Loyalty's rewards

  • Article by: TARA BANNOWTBANNOW@STARTRIBUNE.COM
  • Updated: March 2, 2010 - 5:28 PM

After more than 80 years of loyalty to the Chrysler brand, Mason Motors of Excelsior lost its franchise in the Chrysler bankruptcy. But the community rallied around the dealership, and it's reinvented itself by offering service for all makes of vehicles and selling used cars instead of new ones.

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Ryan Mason, left, and his father Bill Mason run Mason Motors, a fixture in Excelsior since the 1920s.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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When the letter arrived last May informing Bill Mason Chrysler Jeep in Excelsior that it was getting the corporate ax, the Mason family -- who had seen the business through 86 years of highs and lows, including the Great Depression -- felt a deep sense of betrayal.

"My grandpa and dad were so dedicated to Chrysler for so many years, passing up opportunities to have other franchises, it was kind of a shock," said Ryan Mason.

The Mason dealership, founded by the late Ray Mason in 1922 and now run by Ryan and his father, Bill Mason, was one of 789 in the country that Chrysler terminated during its bankruptcy, including 20 in Minnesota.

"Chrysler buried a lot of these guys," Ryan Mason said. "A lot of them had invested millions of dollars into these big huge stores that Chrysler told them they wanted them to have, and then Chrysler pulled the franchise and they're left high and dry."

The Mason dealership, fortunately, was not in that position: it had stuck to its modest showroom on Water Street rather than opting for the dramatic expansions the company was pushing on its dealers.

Having recently graduated from the University of St. Thomas with an entrepreneurial degree, 30-year-old Ryan Mason took an opportunistic view of the situation: He looked at it as a chance to reinvent one of the oldest businesses in the city.

Two months later, Mason Motors emerged with a non-Chrysler name, a new business plan and a different batch of cars on the lot.

The Masons expanded their service department to handle all makes and models, and went from selling new Chryslers to selling pre-owned vehicles, both domestic and foreign. The dealership, six employees smaller, has increased its sales volume and profit since the switch.

So far, the change has been a good one. In a franchise, the parent company's mistakes affect everyone, Ryan Mason said.

"Now, we create our own destiny."

The Masons' success in adapting their business attracted the attention of the South Lake-Excelsior Chamber of Commerce, which this week is awarding the company its 2010 Business Excellence Award.

'Kicked in the gut'

"I think everyone in town agrees that they basically got kicked in the gut," said Linda Murrell, the Chamber's executive director.

When word spread about the dealership losing its franchise, community members didn't take it sitting down. Many wrote letters to Chrysler headquarters protesting the decision.

And when the Masons went to work selling off the lot full of new Chryslers they still had on hand, some people who didn't even need a new car at the time stepped up to buy.

Wayzata resident Keith Anderson was one of those people. Although he'd already purchased more than 10 cars from the dealership, he bought a Jeep Commander to help out.

"They're going to stay in the car business because they have a lot of clients like me who do business at Mason Motors because of the Masons," he said. "I've been a loyal Jeep fan, but my loyalty is to people, not to the brand."

Anderson, a 63-year-old real estate broker, wrote a letter to the Chrysler company telling them in a "gentlemanly fashion" that he disagreed with their "bigger is better" business model.

He never got a reply.

The Chamber presents its annual award to a business that meets the needs of customers, delivers excellent products and services, distinguishes itself from the competition, empowers its employees and makes positive contributions to the community, Murrell said.

After the past challenging year, the Masons say they appreciate the recognition.

"To be able to go through the trying times, reinvent ourselves, get customers back and then get this award tells us, 'You guys did it and you did it right,' " Ryan Mason said.

Murrell, who has her vehicles serviced at Mason Motors, said the business has long been an anchor in downtown Excelsior, in every sense of the word -- from sponsoring the annual Fourth of July celebration to serving on the Chamber of Commerce and contributing through local tax revenues -- and it now is in a position to continue in that role, without the risk of being ruined at the whim of a giant multinational company.

"They [the Masons] had to step out on the edge and really take some huge risks," she said. "We are really, really glad they did."

A family affair

Back when Ryan Mason was a student at Excelsior Elementary School -- just two doors down from the family auto shop -- his grandpa would stand on the sidewalk and toss him a candy bar as he walked by each day.

It wasn't until he graduated from college in 2001 that Ryan officially began his career at the dealership as a sales associate, working his way to general manager about four years later. Though he grew up working in other jobs through high school, he said he always knew he'd go into the family business.

"I've never thought of doing anything else," he said. "I swear I was born with a Matchbox car in my hand."

Bill Mason, on the other hand, didn't give it much thought as a kid. He took over for his dad in 1963 when Ray Mason left to take care of Bill's mother as she battled cancer.

"Once I got my feet in the trenches, I just stayed there," he said. "This business is one that really gets into your blood."

Ray Mason had worked for the town's Ford dealer until 1922, when he opened his own repair shop with his brother, who eventually left because the carbon monoxide made him sick. The two started out selling Moon, Star and Durant automobiles before signing on with Chrysler in 1926.

When the Great Depression hit, "Everything came to a screeching halt," Bill Mason said. His dad got a job doing machining work for the federal government while continuing to repair cars for the few people who could still afford it. It was a rough time, but the business managed to stay afloat.

When the economy started to bounce back after World War II, Ray Mason realized that he was going to need room to expand. So he moved the business from its original location in the heart of downtown Excelsior to its current spot three blocks farther away from Lake Minnetonka.

Having been heavily involved with Chrysler's Twin Cities advertising association since the 1960s, including serving as president and treasurer, Bill Mason said the company's decision was especially disappointing.

Chrysler spokeswoman Kathy Graham -- though saying she couldn't comment on individual dealerships -- said the company was forced to reduce its dealer network as part of its bankruptcy reorganization. Profitability was not a major factor in the decision-making process, she said. Rather, each location was evaluated on certain criteria, including whether it was achieving what the company saw as a minimum sales number to remain viable. She described achieving that sales number as the equivalent of "kind of a D-plus in high school."

'Great dealer ... wrong location'

"With Chrysler, you have dealerships that have been in some areas for over 80 years," she said. "We had a lot of situations where they may have been a great dealer, but they were in the wrong location."

After Mason Motors came up with its new business plan, Ryan Mason sent out more than 5,000 letters to let the community know it was still in business.

"People were calling and saying, 'Thank God you're still there,' " Bill Mason said.

Even with all the community support, the day the dealership sold its last new Chrysler was a rough one, Ryan Mason said. He left long after dark that evening.

"I walked out, looked at the building, and was kind of like, 'Grandpa, I'm sorry. It's not my fault,' " he said.

"It was really out of my control. But you never want to let down a legacy."

Tara Bannow is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.

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