Bob and Steve Landers had sold cars together for two decades, but the time had come for father and son to part. The year was 1995, and Bob Landers was 65 and ready to retire.
Steve was ready, willing and able to take over the business - just not any debt.
Steve and Bob had worked hard to pay off loans and build equity in their two car dealerships in Benton, Ark. Understandably, Bob wanted to reap some of the rewards of his years of hard work, and Steve didn't want to go back into debt to buy the company.
Along came UnitedAuto Inc., which, Steve says, gave them 'more than fair market value' for the dealerships and gave Steve a job overseeing UnitedAuto's other South Central U.S. businesses, which include the two Landers stores and eight others in Tennessee, Louisiana and Arkansas.
The family's dealerships are Landers Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge-Jeep and Landers Oldsmobile-GMC Truck.
Steve Landers, 42 at the time of the sale, was ecstatic about the UnitedAuto offer. It gave his father a profitable 'out' and gave him a sensible 'in' - meaning he could stay in the car business without taking a step backward.
'This is all I've ever done; I wouldn't know what else to do,' he says. 'I've been in the car business since I was 17. I got married and joined the business the same year. I'm still married and I'm still in the car business.'
A HANDSHAKE DEAL
Landers says UnitedAuto Chairman Marshall Cogan wanted him to sign a long-term agreement, but Landers opted for a handshake deal.
'He offered me a contract, but I said that all a contract would say is that if he got tired of me, he could give me some money and I would go away,' Landers says. 'That's not right. If he gets tired of me, I shouldn't be there anyway.
'So, we struck a handshake deal. If I produce on my end, he'll produce on his end - that's how a lot of deals are done down here.'
Landers says he is pleased with the decision to sell and would do it again if he had the chance.
'Nothing big changed for me when we did the deal with United,' he says. 'Cogan doesn't tell me what to do. I run the business just like it's my business.'
That is not to say that UnitedAuto's vast resources, purchasing power and experienced management team in New York haven't helped Landers fine-tune the 10 dealerships he oversees.
'Each year that goes by, we're more and more profitable than the previous, thanks to United,' Landers says. 'Our profits are up 10 to 15 percent from last year, and it's just by better managing.
'We're a good combination,' he says. 'In the past, we probably sold through a lot of problems: We didn't really have the best defense; we just outscored (outsold) everybody. United has taught us how to run a defense: How to hold a profit on every sale, when in the past, sometimes we may have been giving it away.'
Landers says UnitedAuto officials have always been up front and honest, as well as fair, with him and his employees. In addition, the company's resources have helped fuel record growth, which, in turn, has helped many employees make the move to the management track, and many managers to the fast track.
'I didn't lose one employee from this sale,' he says. 'In fact, United has given a lot of people opportunities that I wasn't able to give. There's been a lot of growth - a lot of jobs and advancement for our group.'
Landers says 1995 was not the best time to be selling a car dealership. UnitedAuto was the only suitor lined up for a run at the Landers operations. The acquisition was UnitedAuto's second, but many more followed.
'I think the consolidation trend is going to continue,' Landers says. 'The big dealers are swallowing the smaller ones largely because of economies of scale.'
Big companies may be the wave of the future, but that doesn't mean that family-run dealerships are a thing of the past, Landers says, noting his 24-year-old son, Steve Landers Jr., has been working with him for six years.
'Steve Jr. started working for me when he was 18. He left college after six months - I guess he had learned everything he could,' Steve Landers Sr. says, tongue-in-cheek.
The senior Landers says he thoroughly enjoys working with his son and that he is confident that one day his son will be the running several car dealerships for UnitedAuto.
'United's looking out for his future, too.' he says. 'They've already sent him to two month-long management programs and paid him what he would have made if he were selling. ... He has a ways to go, but he's come a long way.'