CHAMPAIGN – Curley Lee says lessons he learned as a point guard for the San Diego Clippers helped him become a better car salesman.
Lee, who took over the Ford dealership in Champaign in August 2004, previously operated Courtesy Ford-Lincoln-Mercury in Danville for six years.
A Louisiana native, Lee started working for a dealership at age 16, played basketball for McNeese State University four years, then joined the San Diego Clippers for three years before continuing full time in the auto business.
Lee grew up in Jennings, La., and went to work for the Oustalet Ford-Lincoln-Mercury-Toyota dealership in town.
"I moved out of my parents' home when I was 16 to make a living for myself," Lee said. "Once I was 18, I started selling cars and sold cars through college. I was the first and only black salesperson in Jeff Davis Parish."
He enrolled in McNeese State in nearby Lake Charles, La., and studied business management. He played small forward and shooting guard for the basketball team all four years and was on a basketball scholarship the last two years.
His senior year, the team went 39-3, but was knocked out in the first round of the NCAA tournament by Providence.
After graduation, Lee got a tryout offer from the Clippers and made the practice team, which helped the traveling squad prepare for games. He also sold cars for Bill Barnett Chevrolet in Compton, Calif.
In 1980, Lee made the traveling team as point guard.
Lee said Coach Gene Shue gave him a different perspective on life.
"Like a bank account, you can withdraw only what you deposit," Lee said.
At the time, Lee thought he "had the world by the tail." But Shue helped him realize he had to create his own destiny.
"It caused me to change my work ethic and tuck away my ego," Lee said. "I stopped trying to sell folks something and just help them buy it."
Lee eventually had double knee surgery and left basketball for a full-time automotive career. He returned to Louisiana and worked for Bolton Ford in Lake Charles. He then went to Roundtree Automotive Group in Shreveport, La., for 11 years, working in every department of the dealership.
Lee left Roundtree to attend the National Automobile Dealers Association Academy in McLean, Va., and graduated in 1995. For the next three years, he was an interim operator for Ford Motor Co., handling stores that were losing money or in transition. It was his job to turn them around or liquidate them.
Lee took assignments in Natchitoches, La.; Winterset, Iowa; and Baldwyn, Miss.
"I liquidated the Iowa dealership, but made profitable the other two dealerships and sold them," he said.
In each case, he had the first option of buying, but none seemed right. Then Mike McDonald, an owner of Courtesy Ford-Lincoln-Mercury in Danville, died in November 1997, and Lee discovered the dealership and community that were right for him.
"It reminded me of the little town I grew up in," Lee said of Danville. "It had a hometown type of feeling."
In promoting his dealership, Lee often made commercials with humor, many having a basketball theme. Lee said his favorite commercial was a takeoff on the movie "Driving Miss Daisy" in which he donned a chauffeur's hat and his receptionist, Georgie Elmendorf, dressed as an older lady, purse in arm.
The ad touted the Lincoln Town Car, and as Lee spoke to the camera, Elmendorf got behind the wheel and took off.
The tag line for the commercial: "If Miss Daisy had a Town Car, she'd have driven herself."
When Marvin Hill retired as owner of Hill Ford in Champaign, Lee positioned himself to take over the franchise.
"It was a larger community," Lee said of Champaign. "It was the only Ford store in Champaign County and it had more opportunity written all over it. (With me) being a retired athlete, the opportunity to be around university sports was another attraction."
Lee considered operating both dealerships, but decided within 30 days to stick with one. The Danville dealership was subsequently purchased by J.R. Fregia.
Lee said he wanted to call the Champaign dealership Illini Ford, but there were "issues regarding the Chief." So he settled on the name Ford of Champaign.
Lee said he plans to keep the dealership where it is, at Carriage Center on South Neil Street, flanked by two Worden-Martin stores. He points out the dealership has been there a long time, it's close to the University of Illinois campus, and the city "is shifting Savoy's way."
Today, Ford of Champaign has 61 employees and an inventory of about 275 vehicles – 100 used and 175 new. Lee has brought in a new general sales manager, Pat Garner, who had worked with him in Louisiana. Lee also promoted Tom Keagle to service director.
Lee also hired a new secretary-treasurer, George Looney.
"He's a breath of fresh air. He's lightened up the atmosphere and is a pleasure to work with. It's now more of a family-type atmosphere. There's a family mentality, and customers can sense it," Lee said.
As for Lee's own family, he and wife Lori moved to Champaign's Devonshire South subdivision last September. They have a 5-year-old daughter, Lorin, and a 2-year-old son, Dustin.
Lee also has four other children living elsewhere: Michael Lee, a finance manager at Lexus of Tampa Bay in Florida; Seneca Lee, who lives in Shreveport, La., and works in the oil fields; Amanda Lee, a high school student in Moreno Valley, Calif.; and Solomon Lee, an 11-year-old in Moreno Valley who aspires to be "the next Michael Jordan."
Lee, 48, has a partner in the Ford of Champaign dealership: Hugh King of Phoenix, Ariz., who owns a 20 percent interest. King is not involved in day-to-day operations, but handles the buying and selling of used cars at auction.
"Our ambition is to grow to one of the largest Ford dealers in the Midwest," Lee said.
This year, Lee has moved into an additional line of work: motivational speaking and lecturing. He recently formed Leeology Inc., a sales training and motivational speaking company, and has so far spoken in Arizona, Louisiana and Illinois.
Both Ford Motor Co. and General Motors have found themselves in precarious times, with high gas prices battering demand for popular sport-utility vehicles. This year, Detroit's automakers have lost market share to imports and their profits have been dented by offering employee pricing to customers.
Lee was asked what he thought automakers should be doing differently.
"I'd like to see them building a product the American people want and let us concentrate on selling cars," he said.
Lee compared the automakers with Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys.
"Jerry had a dynasty – Troy Aikman at quarterback, Emmitt Smith at running back, Michael Irvin at wide receiver and Jimmy Johnson as coach," Lee said. "And Jerry couldn't stay in his box."
The mark of a good leader, Lee said, is to stay out of the way and let people do their jobs. And when it comes to sales, the automakers haven't done a good job with that.
"They want to build and sell. Now they've got everybody so rebate-conscious, it's taken the features and benefits of selling out of the selling process," Lee said.
"They've taken the strongest arm out of the fight, which is the dealer. A lot of good dealers are considering getting out of the business. The game has changed."