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Tenvoorde, carmaker work side by side for 100 years

By Mark Truby / The Detroit News

ST. CLOUD, Minn.--Full of big dreams and youthful self-assurance, Stephen Tenvoorde took the wheel of a Milwaukee Steamer in 1899 and traversed a rocky 70-mile oxen trail from Minneapolis to the tiny hamlet of St. Cloud.

For bringing the first motor car to his hometown, the rough-hewn blacksmith earned the nickname "The Daredevil."

While his neighbors ridiculed him for pouring his savings into a fad, Tenvoorde's gut told him he was onto something big.

In March 1903, he traveled to Detroit to cut a deal with an equally single-minded entrepreneur named Henry Ford.

Tenvoordes have sold Fords in St. Cloud ever since.

As Ford Motor Co. celebrates its 100th birthday in June, the world's oldest Ford dealership will mark its own centennial in this conservative farming community.

Tenvoorde Ford, like Ford, has defied the odds to remain family-owned through four generations -- surviving wars and the Great Depression, beating back bankruptcy more than once and sorting out tricky inheritance issues.

"One hundred years is incredible," said Elena Ford, the great-great-grandaughter of Henry Ford and a rising executive at Ford who works closely with dealers. "We know how they feel. It's been a long, hard, successful road for both of us."

Adaptable, resilient and fiercely independent, the Tenvoordes embody the traits that helped Ford dealers become the automotive industry's most powerful retail network.

In communities both large and small, Ford's 4,000 dealers play a huge economic role, selling more than 3 million cars a year and raking in billions of dollars in revenue.

Today, the Tenvoordes continue driving forward, looking to expand, struggling to leverage the Internet. And like the Ford family, they yearn to pass the torch to future generations.

"We are the world's oldest Ford dealership," said Jack Tenvoorde, 63, who owns the store with his two brothers, Dave, 61, and Paul, 52. "Grandfathers bring their grandsons here to buy cars. We have the following of generations. Why would we want to ever lose that? That said, we don't know know what the future will bring."

Daring souls

The auto industry's earliest dealers did not just sell cars, they willed an industry to life. They were daring souls staking their life savings on a potentially revolutionary but largely unproven invention.

Early dealers often had to assemble the cars they sold. When buyers didn't have cash, they accepted horses and oxen from farmers in trade. Some dealers even taught reading classes so potential customers could pass drivers tests.

Stephen Tenvoorde was a man for the times. Like his father, John, the leader of a clan of Dutch German settlers who founded St. Cloud, Stephen Tenvoorde had a pioneer's spirit.

A blacksmith, inventor and bicycle shop owner, he initially sold Fords from a small store front in downtown St. Cloud.

"He was fascinated by cars," Jack Tenvoorde said. "He raced bicycles and that attracted him to automobiles."

The budding entrepreneur marketed his Fords by staging public demonstrations and leading caravans on day trips. Like today's automakers, he pitched cars as a ticket to adventure and a go-anywhere lifestyle.

Stephen Tenvoorde was typical of the super-salesmen hand-picked by Henry Ford's right-hand man James Couzens in the company's formative years. Unlike other fledgling auto companies, Ford arduously screened dealers to separate the hucksters from the serious businessmen.

Ford audaciously demanded 50 percent payment in advance before it would ship vehicles. Dealers hated the inflexible rule, but it forced them to work hard to sell cars quickly.

Henry Ford issued edicts insisting that dealers keep a spotless showroom and provide top-notch repair service.

As a result, Ford's dealer body quickly became the industry's gold standard, a key advantage that helped propel the automaker to the top of business world.

Survival skills

By 1910, Stephen Tenvoorde built his first stand-alone dealership. He expanded a few years later, adding a showroom and service bay. Along the way, he invented a clever car jack -- known as the Tenvoorde Jack -- and sold the patent to Ford in 1921.

In those days, disputes were settled with fists as often as they were with lawyers. A pushy Fordson tractor representative once walked into Tenvoorde Ford and made the mistake of not taking no for an answer.

"They wanted him to take all these tractors," Dave Tenvoorde said. "He told them no about four times. About the fifth time, it was right out the door. It was the old blacksmith in him."

