Local business celebrates milestone in city

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published March 23, 2016

 A new mural painted on the windows of the dealership facing Greater Mack and Nine Mile Road shows the progression of Ford vehicles through the decades.

A new mural painted on the windows of the dealership facing Greater Mack and Nine Mile Road shows the progression of Ford vehicles through the decades.

Photo by Kristyne E. Demske

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — Ford was just beginning to ramp up production of personal vehicles in 1946, after a break to make tanks and military vehicles during World War II, when Roy O’Brien Ford opened its doors on the corner of Nine Mile and Mack.

Roy O’Brien opened the dealership with no new vehicles, just a handful of used vehicles and 10 employees. Seventy years later, his grandchildren are running the business with 400 new vehicles, another 80 used cars and trucks, and 108 employees.

And technically, points out Mark O’Brien, the chairman of Roy O’Brien Ford, they are into their fourth generation at the dealership. His son is set to come on board this May in a manager training program to eventually take over from the third Roy O’Brien to work at the dealership — the grandson of its founder and the current general manager.

“My dad had a favorite saying,” said Mark O’Brien of Roy O’Brien Jr. “Make sure you have a great product to sell, fantastic people to help you sell it and a great community in which to do it.

“We hit the jackpot. We have all three.”

The founder of Roy O’Brien Ford had a son, named Roy O’Brien Jr., and two daughters. Roy O’Brien Jr. took over the reins from his father and went on to have seven children — five of whom still work at the dealership: John is the warranty parts manager, Mark is the chairman and past general manager, Roy is the general manager, Amy O’Brien (Kravitz) is the co-sales manager with Dan Maison, and Maureen O’Brien (Bratto) is the new vehicle sales consultant. Two other sisters do not work at the dealership.

While their mother is still alive, Roy O’Brien Jr. died the day before his 81st birthday, six years ago. 

Mark O’Brien said his grandfather chose St. Clair Shores for a simple reason — he lived in the city.

He said his grandfather bought a house in St. Clair Shores in 1945 and had just been hired to be a regional sales manager for Ford. But when he got his assignment, it was in Dearborn. Roy O’Brien wasn’t too happy to be on the road so much with a young family, so when the automaker offered him the opportunity to open his own dealership, he took it, scraping up $50,000 of his own money to get it off the ground.

The location on the corner of Nine Mile Road and Greater Mack Avenue, with room around the business to expand, has been a key to its success, Mark O’Brien said. The dealership is embarking upon a large expansion and renovation that will span the rest of 2016 and into 2017 to bring the parts department into the service department, open up bays to allow service customers to drive right in, and also include an indoor new-vehicle delivery area. 

“We’re trying to build a more efficient dealership,” Mark O’Brien said. 

A key to success has been the support of the community — which the dealership, in turn, supports — and the employees Roy O’Brien Ford hires.

“We try to hire people we would like to have over for dinner,” Mark O’Brien said. And they live by another of his father’s sayings: “Always treat customers better than they expect to be treated.”

He said they like the community feel of St. Clair Shores and do their best to support that, with events like the Nautical Ride community bike ride begun by the dealership in 2015 and sponsorship of events big and small in St. Clair Shores, from the Memorial Day Parade to the fireworks to the Harper Charity Cruise. Mark O’Brien is the president of the 9-Mack Merchants Association, which will host its 22nd June Fest on the first Saturday in June, and in September, the dealership is planning on “Rockin’ the Shores” with a new event featuring bands and a couple dozen craft brewers. Tickets will be on sale for that event in the next few months.

St. Clair Shores Mayor Kip Walby said a successful community is bolstered by a successful business district, and Roy O’Brien Ford anchors the city’s “downtown.” 

“They’ve been just such a great community sponsor,” he said. “They’ve employed, over the years, I would think hundreds of St. Clair Shores residents. Having St. Clair Shores residents work there and have careers there, it’s just been a pillar of the community.”

Walby said he’s happy to see generations of O’Briens continue to prosper in the family business as well.

“You see not only 70th anniversary, but you see expansion coming,” he said. “They’re going to be here on Nine Mile and Mack for a long time and committed to St. Clair Shores, and so that’s great to see.”

The dealership spent the middle of March celebrating the anniversary with employees and expanded the celebration to city leaders and Ford dignitaries during the last week of the month, when they planned to have a giant cake in the shape of “70.”

Mark O’Brien said they hope to keep their father’s and grandfather’s spirits alive as the dealership moves into its eighth decade in the city. 

“Hopefully, he would be happy with what he sees,” he said of his father.

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