The grass in east Texas literally is greener this summer.
That has been good for business at Elder Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram, a store in Athens, Texas, that dealer principal Hayden Elder opened nearly 30 years ago. The milder, wetter weather this year means that cattle ranchers don't have to move their animals out of town to graze, says Elder, 58.
Ram pickup sales are brisk, including the fully loaded Laramie Longhorn model. Athens is about 80 miles southeast of Dallas.
Elder, who sold 576 new vehicles in 2012, is a member of the National Chrysler Dealer Council and is a fixture on the Texas and national rodeo circuits. His son Forrest, 24, is a calf roper on the professional circuit and his daughter Ashton, 26, used to barrel race.
Rodeo participants, Elder says, are avid truck buyers. "How can I say this without offending anybody: When I smell horse poop, I smell money."
Elder spoke with Staff Reporter David Barkholz about selling in truck country.
Q. How's business?
A. Truck sales are good. But I'm selling more of my ancillary products, too. The Jeep product is hot. The Dodge Avenger and Chrysler 200 are hot. You can go all the way through the lineup. The Journey. Since 2009 and 2010, our products have just gotten exponentially better.
What does it mean to be in truck country?
Take a look at what people do out here. I live in a town that has some industry. We're not totally cut off from civilization. But when you get in the rural country, people throw hay. They're ranchers. They're farmers. They're cattlemen. We're in the hotbed of all that in east Texas.
And I will tell you that it's been the mildest July I can ever remember. And it's as green as I've ever seen it in July. This time of year the grass is normally burning and we're bringing in round bales and square bales to feed our horses and our cows. I've got horses grazing in my pasture right now.
How has that affected sales?
It hasn't hurt it. We're still making up for two years ago when it was 100-plus degrees for 47 days in a row.
Who's buying your cars?
We've done a good job of selling trucks. And it's not like Chrysler didn't have good cars before, but now we've got great product. Look at the Grand Cherokee. We had a used-car pricing meeting this morning. I have one Infiniti, one Lexus, two Mercedes and a Porsche in stock. People traded them for a Jeep, truck or whatever. Mind-boggling.
So these ranchers are buying trucks for work and a Jeep to take the family to church on Sunday?
A lot of them are buying the Laramie Longhorn, which is a $60,000 truck. If you look at the amenities, it has air conditioning, nice leather captain's chairs, chilled seats, heated steering wheel, stereo and nav system. It's an office on wheels.
These guys make a lot of money. You look at bankers. Their offices are nice. For these people, their trucks are their offices and they want them to be nice.
What percentage of your truck sales are the high-end models?
We sold 338 trucks last year. Of that number, I'd guess 30 percent are Laramie Longhorns. You'd be shocked.
Let me give you an example. We had a lady call us last week whose check engine light had come on for the second time. She's one of the top 15 [rodeo] barrel racers in the country.
She was up in Cheyenne, Wyo., competing. She had bought two trucks from us previously. So we sell her a new truck. Take her used one on trade. Her kids swing by here to pick up the new truck. And they drive it up there to her.
She won one of the races and took second in the other. She just sent me a note thanking me for the new truck. That's how business gets done.
You have had a longtime association with rodeos. How has that worked out for you?
My daughter Ashton started with a horse in 1997. She started with equestrian, then turned to barrel racing. My son Forrest has been calf roping since he was 12. He's on the pro rodeo circuit. He's trying to earn enough money to be rookie of the year.
Are you sponsoring him or is the dealership?
What's the difference? Look, he's making his own way. He's Forrest Elder, not Hayden Elder's son. There are no markings on his truck other than the Elder Dodge mudflaps. It's a low sell.
Like social media?
I've been associated with Ram Rodeo since its inception. Everybody on the rodeo circuit knows our kids, knows I'm a Ram dealer and knows Ram Rodeo. It's gotten us known all over the country. We just got a text the other day from a customer who was in Arizona who said he saw an Elder Dodge truck with our mudflaps go by.
How many trucks have you sold because of your rodeo connections?
I really don't have a clue. It's huge, though. In November and December, we sent six trucks into Mexico because of rodeo people. Ram Rodeo really is one of the biggest grass-roots marketing programs ever in the car business. It started in 1981-82. It's very big. I'm guessing 800 rodeos a year. They do a really good job supporting dealers. Ram owns the rodeo business.
And every participant needs a truck?
They're certainly not hauling around a horse trailer with a Toyota hybrid. And most aren't small trucks. The majority are one-ton duallies [with four back wheels]. Social media are going to come and go. You have Facebook. You have Twitter. Ram Rodeo is a hands-on deal.