By Dennis Minich, Special to The Democrat Missourian
One thing that G.R. Milner had planned, but never accomplished, was going to college. Of course, considering how things have turned out, staying home worked out pretty well.
The Ford Motor Company recently presented Milner with a gold plaque honoring his 50 years as a dealership owner. But Milners career path as the top automobile dealership in Harrisonville actually started nearly 54 years ago and he chuckles when he says that he has never received a sales commission check in his life.
1958: The Ford Motor Company introduced the Edsel product line, a failed series that lasted only three years. A recession was hurting new car sales. A Ford Fairlane 500 sold for $2,350.
In 1958 Milner graduated from Harrisonville High School, intending to attend college in the fall. However, newly married and with a child on the way, he set those plans aside and looked for ways way to support the family.
I was doing a lot of things, Milner said. I was working in the fields and part of the time in a clothing store. Then one day my father-in-law, who worked at the Ford dealership, said there was a bookkeeping opening and I applied for it and went to work on July 1, 1958. I was a 17-year-old bookkeeper.
The job at Henderson-Burris Ford came open because the previous bookkeeper had drowned while fishing.
The money really wasnt that good. I started at $40 per week, which was less than I made working the fields, but it was steady work and by the second week I had earned a raise to $45, Milner said.
At that time the dealership was located near the north side of the Harrisonville square. Milner sold his first car shortly thereafter. It was a Rambler. A guy over in Jaudon wanted it and there were no salesmen available, so I took it over to him and traded it out, he said. We only had like three salesmen, so we all sold, but I was a bookkeeper, so I didnt get commissions.
Another early event was the introduction of the Edsels, a car line that just never caught on.
The first week I was on the job we sold the first Edsel, Milner said. We had a guy that traded for a new car every year and he took our first Edsel. We traded for it back the next year. It had 200 miles on it. The problem with the Edsel was it was really ahead of its time. It was a very nice car with a lot of features, but people just didnt like it.
During his early days in the business, Milner said he listened.
Marvin Burris told me a lot of things. I listened to him and I would do what he did. Thats how I learned the business, Milner said.
1961: Ford edged Chevy for the top spot in yearly production; the convertible Lincoln Continental was introduced; Ford sold 200,000 Fairlanes; a new Thunderbird retailed for $4,175.
In 1961 Burris bought out Bart Henderson and the dealership was re-branded Marvin Burris Ford. Milner was promoted to general manager and later in the year purchased 24.5 percent interest in the dealership. At that time we were selling about 30 or 40 vehicles a month, about like it is now, Milner said. Marvin wasnt even coming in to work that much because he saw we were doing pretty good and left us alone. The dealership enjoyed a reputation, especially as a truck dealership and sales remained good for many years.
For 15 years we never had a losing month. We may have had a few when we didnt make a lot, but we always came out ahead. We were a truck dealership and that helped. In a month we might sell 50 to 75 trucks and 10 cars, Milner said.
As the years progressed, many vehicles came out from Ford with mixed results.
The Pinto was a surprise, people didnt like it that much, but they werent as worried about gas then. The Mustang was no surprise, everyone knew it would be a hit and it was, he said.
The Mustang really helped carry us through the tough times.
Also helping the business out was a customer-oriented philosophy and a willingness to work with customers.
Through the years Ive traded for all kinds of things, Milner said. Ive traded for cattle, guns, we even traded for grain so the farmer could get the sales tax credit, then we would sell the grain to the grain company.
1977: The F-Series pick up is the top selling vehicle for the 28th consecutive year; the Ford LTD II is introduced; a Ford Pinto sells for $2,078.
In 1977 Milner bought out his long-time partner and mentor, and the dealership was re-branded G.R. Milner Ford. In addition to Fords, the dealership also sold Lincoln-Mercury and Mazda lines. For several years the dealership was recognized as the top Lincoln dealership in the Kansas City region.
But his first years were not easy.
That was a time with high interest rates among other problems. If interest rates were in the 20 percent range these days, no one would buy a car, he said.
In 1979 Milner purchased the current site of the dealership. He said, It had originally been the Chrysler dealership, but it was bought out by a trucking company. I went out one day to pick up a payment and ended up buying the building. It was pretty much unchanged until we remodeled eight years ago.
The dealership boasts that through the years some notable Kansas Citians have purchased their cars in Harrisonville. Among those are former Royals Fred Patek and Wally Joyner and Chiefs Dave Lutz and Dave Hill. Dave Hill is one of my best friends, Milner said.
In 1979, Milners son, Scott, left college and started working at the dealership full time. Then in 1987, Charlie OQuinn joined the company and in 1997 became general manager.
The early days were tough, OQuinn said. G.R. was an outstanding teacher and a great person to work for, but he could be tough. He might come in wanting to know why certain numbers were the way they were, and you had better know. Saying I dont know was not acceptable.
2005: The Ford F-150 is still the top selling truck in America; the Ranger is the top-selling compact truck; Mustangs start at $19,410.
In 2005 the story of the dealership turned yet another page as OQuinn and Scott Milner each bought one-third of the dealership and the name became Milner-OQuinn.
Much as Burris had turned over the reigns to G.R., so he turned them over to his new partners, coming in on occasion to catch up. I still come in a couple days a week. But they are very short days, Milner says.
Instead he spends much of his time at home with his wife of 20 years, Karazo.
OQuinn said like his predecessor, watching and learning have been the key to success.
His business practice was to always take care of the customer, sometimes to a fault, OQuinn explained.
It didnt matter if it was a warranty issue or an manufacturers problem, G.R. knew that didnt matter to the customer. They wanted their problem solved and he took care of them.
I knew early on, if I was going to succeed as a partner, I would be expected to follow the same policy.
Not everything has worked out perfectly through the years. Milner-OQuinn purchased the Chrysler dealership shortly before the company closed down most of the dealerships, including Milner-OQuinn.
The dealerships best-ever month was August of 2008 when 187 vehicles left the lot. The cash for clunkers campaign eclipsed the previous best-ever month of 140, which was set in 2002 when 0 percent interest was used to spark sales. Now the numbers have fallen back to less than 40 per month and the dealership looks for ways to rebuild the client base.
G.R. had people coming back year after year because of how he treated them, OQuinn said.
Many of those customers are gone and newer customers dont share the dealer loyalty that people used to. So we have to keep getting the word out there and constantly watch where people are shopping.
It is a much different business than it was when G.R. was running the place, but the core values of customer service will not change.