The biggest difference between running an automobile dealership in a small rural community and a large metropolis is the relationship between the dealer and the customer, said Patrick "Pat" Darlington, general manager of Performance Chevrolet in Parsons.
"I worked for a dealership in Martinsburg and it was more like dealing with numbers than people. A customer would come in to talk about buying a vehicle and we wouldn't even know his name. Even if we sold him a vehicle, he would walk out the door and more than likely, we wouldn't remember his name. It's different here. When we sell a customer a vehicle here in Parsons, or to anyone in our market area, the deal becomes a lasting relationship. I like and enjoy that personal relationship with our customers - we know them by their first name. We are always joking with our customers. Most of the time we talk about hunting and fishing for 45 minutes and five minutes about a car deal."
Darlington continued, "When you sell a customer a vehicle here in this community, you live with it for the duration of the life of the vehicle or until he gets rid of it. We live with our customers in the same community. We see them on a daily basis - at Sheetz, the grocery store, in church and at social gatherings. It's an ongoing, continuous relationship. As long as we keep our business ethical, honest and above board, we don't have a problem doing that. We make a special effort to do that."
SEALING THE DEAL — General Manager Patrick “Pat” Darlington checks the paperwork of a recently completed car sale. Prior to the Darlington family’s purchase of Performance Motors, he worked as a manager in a new and used car dealership in Martinsburg.
When asked what he felt was the difference between his dealership and others of similar size, Darlington replied, "I feel strongly that the customer-dealer relationship is the most important aspect of establishing and maintaining an automobile business. I cannot, of course, speak for other companies, but we make customer satisfaction a priority. We focus very heavily on that, and I think we do a good job of it. We avoid, at all cost, treating our customers as numbers. Our slogan is, 'It's all about service.' And that's something we live by."
According to Darlington, Performance Motors has 15 full-time and two part-time employees. "Our employees are happy and satisfied with their jobs. One of them has been here for over 22 years," he said. "He was here when the company was still Lambert Motors. We have a very low employee turnover rate and we pride our selves in that. Not only do we provide a sizeable economic contribution to the community through our payroll - we are one of the largest employers in the community - we also participate in as many community activities as possible.
"We take special pride in and are very fortunate to be able to support the many youth activities such as boys and girls softball and baseball leagues," Darlington said. "We purchased all the miniature footballs for the Tucker County High School cheerleaders to throw out during this year's football games. We either help sponsor or contribute to not only the Tucker County Fair but also those in the surrounding counties," he said.
"We also try to help over in Randolph County each year with the Mountain State Forest Festival by providing the car for the queen and her family to use during the week of festivities. We participate in the American Cancer Society's annual Relay for Life fundraising activities and United Way. We are especially pleased to contribute to the Tucker County Endowment Foundation, which raises money for scholastic scholarships in this county. We donated a car for their raffle this year as a way to help them raise money.
"Another program that we are especially proud to support is the 'Take a Child Shopping at Christmas,' sponsored by Fraternal Order of Police. We donate $250 for each child in this program.
"Like all other businesses," Darlington said, "we consistently help charity fund drives. We donate as many as 10 oil changes and detailings each month. We also support the Leaf Peeper Festival and the annual health fair at Canaan."
When asked how his company differs from those dealerships that lost their new-car franchise because of General Motors' restructuring, Darlington said, "I believe it is because of our market penetration. They (GM) look at a dealership and ask, 'What is your market area? Have you and are you now taking care of your market or is someone from the outside taking care of it?'
"We have always received superior ratings in this area," Darlington said. "If there were 10 Chevrolets sold in Tucker County, we sold 10 of them. On the flip side of that, they look at what markets we are penetrating. We have experienced a great deal of success in this area, too."
Darlington said that he believes that General Motors will "stick with" their decision to withdraw the new-car dealerships from more than 1,600 smaller dealers. "I think their structure as it now exists is what it will be in the future," he said.
Darlington said that he feels that hard work and customer service are the two things that have helped his company penetrate other markets as well as be successful in his own. "We do as many convenience services for our customers as we can. We have many customers from the Elkins area where our service manager, sales manager and sales representatives live. They bring as many of our customers' vehicles from that area here for servicing as possible, saving them precious time for the many other things they have to do. Our philosophy is, 'If you can't come to us, we will come to you.'
"Having a dealership in a rural, mountainous setting presents some unique challenges," Darlington said. "The greatest challenge throughout our market area of Tucker, Barbour, Randolph, northern Pocahontas, Grant and Pendleton County is expanding our customer base. This is due in large part because of our winding, two-lane highway system. To overcome this obstacle we have to provide special customer care and satisfaction to get and keep our customers coming to us.
"We have been fortunate during this period of economic downturn in that we haven't experienced a slowdown in business that so many others have," he said. "Our sales have very nearly held their pre-recession level for both new and used vehicles. We are now beginning to see an increase in sales, especially for pre-owned vehicles. One reason for this is that we haven't had any trouble getting financing for our customers - that was never difficult for us. We deal with the local banks and they have worked well with us. Local bankers know their customers just as we do."
When asked if he has experienced an increase in work in his service department during this economic downturn because of people doing more repairs on the car they have rather than going into debt for a newer model, he said, "We have seen a tremendous increase in our service department, yes, but I don't think that's the primary reason - although it's hard to tell. The demand on our service department has been about the same since we bought the business, but when Tygart Valley Motors over in Elkins shut down, we saw a tremendous increase in service requests. I have no way of knowing what they might be thinking with regard to the purchase of a later or new vehicle, however."
The company was established in the late 1920s or early 1930s as Lambert Chevrolet. In 1987, the name was changed to Performance Motors. The Darlington family assumed ownership of the company in June 2007. Gene Darlington, Pat's father and senior member of the company, was a magistrate in Martinsburg.
"I was beginning to see those that came before me as a number rather than a person," Gene said. "I knew it was time to do something else. The opportunity here in Parsons presented itself just at the right time and here we are."