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Howard Cooper's lessons for rewarding employee, customer loyalty

Ryan Beene is a West Coast reporter for Automotive News.

Michigan dealer Howard Cooper generously decided to cap his career by awarding employees with $1,000 for each year of service.

And as a customer of the dealership, the act didn't surprise me one bit. I bought my first, and only, new car from Howard Cooper Honda in 2008. My parents were longtime customers of the dealership, too. Why? Because of how well the dealership and the staff treated our family.

That's all well and good, but it's also good business -- and a lesson for how a dealer can retain generations of loyal customers.

I grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich. When I was a kid, my parents owned a 1993 Accord sedan that they had serviced at Howard Cooper. After a few years and about 50,000 miles, they took the Accord to the dealership for scheduled maintenance. I remember being in the service lobby, waiting for the car to be done when the service manager told my parents some bad news.

The manager said the clutch was shot. My folks knew it wasn't, and told the manager. But the manager was concerned that the car was unsafe with the clutch slipping as much as his technicians said it was.

Eventually, he relented, but not before making a promise.

"He said, 'OK. I think the clutch is bad. You can take the car home, but when you come back to have it replaced -- whenever that may be -- we'll fix it and we'll pay for half,'" I remember my dad saying, recalling what the manager told him.

It turned out that the clutch was fine after all. (We think the tech was trying to drive it up the service ramp in third gear or something like that.) The old Rosewood-colored Accord soldiered on for another ten years or so, racking up at least 100,000 more miles along the way.

Finally, after I had inherited the Accord as a college student, the clutch finally broke down.

We took the car back to the dealership to have it replaced. And ten years later, the dealership put in a new clutch -- for half price. They kept their promise.

During those 10 years, my parents had all their new vehicle maintenance done at the dealership, and bought another Accord from Howard Cooper. When I got my first job, I bought my first car from Howard Cooper, too. Just goes to show what keeping promises can do, even if that one deal is a money-loser.

I must admit I was a little saddened to hear that Howard Cooper was selling his dealership to Germain Motor Co. of Columbus, Ohio. I never met Howard Cooper. But his staff exposed me at a very young age to the right way to do business.

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