was his habit, he was still out in front of the closed dealership on Sunday, passing out his business cards and car brochures, confounding people like Long, who had hoped to get a close look at the new cars without being bothered by a fast-talking salesman.
"Mr. Long said he liked the looks of the new Lincoln," Jackson recalled, "but he said there was no way I could sell him one. He said he'd been a Cadillac man all his life, and he was convinced that it was a better car."
Jackson didn't argue, but in the course of their conversation he got Long's business card and on Monday morning he drove over to the Long Fence Co. in Capitol Heights in a dressed-out, dark green Lincoln Mark IV, tailored to what he believed were Long's tastes. He walked in on a surprised Long and said, "You know, I've been giving a lot of thought to what you said yesterday. If it's true, that Cadillacs are better than Lincolns, then I'm selling the wrong car. Since you seemed like a nice guy, I was wondering if you'd let me drive your car and see for myself."
Admiring the boldness of this salesman (Long employs many himself), he agreed. Before leaving, Jackson left him the keys to the Lincoln, "just in case he needed to use it."
At noon Lond called Jackson and complained. "Freddye, where the hell is my car?" Jackson said he had it up on the rack and was checking out every inch of it. "Go on and use the Lincoln if you need to go some place," he insisted.
Jackson didn't hear from Long for the rest of the day nor the next day, and made no attempt to contact him. Wednesday morning he walked into Long's office and tossed him the Cadillac keys. "Mr. Long," he said, "you got a real nice car . . . but I got the best one. I'm sticking with Lincolns." Long reluctantly agreed that the Lincoln was a nice car and casually inquired into the cost. Jackson had the figures in his pocket of course, and after some dickering over price, took Long's check.
"What do I have to do now?" asked the shell-shocked Long. "Nothin'," said Jackson, "I've already switched the tags."
Employing the same guile, hard work and hustle the past seven years for Dave Pyles Lincoln-Mercury in Annandale, Jackson has risen to the top of his occupation. He is the number one Lincoln-Mercury salesman in the Washington area. That puts him among the nation's auto sales elite, those mega-motivated superstars whose passion for their work would shame a monk and whose income -- often $80,000 or more -- would make some doctors and most lawyers blink with envy.
But can Jackson keep smiling and selling cars under the dark cloud of gloom that has settled over his business? Hit by the double whammy of last year's gasoline shortages and skyrocketing fue prices, the public began a stampede to small cars that left big American cars lying in inventory like so many spawned herring. Add to that high interest rates, tightened credit and a recession and the result is the worst slump for the U.S. auto industry in 20 years.
Sales of 3.4 million U.S. cars in the first six months of this year are off more than 23 percent compared to last year, and 28 percent from 1978, a boom year for the industry, according to the latest figures of the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association. At the same time import sales have risen about 20 percent from just over one million in 1978 to more than 1.2 million for the same period this year.
Even in the more recession-resistant Washington area, sales are off at least 10 percent, according to the conservative estimate of Ed Stohlman, owner of Stohlman Oldsmobile and current president of the Automotive Trade Association, National Capital Area. He notes, however, that figure includes sales increases recorded by import dealers as well as the much more severe losses of others.
Conversations with some of the area's top car salesmen confirmed that convulsions in the U.S. auto industry are indeed having an impact on the profits, practices and retailing techniques of Washington's more than 150 dealers.
Sitting in his small cubicle, the walls lined with sales awards and inspirational messages, the graying but exuberant 45-year-old Jackson has even a bad auto market figured out.
"You just got to bear down," he says. "You got to double up on everything you do. You got to call twice as many people as you used to, get out and meet more people, and follow-up everybody you meet. Because that's where the whole thing starts. If you don't talk to anybody, you can't sell them a car. You know what they say," he adds in a rapid-fire staccato picked up on the streets of Washington where he was born and has lived all his life, "if you throw enough chili up against the wall, some of it's got to stick."
