Selling cars, planning a community
Time honoree plays large civic role in N.C.
Mike Alford never planned to become a car dealer. He was a young banker, who ventured into auto retailing in the late 1990s when his father-in-law asked him to help run his store in Jacksonville, N.C.
The dealership was Marine Chevrolet-Cadillac in the shadow of Camp Lejeune, a 246-square-mile Marine Corps training facility on the Carolina coast.
The store, which Alford eventually took over, has long been exposed to the economic twists and turns of a town dominated by a military installation. Not only is it the youngest city in the United States, with an average age of 22.8 years because of the Marine base, but the population is apt to shift dramatically depending on global affairs.
While running the dealership, Alford also threw himself into the job of helping Onslow County cope with the fluctuations. For example, he played a key role in creating a master plan to manage local population growth as Camp Lejeune ramped up to meet the needs of fighting two wars.
It's been "a good, fun run," said Alford, who was recently named the 2013 Time Dealer of the Year in recognition of the civic duties he has taken upon himself.
But then Alford was always a problem solver. After graduating from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, he took an internship as a consultant for Coors Brewing Co. Working with underperforming beer wholesalers, he became fascinated with inventory turns and the proper use of shelf space -- knowledge that he would put to good use a few years later.
He then worked in accounting and credit analysis at regional banks in the South that were in the process of being gobbled up by industry giants. Throughout the early 1990s recession, Alford concentrated on helping extricate banking clients from various financial predicaments.
Meanwhile, Alford's father-in-law, Carl Ragsdale, had just turned 58 and was pondering the succession plan for his dealership in Jacksonville. He asked Alford to join him at a 20 Group meeting in Phoenix.
Alford agreed to go along and was intrigued, but was not quite ready to give up his banking career. For a year, he talked it over with Ragsdale. In the meantime he grew frustrated by the long-distance commute his banking job entailed, so Alford accepted Ragsdale's offer to join in the dealership.
He enrolled in the National Automobile Dealers Association Academy and worked in every department at this father-in-law's store.
"He let me run, he gave me space, let me skin my knees," says Alford. "It was invaluable experience."
In 1997 he acquired the dealership from Ragsdale. Alford was 33 and had a lot to do. For starters, the facility had been in place since 1946, and its location was no longer conducive to retail.
Plus, the local market was in tumult. Most of the Marines from Camp Lejeune -- tens of thousands of them -- had been shipped overseas in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, and the spouses who stayed at home weren't much interested in buying cars.
"We were coming out of Desert Storm, which had a devastating economic impact on the market," he said. "And I knew I would have to do something different with the dealership. It was in an older location, with a tough ingress and egress."
Alford moved the dealership across town, betting on an undeveloped wooded area with more favorable water, sewer and zoning regulations.
Later, Target, Lowe's and Toys-R-Us became neighbors, and eventually a cinema multiplex was built. Residential neighborhoods and schools also have sprouted up.
In the years since, sales at Marine Chevrolet-Cadillac have almost doubled, to 1,200 new Chevrolets and 105 new Cadillacs last year, and the store has outperformed state and national franchise indexes. The dealership, which is undergoing a $2 million renovation, has maintained a net profit-to-sales ratio near 4 percent.
Alford said the switch to auto retailing was the right move for him.
"You are maintaining control of all your inventories, whether it's new or used cars, parts or accessories, [even] your inventory of time relative to what the service techs are selling," he said.
Alford has introduced metrics-based management concepts picked up in his days in the banking sector.
A monthly "success index" measures such things as sales goals, customer service, training standards and collision repair sales as a percentage of estimates. If the dealership hits its overall index target at the end of each quarter, everyone gets a bonus.
Last year, after hitting the target in the first quarter, the dealership fell short in the second and third quarters. But Alford carried over the bonuses into the fourth quarter. So when the dealership performed well, the average employee payout was $475, on top of holiday bonuses.
"Everybody is a stakeholder, from the wash pit to the general manager," Alford said. "Succeeding as a team is as important as the monetary payout."
About one-third of Marine Chevrolet-Cadillac's work force are veterans.
"They are incredible professionals, and it makes for a vibrant work force," Alford said.
Two-thirds of the dealership's customers have some connection with the military.
"Our customer base are folks who are truly are defending our freedom and are under incredible amount of stress and dedication and sacrifice," Alford said. "There are folks on their fifth deployments of seven to 12 months over six years. Whatever we can do to support the military and their dependents during this time, it's more than a good business decision."
A big part of that responsibility meant helping the community cope with the growth of Camp Lejeune. He was part of a Chamber of Commerce effort that helped to formulate a plan in 2007 for handling a projected 12 percent growth in the population in Onslow County -- about 85,000 new residents.
"We spent 18 months on the regional growth management plan, dealing with everything from public safety to water and sewer to infrastructure to child care, education and recreation -- the whole gamut," Alford said.
From the 800-page report's 467 recommendations, local administrators have completed 76 percent of key items, he said.
In addition to his work with Camp Lejeune, Alford until recently was a member of the North Carolina Board of Transportation. He kept the statewide board in the loop on the camp's expansion to ensure that port and road infrastructure kept pace with growth.
"I am hoping we can carry this growth forward while maintaining green spaces, because we've had a lot of haphazard sprawl," Alford said.
Alford also has been part of several civic economic development organizations, and is also active with the Onslow County soup kitchen and Wounded Warriors efforts.
The Time magazine award has put Alford in a national spotlight, but he is quick to pass along credit.
"This award is a collective among our whole team," he said. "Everyone associated with Marine Chevrolet-Cadillac has equity in this award."
You can reach Mark Rechtin at email@example.com. -- Follow Mark on