BROOKINGS – The winter of ’68-’69 was a tough one for South Dakota.
For Ford sales rep Ron Einspahr it brought a tough decision that has taken him to where he is today: he bought the Brookings Ford dealership.
This year Einspahr Auto Plaza, which in retirement he still owns and where his son Matt Einspahr is general manager, is celebrating a half century of serving Brookings and the surrounding area.
Ron Einspahr grew up in Imperial, Nebraska. Following graduation from high school there, he attended the University of Nebraska (Lincoln), graduating with a degree in business in 1964.
He then worked for a J.C. Penney store for about six months, managing the men’s department. His next job was his entry into the industry that would be his life’s work: with the Ford Motor Company district office in Omaha in 1965. (Ford had 16 district offices and five regional offices.)
Einspahr was there for about four years “and then they put (him) out on the road calling on dealerships.” He did that for a year and a half, in a zone that covered east South Dakota dealers.
A road trip would take him from Omaha to Flandreau to Brookings to Clear Lake to Watertown to Clark, Doland, Redfield, down to Huron, then De Smet, Lake Preston, Madison and back to Omaha. He did that every week.
“I would get an objective of so many cars and trucks to sell and I would go out and sell them to my dealers,” Einspahr explained. “I had a quota that I had to get every month and that was it.”
“Sometimes it was easy and sometimes I was on my knees begging,” he said, laughing.
Then one day in the tough winter of 1968, 1969, the dealer in Brookings asked him, “Why don’t you just buy me out?”
“I think he was tired of the car business,” Einspahr said. “The pressure. Sales were down; it was hard. That was the year they were pouring milk out on the farm. They couldn’t even get to town to deliver milk.”
At the same time, he was being called by his boss and told he was not meeting his sales objectives.
“I tried to explain to him that if the farmers can’t even get their milk to town to sell it and all the cars on the dealers’ lots are covered with snow, how do you expect me to sell cars?” Einspahr said. “It was tough.”
The courage to try
At 28 years old and after consulting with his father-in-law, Robert Henderson, a CPA in Lincoln and president of the Nebraska Society of Certified Public Accountants, Einspahr “ended up buying the dealership.”
“I didn’t have the courage to try it,” Einspahr said. But he did; and it worked. He had 11 employees at the time; today the dealership has about 46 employees: 36 full-time and about 10 part-time.
And times have been good, except for what Einspahr called “the financial crisis of the 1980s.” It was tough for the car sales business, with interest rates at 20 percent or higher.
“That was the killer,” he added. “A lot of dealers went out of business. When I took over the business, we had about 333 new car dealers in South Dakota. After the ’80s, we were down to just a little over a hundred.
“I made it through; I don’t know how, but I did. I was close to losing it. It was that long and that tough.”
The dealership was originally downtown. In 1980, it was moved to its present location, 2020 Eighth St. S. At the time, the Brookings Mall was there; University Mall was not.
Einspahr had the Ford and Mercury franchises. About 1974, he added the Lincoln franchise; then came Chrysler, Plymouth and Dodge in 1984; and finally Jeep in 1993. The dealership has had both growth and staying power.
“I guess over the years 13 dealers have come and gone,” he said. “I guess we’re the only one left that was here in ’69.”
Changes and challenges
“Back then, almost everything was mechanical,” Einspahr said, looking back to changes in the automotive industry. “Today almost everything is electronic.”
He has plenty of praise for the dealership’s long-term employees – 20 to 30 to 40-plus years – who made the transition “from being mechanical technicians and keeping up with all the changes. I would say they’re now the equivalent of electrical engineers.”
“And they’re still doing it,” he added. “I’m just amazed.”
Of all the cars that have passed through the dealership, Einspahr’s favorite – albeit not a practical one – was the 1971 Lincoln Pantera, an Italian-made car imported to the United States and sold through select Ford dealerships.
They were hard to come by; but a Brookings physician wanted one and Einspahr got him one. The doctor owned it for several years. He then traded it and another car in and bought a new Lincoln. Einspahr kept the Pantera for a lot of years. Today he drives a Ford Taurus SHO (Super High Output), a high-performance model.
Matt Einspahr, who joined the company 31 years ago, sees incredible technology that keeps coming, “Things you never even dreamed of.” And he’ll be the one to meet the future of such things as fossil fuel challenges and climate change.
“There’s no question that the race is on with all manufacturers, not only to improve fuel economies, but to also find alternative sources,” he said.
“Ford has recently made an $11 billion commitment to hybrids, plug-in hybrids and what they call a BEV – a battery electric vehicle. There are seven to 10 of them that are going to roll out in the next five years. You’re seeing that happen with all of the manufacturers.
“The gas engine itself is changing and becoming something else. There’s long been talk of hydrogen and things out there. Certainly the electrification of the engine process is something that definitely is something to watch.” And Matt Einspahr will continue to be on the cutting edge of technology.
Now 50 years old and general manager since 2001, he has been a Brookings resident since he was 2 months old, when his dad bought the dealership. He cleaned cars while he was attending Brookings High School. Following graduation, he spent a year at the University of Texas (El Paso) and then attended South Dakota State University. He started selling cars while he was in college, did fairly well and enjoyed the income from it.
However, he admitted, “I never really came into it with the idea that I was going to be in the car business.”
He also also went through the year-long National Auto Dealers Association training program called Dealer Candidate Academy, which he called “probably about the best training out there as far as becoming a general manager or dealer.”
Throughout the process, he came to appreciate the career opportunities in an automobile dealership.
“It’s a fast-moving business so there’s always something different happening,” he explained. “Every day is different.” And he loves the interaction with people – both customers and the team at the dealership.
“We’ve got a great bunch of people,” he added. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
More women in the industry
Matt Einspahr noted that while the automotive industry has been male-dominated, now more women are coming into it.
“We have women all over the dealership now, which is fantastic,” he said. He has two daughters: Hannah, a senior at BHS, and Claire, a sophomore. He encourages them to get involved in the business.
“Both have worked at the dealership some, especially a lot of hours during the summer months,” he said. “Even in the winter, they put in some part-time. I want to get them exposed to it, to see if they do have an interest in it. If they have an interest in it, that’s fantastic; if they don’t, that’s great as well.”
For his part, Ron Einspahr credits a big part of the business’s success to Jonnie, his wife of 53 years, who holds degrees in English and computers.
“When we had to move into computers for everything, she was our hardware and software IT person,” he explained. “She did that for about 20 years. She saved our lives in moving us into the new (computer) age. She’s been my good advisor for all 53 years. She deserves a whole lot of credit for what’s happened here.”
Contact John Kubal at [email protected]