Jackson, whose business card reads "salesman of the nation," and whose nickname was supplied by his peers, broke into the car business after many frustrating years as a professional boxer and owner/operator of a barbershop, carryout, grocery store and cab fleet in the Georgia Avenue area. And, oh yes, he sold real estate and insurance part-time, which helped set the pattern for the 12- to 14- hour days he still works.
His secret of success is not secret at all, says Jackson. "I'm hungry. So are a lot of other blacks, and it would be to the advantage of more dealers to hire more os us."
Jackson used his many friends and contacts from former endeavors to become the top man at East-West Lincoln-Mercury six weeks after the day he started. Today, he still relies on repeat and referral business for at least 65 percent of his sales.
"I call my customers maybe three or four times a year," he says. "Not just to try and sell them a car, but to find out how they're doing and let them know Freddye's still thinking of them."
He also sticks with new prospects like glue. "I just called a man who's in the hospital with a bad back. This man's been to five dealerships shopping for a new car. But when he gets out of the hospital. he's going to buy that car from the only salesman that called to see how he was doing."
Like all the salesman interviewed, Jackson denies pressuring customers, "because right away they think you're a little smart-ass trying to run their business."
You have to be persuasive, he says, but humble. "The trouble with a lot of salesmen is they want to be big shots," Jackson says. "Sometimes a man will walk right up to one of these salesmen who's driving a demonstrator and say, "Man, that's a pretty car.' And you know what they say? 'Thank you.' They want the man to think it's their car. But I want to sell it to him.
"Then you have some guys that have been in the business for awhile and have made some money, and they want to sit the customer down and show him a picture of their $150,000 house. That customer doesn't want to hear that stuff. You're making too much money for them. I want the customer to think I can't afford a piece of cheese, man."
Will Freddye be living on cheese before the industry pulls out of this slump? "No way," says Jackson, who refuses to give his income for the record. He acknowleges that things are "very bad" for some salesmen in the area and that it is getting tougher for him to stay at previous levels.
High interest rates, for example, have meant lower inventories because dealers must pay interest charges for carrying cars in stock. That has hurt most salesmen because the preferred sales technique is still to sell the customer the car he wants from stock that very day. Fewer cars mean fewer choices and fewer sales.
The same high interest and tight credit has also put a heavy damper on car loans. As many as a third of Jackson's signed customers in the past six months have been turned down by lenders. Other salesmen report even higher percentages of lost sales. However, a good saleman does wield some influence with lenders, and Jackson is frequently on the phone pleading his customers' cases.
But he can't do anything about the rapidly escalating cost of cars. Although the National Automobile Dealers Association likes to point out that new car prices have not gone up as fast as other consumer items -- 26.4 percent from January 1976 to the end of October 1979, compared to a rise of 29.3 percent for the cost of all consumer items during the same period -- it still means the man who used to pay a $4,000 or $5,000 difference to trade Lincolns every year has to write a check for double that amount. The Lincoln a customer paid $15,000 for in 1979 now costs more than $20,000, but its trade-in value has plummeted to $10,000 in a small car market.
Recent factory rebates of up to $1,000 on some models have helped to ease the price shock, but bargains in big American cars are something of a myth. Says one salesman who is fleeing the business because of hard times: "You might have been able to buy a car at close to dealer's cost some months back, when they were in a panic to sell slow-moving cars that were costing them a fortune in monthly carrying charges," he says. "But inventories are more manageable now, and those deals have pretty well dried up."
He also says, "There is only so much dealer profit in a car, and you can't give them away and stay in business very long." The general rule of thumb here is that the more expensive the car, the more profit margin. That margin runs anywhere from 12 to 14 percent for small cars to as much as 25 percent on a loaded Lincoln or Cadillac. A 15 percent customer discount is not unusual in a car costing $20,000 or more, but it is impossible in one costing $6,000.
The same rule of thumb applies to the salesman's commission -- the more profit he retains in the car, the higher his commission. A typical commission rate for American cars might begin at a flat fee as small as $25, but rises quickly to 20 percent of $200 dealer profit, 30 percent of a $300 profit and 40 percent for $400 or more profit held for the dealer. There are also money awards and bonuses for being top dog and for selling hard-to-move cars.
