By Patrick McCallister
For Hometown News

DELAND – In 2009 Kaiser Pontiac Buick GMC got word that it wouldn’t be a General Motors dealership anymore. Kaiser was one of about 1,000 GM dealerships given discontinuation notices as the Detroit automaker shed dealerships during a bankruptcy. But Kaiser fought the discontinuation notice and won.

“We got reinstated,” General Manager Deric Kaiser said.

That was in November.

“We had two years in limbo, Mr. Kaiser said. “I had to beg, borrow and steal to get inventory, and pay a ransom for it. We had to fight, but we’re here.”

Had Kaiser fallen prey to the bankruptcy and a huge downturn in the automobile market, the area would have lost not just a car dealership, but a long-time family-run business.

April, 1966, Freddy and Helen Kaiser open a GM dealership at the corner of New York and Florida avenues. They had no idea their dealership would have to survive an Arab oil embargo in the ’70s, the rise of import cars in the domestic market in the ’80s, $4-a-gallon gasoline in 2007, followed by the current recession, a government program to get older cars off the road, and the GM bankruptcy and reorganization.

“We’re the oldest dealership in Central Florida, bar none,” said Mr. Kaiser, who’s now general manager of Kaiser Buick GMC Trucks. The Pontiac is gone.

“They started in Downtown (DeLand),” he said of his grandparents Freddy and Helen. “They had a one-car showroom and two service bays.”

The son of a Palatka grocer family and the daughter of a car-dealership family, Freddy and Helen knew they’d be selling either avocados or autos. The picked the latter. The couple did well enough to buy land and build at 1590 S. Woodland Blvd. at the corner of Spring Garden Avenue. They stuck to selling cars, and passed down the dealership. There has always been several family members working at the dealership.

“They were there until they built this building,” said Mr. Kaiser. “I cut the ribbon. I was 3, so it was ’71.”

The business of the car business has changed a lot since 1966, according to Mr. Kaiser. Consumers have more access to information and competitors – oftentimes as they stand on the Kaiser lot, thanks to smart phones. That’s made for a savvier customer who’s got a pretty good idea how much a dealership has invested in a car, what a trade -in can go for, and what deals others will make.

“They want someone who knows what they’re doing,” Mr. Kaiser said. “It’s a lot about the money. They’ll drive if you’re willing to deal.”

Mr. Kaiser explained that customers using instant access to information about cars, and to consumer reviews about dealerships, have created a market that increasingly favors the friendly car seller.

“In the ’60s, ’70s, it was a 20-percent markup,” Mr. Kaiser said. “That’s gone. You’re lucky if you get a one or two percent markup. You buy a $20,000 vehicle, we’re lucky if we made $400.”

Which means that to prosper a dealership must make customers return for decades. Mr. Kaiser noted many dealerships that used extensive television advertising and high-pressure tactics are gone. He said their dependence on lots of single sales with few return customers was doomed by the Internet age.

But a personal touch will never go out of style and Mr. Kaiser believes that is one of the keys to his family’s business success.

“Every customer who buys a car here meets a Kaiser,” Mr. Kaiser said.