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."