Jackson squirms when asked about such practices and will not deny or confirm any of it. He would rather talk about his job and his product.
"Most people don't realize how improved these new smaller Lincolns and Mercurys are," he says, "and the best way to sell them is to let them sell themselves. And I don't mean a five minute ride around the block; I mean a good ride. If he still wants to look at another make, I tell him to do it right now, and I give him my car to take over there."
Jackson does not share the fears of many just a short two or three years ago that continued downsizing a big cars will hurt sales. "It can only make them better," he said, "and bring me more business." In the meantime, he will continue to "bust my hind box." As the interview concluded, he jumped up to deliver a new car to another happy family -- a Japanese family.
Like a lot of other shoppers lured to a recent Koons Ford tent sale by Ford Motor Co. rebate checks and the promise of "unbeatable prices," Russell Ferguson, a chemical engineer who lives in Reston, was in a buying mood. What he didn't relish was the prospect of having to deal with a salesman.
"I've dealt with car people before, and I usually came away with the feeling that I wanted to wash my hands and guard my back," said Ferguson, "but Ralph Wooten was different. He didn't seem like a car salesman. He may just be a better con artist than the rest, but at least he made me feel good."
Ferguson, and many car buyers before him, found himself quickly disarmed by the warm country charm of the 65-year-old Wooten, whose softspoken, subtly persuasive manner is more like that of a Daniel Webster than a Willy Loman. Later that same afternoon, after test driving a few models, Ferguson drove away in his new Fairmont feeling very pleased.
"The customer usually thinks you're not honest to begin with, and the first thing you have to do is make him believe you are," says Wooten, who confirmed that the pervasive image of the sleazy car salesman is a chronic handicap. He image comes, he says, because the job "offers good money quick, and some salesmen just want to take the customer for as much as they can, anyway they can on each sale, and then forget about them. Pretty soon they get a bad reputation and nobody deals with them twice."
Wooten also got in the business on the promise of big money and was promptly rewarded when his first month's check topped his earnings from the previous six months selling shoes in his native North Carolina. That led to a 30-year career in car sales, the last half spent at Koons Ford in Seven Corners where he has consistently been the area's top Ford salesman and among the top one percent of Ford salesmen in the nation.
Wooten's success was built on repeat and referral sales which account for nearly three out of every four cars he sells and have kept him close to his normal average of 40 sales a month.
Wooten's customers keep returning like Capistrano swallows for reasons other than just believing him to be an honest man. For most, he has taken extra time to make sure they got a car that was "right" for their needs -- one they could be happy with over the duration of their payments. For others, his considerable clout with lenders may have made the difference in getting loans. Wooten's good relations and communication skills with the good ol' boys in the service department means good treatment for his customers. And he is always around if you need him -- usually 60 hours a week.
Above all, Wooten's customers will never have the chance to forget him. They can expect periodic phone calls and letters alerting them to any new deals or product information that might entice them to trade with him. Wooten ends as many as a thousand letters a month to former customers and new prospects, all hand-addressed by his wife of 39 years to give them a "personal touch."
His most valuable took is the telephone. "On a slow day, I'll come in here and get an old computer print-out list of Ford buyers and prospects [not necessarily his] and just start calling," says Wooten. "There's no way you can sit down and work five hours on the telephone without selling a car."
Wooten picks three-year-old lists because that is still the most common interval between trades. By the end of three years most customers have either paid for their cars or have enough equity in them to buy again.
Wooten also takes his "up," or rotation on the showroom floor, and despite some modesty about his "closing" abilities, he converts a high percentage of walk-ins to his flock. If he can't do it that day, he will stay on their case like a hound dog on a scent. Impulse buying, Wooten says, is, like product loyalty, on the decline. Today's customers are well-informed, patient and cost-conscious.
Ironically, for a lot of people caught up in the fuel economy panic, high prices for small cars are a factor. "I've had people trade year-old cars and lose thousands of dollars to get their gas mileage up five or six miles per gallon," Wooten says. He expects the current slump to ease up by the end of the year, but says it will take a few years for Detroit to catch up to the small car demand, which doesn't worry him.
