Selling Fords in a small town

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Selling Fords and Mercurys is in Bill Brown's genes. Mr. Brown is the third-generation member of his family to operate the Ford dealership in Muncy, Pa., a small town in the north-central part of the state.

He traces his Ford family connection to his grandfather, Jacob Murray, who bought the business in 1939. Mr. Brown took over when his father retired about four years ago.

"My grandfather had several other businesses-a soft-drink business, a milk distributorship and other interests," Mr. Brown says. "He was industrious, an entrepreneur who was looking for a new opportunity."

The Ford garage, as dealerships formerly were known, had operated in Muncy as Wolff & Welliver Motors since its founding in 1923. With this history, the dealership-now called J. Murray Motor Co.-ranks as the oldest continuously operating Ford franchise in Pennsylvania's Lycoming County, and one of the oldest in the U.S.

Currently, Ford Motor Co. markets its vehicles through 5,200 owner-dealers across the nation, but dealerships in small communities are a different breed from their big-city counterparts.

In a town like Muncy, with a population of 2,700, the Ford franchisee typically is a respected community leader, a key resource supporting the town's vitality and culture. The owner-dealer usually serves on local school boards and chambers of commerce; he sponsors youth activities and supplies cars to local government, to community charity raffles and to schools for drivers' education; and he performs other civic duties.

Three generations of Mr. Brown's family have carried out these roles in Muncy, a rural community about 90 miles north of Harrisburg. Set amid the thickly forested foothills of the Alleghenies in northern Pennsylvania, on the banks of the Susquehanna River's west branch, Muncy originally was a prosperous hub for the lumber industry. Trees from the nearby hillsides were cut into logs, hauled to town, then floated on the river to mills downstream. When it was incorporated in 1827, Muncy had seven stores, five taverns and 100 dwellings for its 500 citizens. Over the years, several large grist and woolen mills and industrial equipment factories in the area also provided employment for residents, but those jobs have dwindled to a precious few.

Today, Muncy's two largest local employers are healthcare provider Susquehanna Health Systems in Williamsport (the county seat, located 13 miles to the west) and a nearby federal prison. The town also serves as a base for outdoor enthusiasts, who come to the area for fishing, boating, hiking, hunting, cross-country and downhill skiing.

Back in 1939, though, Muncy was a bustling commercial center, and Mr. Murray spotted a good business prospect in a dealership selling Ford and Mercury cars and trucks to the region's growing population. However, he passed away after operating the franchise for only four years. In 1943, his wife, Carrie, took over, at a time when women franchise owners were rare indeed. She kept the dealership going throughout World War II, even though no new cars were produced between 1942 and 1946.

By that time, Ray Brown had returned from wartime military service, married Jacob and Carrie Murray's daughter Pauline and joined the family business. Mr. Brown soon became general manager, running the dealership for Mrs. Murray, while she oversaw the business.

"The dealership always was a family operation," boasts Ray Brown, who is now 84. "When my mother-in-law decided to retire in the mid-'60s, my wife and I bought the franchise from her. And in 1971, Pauline came to work in the dealership, too-to keep the books. She was in charge of the business office until just a few years ago."

Meanwhile, when the Browns' two daughters and two sons reached high-school age, they too pitched in at Murray Motors, performing tasks ranging from washing cars to helping in the service department during the summers and school vacations.

"Then, when I was in college, I moved up to selling cars and trucks," recalls son Bill. "After I graduated, I took over the service department for about six years, then I moved into sales. My brother, Ray Jr. (known as Sonny) worked in sales from '86 through '98."

Bill Brown, now 50, is dealer-principal at J. Murray Motor Co., the franchisee for both Ford and Mercury vehicles for Muncy and several surrounding towns. Year after year since the 1960s, the dealership has won sales awards for a franchise of its size, with light trucks always its best-selling vehicles.

To support its sales, the dealership has added new media to its marketing arsenal, but basic marketing methods haven't changed much since the family assumed ownership back in 1939. Sure, Murray Motors now advertises on cable TV as well as on the radio and in local newspapers, and the company added outdoor boards to the mix a few years ago. In addition, the franchise now markets over the Internet, with a Web page that provides information (including business hours and details on all of the vehicles and parts in stock) and enables prospective buyers to contact the sales department.

But selling cars and trucks in a small community is still retail marketing, and civic involvement remains a vital part of the mix. In 1956, Ray Brown organized and began annual sponsorship of a Muncy Little League team; the Murray Motors team still takes the field each summer. Little League is the focus of heightened attention in this part of the country, since nearby Williamsport is the birthplace of Little League Baseball and the site of the annual Little League World Series.

Mr. Brown also was involved in the local merchants' association, the Jaycees and other volunteer organizations. In addition, he began furnishing cars for drivers' education and donating cars to be used as prizes for fund-raisers for the local high school, hospital and other nonprofit causes.

His son Bill continues all of those traditions, plus he serves on the local school board and the local bank's board of directors.

Will the tradition of family participation in Murray Motors continue to the fourth generation? Well, Bill Brown's three daughters are now teen-agers, and other great-grandchildren of Jacob Murray are waiting in the wings. Only time will tell.

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