Thursday, April 16, 2015

Life Letters (March): Learning (The Automobile Business)

One night over Spring Break, I decided that my last topic for learning would be about cars/the car industry. It is obviously very near and dear to my heart and I figured the best way to learn would be to ask an expert in the subject. No better expert than my own dad who has eat, slept, and breathed the industry for his entire lifetime.

The conversation/lesson began with one simple question, and three hours later I had an abundance of knowledge and a lifetime of personal stories to last me forever. I will never be able to describe the importance or appreciation of the time spent with my dad, but I hope to convey in the paragraphs below the pride and joy I have for Henry Ford and for my own Papa Collins and dad for their role in this great industry that has allowed me so many opportunities in life.


The automobile as we know it was invented in Europe before the 1900's. Companies such as Peugeot, Cadillac, and Dahmler were forming. Then along came a farmer by the name of Henry Ford. In a time where horses pulled carts with supplies, the industrial era boomed, and cities rapidly built, the horse feces became a serious health problem for the cities. Cars were extremely expensive and considered only something the wealthy could afford.

And so it was Ford who decided to develop the assembly line in order to mass produce allowing the common man to own a car. Back then we paid $5 a day which was big money. Double the pay of any other company. He has such forward thinking for his time. He decided to have all of his resources onsite in order to cut costs and be able to pay higher wages. In the 1930's he developed the Rouge Plant in Michigan set along the Rouge River. Every natural resource came into the plant via the river. From Africa, iron ore traveled across the world through New York Lakes to Lake Michigan to the Rouge River onto the plant. This plant operated up until the 1980's.

Kentucky served to be a great location, specifically Louisville, as it was able to serve the Eastern, Southern, and Middle sections of the United States. With I-64 and I-65 intersecting through the city, it made getting supplies in and out a breeze. The labor force was much cheaper than Michigan years ago as well. So since the 1920's a Ford plant has serviced this area. First in the West End then near UofL's campus. Today the Kentucky Truck Plant makes 1,7000 trucks a day and nearly 3,000 Escapes a day.

Back to Henry. He had partners in the beginning because he was the inventor and needed business minds to help him. However they could see the potential and nearly hoodwinked him into taking over the entire operation. Among his dear friends however were fellow inventors Thomas Edison and Burrows. But as the U.S. economy began to take off, financiers and investors such as JP Morgan, Rockefeller, & Vanderbilt improved their trade. Burrows saw what Ford's business partners were trying to do so he set up a Class A (40% ownership) for the family and a Class B (for other owners). This set up still remains today making Ford one of the only *almost* family-owned private company in the world.

Ford was a humble man who blushed at wealth and fame. For years he lived in downtown Detroit until the recession threatened the safety of his family. So he built a home on the Rouge River next to the factory with a power plant adjacent via a tunnel to his home. Thus the entire home was powered by electricity thanks to his pal Thomas Edison's design. When it was all said and done, the home cost was double the budget making it a whopping $1.3 million project. One that Ford was forever embarrassed about as he had spent his entire life pouring every dime back into the company.

Henry Ford was born by candlelight. And when it came time for his life on Earth to end, a large storm took charge over the Rouge River cutting power & electricity. Therefore he died by candlelight. Entering and leaving the world the exact same way.


Ore Collins, my great grandfather, had a hard time keeping a job due to his drinking habits. Leaving my great grandmother and my Papa to support the family. They would rent homes for two months. The first month was free and the after second month (when you didn't pay) they kicked you out. After my great grandmother would save up for a few months rent, she decided to host boarders post World War I. They would get a little money from this and then Ore would buy some rare cars and sell them in the backyard. Usually to the boarders who were back from war looking for a vehicle. But when he would go on a bender, my Papa would sell the cars. He was 10 years old. Then when my Papa would  make extra money from cutting grass or helping neighbors, he would buy his own cars to sell. He was 13 years old when he bought his first car to sell. My Papa graduated from high school in 1947 1/2 (back then you graduated in half years if you were ahead of the class). He essentially "flipped" cars all through high school. He was a smart man. Talented too. He played the violin, mandolin, and tuba. He was offered a scholarship to UofL but it wasn't enough to cover all of the costs and his family couldn't afford the remaining tuition.

When he ran into Maurice Perkins (an entrepreneur in his 30's who owned gas stations, apartments, and a tavern that Ore frequented), my Papa was offered a job at Mr. Perkins' new Plymouth franchise. My Papa had a reputation around town for being a young kid with an old soul who was forced to grow up fast due to his family life. My Papa accepted the offer and the Perkins' who never had kids treated him as their own child until their deaths. Eventually Papa became the Used Car Manager and Vice President/General Manager after 10 years of working there. He held that position for 11 years.

In 1958 Mr. Perkins died. His wife took over and asked that Papa keep running the establishment with her brother Arthur (who ran the service department). In 1966 the East End was booming and people began expanding and moving there. He had great forward thinking and suggested a new location out there. But Mrs. Perkins developed cancer and quickly died.

Simultaneously, Burns Ford at Outer Loop bought out Gergler Motor's and moved to Bardstown Road. 3610 Bardstown Road to be exact. There was nothing around but farm land. The property was a novelty in its time. 8 acres. 7200 square feet. But their salesmen went on strike creating a union. So Burns shut down the store for 30 days. He forgot to consult his franchise agreement with Ford or an attorney. You couldn't just shut down a franchise. So from 1967-1968 the lot sat vacant while Ford looked for a new owner for the franchise. My Papa had a great reputation in the industry so he was approached by Ford to take over the franchise.

At 39 years old on December 1, 1969, Bill Collins Ford began its journey. He made a profit every single month from the start. His old partner, Arthur, had  no interest in going in on the opportunity with Papa. But he encouraged him to make the move and take this chance. My Papa said that he would not take one single employee from him. And over the first year, dozens and dozens of people called to ask for a job. My Papa never offered a single one. After a year, Arthur asked him to lunch. A monthly habit they had begun years before. He said, "Bill you have turned down every Perkins' employee who has come to you for a job." Papa replied, "yes I said that I would."

My Papa was a man of his word. He was a man of great integrity who always did the right thing. He was loyal. He was fair. He was incredibly talented and gifted and generous. He was passionate and loved everything about the car business. Essentially that is why he never really retired. My dad said it best, "it was incredibly comforting to know exactly what Papa was going to do. He was always going to do the right thing. And I have tried my best to emulate him and his characteristics throughout my life."

In 1977, he added Chrysler. Six months later Dodge. In 1984, he added Buick & Volkswagen as well as Downtown Ford. In 1988, Suzuki came along. And in 1989/1990 Chevrolet was opened. In 1996, he bought the property were Collins Auto Group resides today. I remember being a teenager walking onto this mega property were the ground work had just begun. And I thought to myself, this is huge. Not just the building. Not just the land. But what my Papa and my dad have built from their determination, passion, hard work, and dedication. And I was incredibly proud of the Collins name.

Our dealership is the largest square footage wise in the country, independently owned and operated. Many of the employees have been with the company since day one. We are family. During the last recession, my dad had to cut employees...from 300+ to 150. He said it was the hardest thing that he has ever done in his entire life. He gave them all packages so that no one would be without financial help cold turkey. And when things got better, he hired many of them back.

I don't know how my story unfolds but I hope that some day my children and grandchildren tell the type of stories that people tell about my Papa and my dad. They are two of the most remarkable people of their time. And I feel unbelievably lucky to call them my family.

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