"I'm well-fixed financially," he says with obvious satisfaction, "I've got savings . . . I never have to work another day if I don't want to."
Such is not the case with Jose Pinto, the area's hottest Chevrolet salesman for the past decade. He credits his considerable success over the past 20 years with Rosenthal Chevrolet in Arlington to "tremendous health, energy and financial obligation." The latter he brought with him from a failed construction business in the 1950s. Big houses, expensive tastes and four marriages have held him to the grindstone since.
"I never had any choice but to produce," he says with a painful chuckle, explaining that this rapidly develops into a vicious cycle. "To keep your production up, you have to put in the hours, and working 14 to 15 hours a day does not make for a very happy wife."
But his production is actually legendary among area auto salesmen. Until this year, when he was forced to cut back for health reasons, the 55-year-old Pinto averaged 55 to 60 sales a month, and his record of 75 sales in one month still stands as the highwater makr for the area.
More than half Pinto's sales come from the Latin and diplomatic communities where the polished, multi-lingual Spaniard has a decided advantage over the competition. But his best advantage, says Pinto, comes from the fact that his customers trust him.
"Let's face it," he says, "prices are basically the same or close all around. The most important thing is the customer has got to like you and believe that you are honest. You convince him of that by the way you talk, the way you dress and the way you look him in the eye. You don't make bad joks.
"When I meet a customer for the first time I want him to know that I am not your average car salesman . . . I have been with the same dealer for 20 years and he can trust me."
To back up the words, Pinto provides customers with a Rosenthal rental car while their cars are being serviced. He foots the $300 to $350 bill every month.
Pinto is determined to ride out the current sales drought, which he expects will end after the November elections. He speaks the industry line, blaming a lot of problems on "Ralph Nader and his associates in government who have given the importers the edge by burdening American auto makers with too many safety and environmental regulations.
"I still can't believe that the Japanese cars are going to put the American industry out of business. There's no way . . . Eventually we will have to force these people to open plants here or put some kind of quota on their imports. And the customer is going to get sick and tired of having to pay over list price and wait three or four months for his car."
At Ourisman Dodge in Alexandria, the area's largest volume dealer for Chrysler products, 30-year veteran salesman Paul Page has the added handicap of Chrysler Corporation's failing image. Page says that although the company's problems have not helped matters, his customers tend to be as loyal to the product as he is, and most believe Chrysler will be around for a long time. He is optimistic about the company's new compact "K" cars to be introduced this fall.
Ourisman Dodge's general manager and co-owner, Major King, says the staff has kept its morale up and stayed intact.
Chrysler dealers are not the only ones with special problems. Jim Travis, Washington's leading Cadillac salesman says that in his 30 years at Lindsay Cadillac in Alexandria he has never witnessed "such a rapid deterioration of business as has been experienced since the first of the year." Despite downsizing, diesel engines and six-cylinder engines in some Cadillacs, buyers have deserted this symbol of conspicuous consumption.
That is particularly frustrating to Travis, 59, who entered the business at a time when the only way you could get a job selling Cadillacs was to wait for one of the elder salesmen to die. "Everyone at Lindsay," he says, "is proud of his job and his product. The average person here is a middle-aged family man with 12 years' experience. There was no floaters to cut loose when times get tough."
Tall, tanned and immaculately dressed, the handsome, easy-mannered Travis looks like a man who should sell Cadillacs. He is a native Washingtonian with deep roots and innumerable contacts in the area. His customers often become his friends and many continue to do business with him long after they have moved from the area. But Travis sadly notes that even some of his most loyal customers have been thwarted by tight credit and high car prices, which crested well past $20,000 for top-of-the-line Cadillacs this year.
"And the man who all his life dreamed of owning a Cadillac has stopped dreaming," Travis says.
Travis spreads the blame around freely: to the manufactures for not reacting to a changing market, and for constantly overproducing and raising prices; to the federal government for excessive and costly regulations; and to the unions for high labor rates and declining productivity and quality control.
