A 90-year journey [UPDATED]Published 11:23am Monday, November 26, 2012 Updated 11:23am Monday, November 26, 2012
In 1922, Minnesota Motor Company became a Chevrolet dealership in Fergus Falls, the price of a Chevrolet four-door sedan was $840, and Richard (Dick) Brimhall was born to then Dealer Manager Marsden G. Brimhall and his wife Vera. On Dec. 2, Minnesota Motor Co. will celebrate its 90th anniversary as a Chevrolet dealership, and also the 90th birthday of its long-time patriarch, Dick Brimhall.
Described as studious and shy growing up, Dick recalls his personal history with humor.
“I was born at home on Vernon Avenue,” said Dick. “I was welcomed to Fergus Falls with a slap on the (bottom).”
Growing up fishing and shooting gophers, he landed his first job at the dealership at 13, washing cars and running errands, and later delivering used cars to the family owned lot in Perham.
In his teenage years, Dick’s dad made him a deal. He wanted his son to gain confidence speaking to people, and to stay out of trouble.
“He said if I take debate classes, don’t drink or smoke, I could earn a new car,” said Dick. “I did what he said, and got the car, but I may have learned to have a drink or two in college.”
A serious pre-med student at Carleton College, Dick’s plan to become a doctor was interrupted by World War II. The army sent him to engineering school. When he shipped out, he served in radar and loran maintenance, spending two years in the Marianas and Guam, attaining the rank of captain.
Dick married his high school sweetheart, Marieloise, better known as “Duffy,” while still enlisted in 1942, and started his family. The couple would have four children — Bruce, Steve, Margaret and Nancy.
After finishing his service in the military, Dick enrolled in the GM Institute — now known as Kettering University — in industrial engineering. His son Steve chimed in proudly:
“The GM Institute is like the West Point of the industry,” said Steve. “Dad finished number one in his class of 750 students. He’s really a very brilliant man.”
Mars Brimhall died unexpectedly in 1959, leaving 38-year-old Dick and his brother Bradford in charge of the dealership. By then, the young man had overcome his shyness.
“We were very successful in sales,” said Dick. “I won many incentive trips from the manufacturer — we went on an African safari, to China, to England on the Concord, on the Orient Express to Istanbul, to Rome and France twice.”
The manufacturer was not the only entity to recognize Dick’s success. Time Magazine recognized him as Quality Dealer of the year, as voted by peers on the Minnesota Auto Dealers Association.
Part of the recognition was based on Dick’s contributions to the community. He served on the Fergus Falls hospital board for 36 years, and was board president when the second and third floors were added on. While the company is hesitant to discuss its annual giving, Minnesota Motor Company is known to be one of the top five corporate donors giving to local charities.
What Mars Brimhall may not have realized is that he started a family auto dealership legacy. Although Dick retired after 47 years — and Bradford is deceased — their sons, Steve and Tom, continue to manage day to day operations — Steve as CEO and Tom as CFO. And now Steve’s sons, Matt and Ben, have become an integral part of the team, Matt as a sales manager, Ben as the Internet manager.
“Keeping a dealership in one family doesn’t happen that often anymore,” said Steve. “Honesty and customer satisfaction were instilled in us by Dad, and we are committed to that.”
The company has also weathered some tough economic times when other area businesses failed.
“The farming economy surrounding Fergus Falls has been very good to us,” said Steve. “People appreciate being treated fairly, and it shows in our repeat business.”
Steve acknowledges that there were a few scary moments of uncertainty while tracking the fate of GM a few years ago, but the dealership was never in trouble, and he feels the GM products are now better than ever.
Another key to the dealership’s success has been hiring the right people.
“We were very careful about the people we hired,” said Dick. “We hired who we thought would be the best, long term employees.”
That philosophy has worked well for the company, with the average length of employment being over 18 years, with many Minnesota Motor employees being there over 30 years, and some even 40 years.
“This is a great family dealership dedicated to its employees and customers,” said Pat Peck, who has been employed in the sales department for 34 years. “Other dealerships seem to go through employees quickly — but there is no other place I would rather work than here.”
The original Minnesota Motor Company buildings were at 117 and 123 South Court Street in Fergus Falls. In 1974, Minnesota Motor Company moved to its present location on South Pebble Lake Road. In 1997, a building expansion and remodeling project was completed at that site. The company is just completing another major renovation of its main dealership facilities, which are expected to be finished in early 2013.
The Brimhall family has seen many changes through the years, but through it all, their commitment to taking care of people, in the dealership and through community service, has remained the highest priority.
Family and friends will celebrate Dick’s birthday next week. Minnesota Motor Company is not planning an anniversary party, but will have a celebration when renovations are complete.