Stephen Tenvoorde also had a soft spot for bootleggers, sometimes hiding rum runners traveling south from Canada in his dealership.

When Stephen Tenvoorde died in 1943, the mantle was passed to his son, Cy, who had worked at the dealership since he was 12.

Cy Tenvoorde was so serious and business-like at work his sons jokingly called him "the iceman."

During the Great Depression, "he worked here like 18 hours a day and would go home and actually cry himself to sleep because of the stress," grandson Jack Tenvoorde said. "But he pulled us through."

It was not the last time he would save Tenvoorde Ford from disaster.

When Ford and other auto companies halted car production during World War II, Tenvoorde Ford laid off all but one of its salesmen and built a thriving business repairing used cars, rebuilding engines and carburetors, and grinding out crankshafts.

While many dealers went bankrupt, Tenvoorde Ford grew stronger. Soon, the dealership was bursting its seams.

Ever the product of the depression, Cy Tenvoorde paid cash in 1951 to relocate the dealership on an acre of land in St. Cloud.

Smooth transition

The trials, in fact, only seemed to toughen his mettle. In later years, when sales would dry up, he would stroll out into the showroom and calm his jittery troops.

"The guys would stand around wondering what was was going to happen," recalled Bill Braun, 61, a new car salesman at Tenvoorde Ford for the past 30 years. "He would walk up and light up a Chesterfield and say, 'It's kind of slow boys, but we've been here before. It'll get better.' "

Only once did it appear that Tenvoorde Ford would slip into the hands of strangers -- in the late 1960s when Cy Tenvoorde's two brothers and sister wanted to cash in their share of the company.

Cy Tenvoorde bought them out instead, greasing the smooth transition of ownership to his three sons.

A year later, his sons declared they wanted to move to a prime 10-acre lot a couple of miles away and build a state-of-the-art showroom.

"Dad told us, 'If you guys think it's the right thing, go ahead and do it,' " Jack Tenvoorde recalled. "But I ain't signing nothing.' "

Though he had ceded control, Cy Tenvoorde rarely missed a day of work over the next 20 years. Until his death, a few days before his 90th birthday, he was a fixture at the dealership, sorting papers and opening mail.

"That was his life," Dave Tenvoorde said of his father. "It meant more to him than anything else."

Adapting to change

Over the past 25 years, Cy Tenvoorde's three sons -- Jack, Paul and David -- have steadily nurtured and expanded the dealership. The changes in the industry have been striking.

"I can remember when we would sell a truck and they would say, 'I guess we will have to go order another one, ' " Jack Tenvoorde said. "Now the largest part of our business is trucks."

Tenvoorde Ford takes pains to make sure its history remains a part of its modern merchandising efforts. A refurbished 1911 Model T sits in the showrooms beside the F-150 pickups and Mustang coupes, and the walls are adorned with sepia-toned photos from the early years.

A sticker on every car and truck sold reminds buyers that Tenvoorde Ford is "the world's oldest Ford dealership."

"It makes a difference to the customer, believe me," said Braun, the veteran salesman. "I had a young couple this morning who said they came in just because they heard great things about us. They know we have a reputation to protect."

The Tenvoorde's 100-year run is a testament to both their business savvy and integrity, said Carter Myers, whose Charlottesville, Va., dealership has remained family-owned for more than 75 years.

"It's basic values that allow a company to stay in business that long, values that are handed down from generation to generation," Myers said. "You have to have honesty, fairness and respect."

Fourth generation

Like Ford Motor, the future of Tenvoorde Ford is now firmly in the hands of the fourth generation.

If anybody can relate to Bill Ford Jr., the great grandson of Henry Ford who is now trying to bring Ford Motor back to prosperity, its Mike Tenvoorde.

Just 32 years old, his father, Jack, and two uncles, Dave and Paul, recently promoted him to general manager of Tenvoorde Ford.

He not only oversees the dealership's day-to-day operations, he must chart a solid course for the future.

"I never thought I would work here," he said, leaning back in the chair behind his neatly organized desk. "I went to college to go into real estate."

Naturally outgoing, Mike Tenvoorde started selling cars over the summers to make some extra cash. He was quickly hooked.