"In the future," he says, "the manufacturer will have to hold the line on prices, and give people more for their money."
When dealing with people," Dale Carnegie tells us, "we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and naivete."
Charles Harmel, of Euro Motor Cars in Bethesda, may not subscribe totally to that theory, but he goes far beyond the normal call of duty to pamper the whims and vanities of his affluent Mercedes-Benz and Rolls Royce customers. He once picked out a car for a Roll customer to match the gold wallpaper spread liberally through the man's mansion. He also delivered, on a moment's notice, a subsititue Rolls to a customer vacationing in Florida who had problems with a Rolls just purchased from Harmel. And for his many customers in Great Falls, Va., which he passes every day on his commute from his home in Herndon, he offers free pick-up and delivery of their Mercedes when they need service work, and the use of his car while theirs is in the shop. Once in the shop, Harmel says he rides herd on thier cars "like they were my own."
A homespun lad of 28 who hates to dress up, Harmel is an unlikely figure to be the best Rolls and Mercedes salesman in a five-state area. But if he lacks the fine finish of his cars, he more than makes up for it in his eager, almost obsessive dedication to his job. "The only thing that reallay eats me up," says Harmel, who regularly puts in 65 to 70 hours a week, "is seeing another Rolls or Mercedes on the road that I didn't sell."
Like "Action" Jackson, Harmel believes in taking the car to the man and letting it sell itself. He might, for instance, pick up a tight-fsted physician's basic $17,000 Mercedes 240 diesel for service and leave in its place a more luxurious, better-performing $30,000 turo diesel, which the doctor is apt to find he can't live without.
Although high prices and tight credit have cost him some sales, Harmel says he still sells as many cars as he can get. The traidiotnal business policy of Mercedes-Benz and Rolls Royce has been to not let supply outstrip demand.
Across the river and down Tysons Corner's "auto mile," Paul Smyth, 25, enjoys the same luxury at Tysons Toyota. As the area's hottest salesman of the hottest-selling import car, Smyth's sales are limited only by the supply of cars. He works long hours and is often seen clapping his hands and shouting on the showroom floor to get himself and the rest of the staff pumped up.
Smyth, who used to sell Dodge trucks, says there are differences between selling American and import cars. "With American makes it is generally bad form to poor-mouth the competition, but among imports the competition is fierce and we really slam the other guy's product." He can talk at length on the shortcomings of Datsuns, Hondas and Volkswagens.
"A lot of my customers would really prefer to buy American," Smyth says, "but they're disgusted with the quality and gas mileage of these cars."
He acknowledges that imports have a lower commission scale than American cars and that he probably can't make as much as a top American car salesman, but he is proud that at 25 and still single, he already owns his own home, has money saved and invested, and enjoys "the good life."
"You get used to that money, and you keep going after it," says the handsome young man with the now familiar burning glow of ambition in his eyes. "The whole key to success in this business is consistency. You take guys like Ralph Wooten and Jose Pinto, those guys are out there every day, every month and they're going to be number one every year. That's the way I look at it too. I want to be number one every month. I don't like anybody ahead of me. I like to be right on top."
Welcome to the club, Paul. CAPTION: Cover Photo, Freddye "Action" Jackson by Bill Snead.; Picture 1, Ralph Wooten has consistently been the top Ford salesman in the Washington area.; Picture 2, Jim Travis finds that even his most loyal customers are balking at paying $20,000 for a new Cadillac.; Picture 3, Jose Pinto holds the Washington area's top monthly sales record. He sold 75 Chevrolets in one month. Pictures 4 and 5, Charles Harmel, a Mercedes-Benz and Rolls Royce salesman who will go to almost any extreeme to pamper the whims of his customers, including picking out a Rolls to match the wallpaper in a prospect's home. Paul Smyth sells every Toyota he can get his hands on and at 25 and still single he already owns his own home, has money saved and invested and by his own account lives the good life. Photographs by Bill Snead