Long-Lewis Ford shares the history that laid the foundation for 100 years of successful business.
Written by Bill Mylius
What does it take for a competitive business to not only survive, but to thrive for a century? Vaughn Burrell, owner and CEO of Hoover’s Long-Lewis Ford, responds simply and with no hint of sarcasm: “History.” Because for Burrell, history is not just about time; it’s also about creating, nurturing, and continuing a culture that becomes a roadmap to success.
Long-Lewis Ford is celebrating its 100th year selling America’s original mass-appeal automobile to drivers in the Birmingham area. But its history goes back even further. After the turn of the century, William Long merged his ornamental iron business with Oscar Lewis’s hardware store to form Long-Lewis Hardware in Bessemer. Business thrived and in 1908, Long purchased Lewis’ share of the operation. In 1911, with Bessemer a vibrant and growing industrial city, Long-Lewis Hardware joined other town merchants in a business promotion to raffle a Model T Ford—new technology that, at the time, was often met with skepticism. For months, customers received raffle tickets with each purchase at a participating business, but when the drawing came in March, according to local legend, the winner was less than excited, concerned that the noisy vehicle would “scare my chickens so they won’t lay eggs” and worried about his safety if “it stopped on the railroad tracks while a train was coming.”
Sensing an opportunity, Long purchased the Model T from the winner and parked it in the wagon and buggy shed at his hardware store. He used the car for delivery and advertising until one Sunday afternoon when, as luck would have it, it did stall on railroad tracks and was promptly destroyed by a train. Long escaped both unharmed and undeterred in his quest to add Fords to the store’s line of wagons and buggies. Soon Fords were being shipped to Birmingham in box cars and selling for $680.
In 1915 Henry Ford began granting franchises to dealers, with one of the first going to Long-Lewis Hardware. Ford’s mass production techniques had dropped the price of a new car to $390 and by 1921, with demand soaring, Long expanded his hardware building to house his auto sales. In 1965, his Ford dealership moved to its own location on Bessemer Super Highway, where it remained until 1999, when Long-Lewis built a new 84,000 square foot facility on Highway 150 in Hoover.
For Burrell, his personal Long-Lewis history began in 1961 when he joined the dealership as general manager. “The thing about history is, you get a view of what to do and what not to do,” he says. “History teaches you lessons…you can see mistakes and missed opportunities, and you learn from it.” And learn he did. He grew with the company and in 1986 purchased the operation from the Long family. The dealership’s tradition of family ownership continues, with Burrell’s son, Dwight, serving as the president of Long-Lewis, and his grandson recently joining the operation in a sales position. “What we have is a culture that, I believe, has made us successful,” he says. “William Long used to say, ‘truth is a divine attribute and the foundation of every virtue,’ and he applied that philosophy to his business and personal life. It was the culture he instilled here. The Long family carried on that culture and so have I, and I have no doubt that it’s the reason Long-Lewis has enjoyed the success that it has since its founding.
He points with satisfaction to the relationship he’s enjoyed through the years with Ford Motor Co., noting that excellent professional relationships resulted in strong personal relationships with Ford executives. “I always tried to put myself in their position,” Burrell says. “If they needed help, such as placing more vehicles with me to meet a quota, I was happy to help. And they, in turn, were very good to me. When the opportunity came up to open a new dealership in Hoover, I was the one Ford approached.”
He has extended the same relationship philosophy to his customers. “There were plenty of times in the past, before the days of easy credit, when we went out of our way to help a customer…someone who needed a vehicle but didn’t necessarily have the credit or the means to acquire it,” he notes. “And that always comes back in a positive way. We have customers today who don’t live in this area, but who come here to buy from us because of the way we treated their grandparents, their parents, or their child years ago.”
The relationship element is even factored into the Long-Lewis compensation style. Burrell says most dealerships pay their sales personnel based on the profit made from a vehicle—the more profit, the higher the compensation. But Long-Lewis pays based on the number of vehicles sold, so “our salespeople are focused on serving our customers and meeting their needs, not negotiating with them. It creates a totally different dynamic.” And, according to Ron Parker, director of operations for Long-Lewis, it’s a dynamic that’s working. Not only is Long-Lewis Alabama’s first Ford dealership, it has won more Ford Motor Co. President’s Awards for customer service—based entirely on independent customer surveys—than any other Ford dealership in the nation. “We are always one of the top dealerships in the Southeast,” Parker says. “We’re a one-price dealer with the vehicle price marked clearly on the window. We have a large inventory with an average of 550 vehicles on the lot at any given time. We’re easy to work with, we have a great service department, we hire the right people, and we train them to do business the way we like it done. It’s that simple, and we have the Ford President’s Awards—and 100 years in business—to show for it.”