His father and uncles spotted his talent for the car business and began grooming him to run the dealership.

"You have to have one that excels at the business to keep it in the family," said Dave Tenvoorde, Mike's uncle. "Mike is the one."

'You can't sit still'

Working beside Mike is his sister, Deb, 37, the quiet glue of the family, his younger brother, Brian, 27, and cousin Robert, 35. Deb Tenvoorde's son Eric, an 18-year-old local hockey star, will become the first fifth-generation family member to work at the dealership this summer.

"We have to be proactive," Mike Tenvoorde said. "You can't sit still in this business."

The dealership sells about 600 new and used cars per month and is working to increase sales and profits in a competitive industry where the customers are more savvy than ever.

At a recent morning meeting at the dealership, Mike Tenvoorde pressed for the dealership to ramp up its on-line efforts.

"We need to decide what we are going to do with the Internet," he said, laying out the case for hiring another Internet sales representative, buying updated software to manage sales leads and building a database of customer e-mail addresses.

"Let's get a second person and do this right," he said.

His father and two uncles remained quiet, nodding every so often as their young successor spoke. The Tenvoorde torch, still burning brightly after a century in business, is being passed again.

"The one thing that has kept us going -- we are family," Mike Tenvoorde said. "We trust each other. And we find a way to get along where others don't."

Source: Ford Motor Co., Detroit News research. Photos from Ford.

(Photo)Stephen Tenvoorde, who began selling Fords in 1903 in St. Cloud, Minn., built his first stand-alone dealership, shown above, in 1910.


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Discussion Starter #2
Tenvoorde Ford

The founder of Tenvoorde Ford, Stephen, left, and Edsel Ford hooked up for Ford Day at the 1940 World's Fair in New York.


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Discussion Starter #3
Ford dealer milestones
by Ford Motor Co., Detroit News research.

Beginning with the first sale to a Chicago doctor, Ford developed one of the strongest sales networks in the U.S. auto industry and helped make Ford the top-selling brand in the United States for years. Key milestones:

June 16, 1903

Ford Motor Co. is founded and begins building Model A cars. William Hughson of San Francisco and Steve Tenvoorde of St. Cloud, Minn., become the automaker's first two dealers.

October 1908

Ford introduces the Model T, which was immediately embraced by buyers all over the country.


At the urging of Edsel Ford, Ford buys Lincoln Motor Co. from founder Henry Leland for $8 million.

May 1927

Ford discontinues production of the Model T, causing many dealers to worry about the future of their franchises.

October 1929

The country begins to plunge into the Great Depression and sales at auto dealers across the country slowed. Decent sales of the Model A sustain many dealers.


The Mercury division is formed to fill the gap between economical Fords and luxury Lincolns.


Ford ceases civilian vehicle production at its plants to dedicate its resources to the Allied efforts in World War II.


Dealers begin selling the Ford F-series pickup, which would eventually become the industry's most popular vehicle.


Ford introduces its much heralded 410-horsepower Edsel, a sedan that was supposed to bridge the gap between the Ford and Lincoln-Mercury brands. It flopped in the marketplace, embarrassing Ford and its dealers.


Ford Credit is formed, which helped dealers provide financing to customers.


Ford forms Motorcraft division to sell auto parts largely through dealers.


Customers swamp dealerships to buy the new Mustang coupe.


Federal fuel efficiency standards are passed, affecting the sales of mid-size and large autos.


Ford introduces the Taurus, a modern sedan that gave dealers their strongest product to sell in years. It is the industry's best-selling car from 1992-96.


Dealers begin selling the Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle. Americans have purchased more than 4.7 million Explorers, generating huge profits.


Ford infuriates dealers by announcing it would invest in and operate dealerships. Dealers think Ford is trying to compete with them and possibly push them out of business in some markets.

April 2001

Ford launches controversial Blue Oval Certified program, an aggressive effort to improve customer satisfaction. Dealers complain Ford is trying to force change on them.

August 2001

Ford dealers are asked to help customers replace Firestone tires during Ford-Firestone tire controversy.

October 2001

Ford family scion William Clay Ford Jr. becomes Ford CEO and vows to repair dealer relations.

(Photo)1948 F-1 pickup


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