Walking into the showroom of Joe Cotton Ford in Carol Stream, the first thing visitors are likely to notice are multiple white banners hanging from the ceiling. Each banner carries the handwritten names of customers, followed by the number of vehicles these 800 individuals or families have purchased over the years, either for themselves or for the companies they own or represent.
As Dealer Principle Paul Cotton explained, he only intended to put up a handful of banners when he first started the project, but soon virtually every repeat customer wanted his or her name displayed. Now some people even have one or two numbers crossed out as they have continued to purchase vehicles.
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Auto Biography175 W. North Ave.
Carol Stream, IL 60188
Sales: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday.Service: 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday; 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.
The banners are a testament not only to customer loyalty at the 40-year-old dealership, but also to the way owners and staff at Joe Cotton interact with them.
Sure, the art of the deal is central to all transactions in the auto industry, but one gets a sense that things are a little different here. After all, what other dealership sports multiple displays of thank you letters next to a grand piano in its showroom?
Another difference that is immediately apparent is you won't find Cotton tucked away in a back office, out of sight. Instead, his desk is on a raised platform on the showroom floor, in plain view of everyone who walks in and on the side where vehicles come into the dealership's service department, allowing him to monitor traffic. Cotton likes it that way. Call the dealership and punch the numbers for the sales department and you'll often hear him answering the phone.
It's just one aspect of his hands-on management of the dealership his father Joe started 40 years ago.
"My father, who came here from Alabama, extremely poor, likes to say that he came here with the gift of gab," Paul Cotton said.
That gift of gab made Joe Cotton successful, but it's also something that he passed on to his son, who runs the dealership today. Ask those who know Paul Cotton well, and they'll tell you he's hands on with many different aspects of the operation, including driving customers to their homes or offices and then picking them up when mechanical work is finished.
"I've done this for the last five years, whenever I am here, and so does my father," Cotton said. "People are pleasantly surprised when they when they find out who is driving them to where they need to be."
Many, like longtime customer Dorothy Chappell, dean of natural and social sciences in Wheaton College's Science Division, looks forward to chatting with one of the Cottons when her car has mechanical work. "They do this service with a smile," said Chappell, who has purchased numerous vehicles throughout the years both for personal use and for the college's science field station in South Dakota.
"They're friendly, they're reliable and their work is outstanding," she said. "You can take your car in, have work done and drive away without worrying. Everyone has great attitudes. They're a wonderful representation of the parent company, Ford."
Chatting with people is one of the aspects of the car business that Cotton likes most.
"You meet all kinds of people because everyone buys cars," Cotton said. "Every single person has a story and I get to hear them everyday when I drive people home."
Exceptional people skills and a shrewd analysis of market conditions helped Cotton propel his dealership through the economic downtown five years ago. After hearing that other Ford stores in the Chicago area were beginning to experience the recession, Cotton instructed his staff to immediately reduce the number of vehicles on hand.
"Our turnaround actually started before the downturn," Cotton said. "We got our inventory down to $3 million from $6 million, so we already had fewer cars on the lot. I took our advertising down to nothing and our employees bought into a (temporary) pay cut."
Although Cotton wondered at the time whether he was doing the right thing, of the store's 54 employees, 28 have been here 10 years or longer. That number was higher a few years ago, but as Cotton is quick to point out, several longtime staffers have retired, paving the way for newer employees.
"When things were tough, we really had to be a big support system for our employees," Cotton said. "They're special, talented people and I rely on them because they know their jobs."
Like many sons who grew up in families where their fathers owned car dealerships, Paul Cotton began working at a young age, detailing cars when he was in eighth grade and working his way up from there. While some dealer's sons step away from the industry for a time, Cotton never did. Upon hearing a lecture when he was in college that indicated most people change jobs three times during their first seven years of employment, Cotton knew he didn't want to do that. He simply stayed with the family business after graduation.
"A lot of what my father told me in the '70s about treating customers and working the business properly still holds true today," Cotton said. "We often talk about how the business has changed. He and a partner put down $50,000 and borrowed another $50,000 to start this dealership. Today, it costs $50,000 to buy some of our vehicles."
Another element that has changed is the auto industry's move toward better fuel efficiency, including the use of hybrid engines.
"I love the C-Max Hybrid," Cotton said. "I drive one and for the first 10,000 miles, I was getting 114 miles on a gallon of gas and the last 4,000 I was getting 54, but that's because in the winter time, the battery doesn't last as long in cold weather and the gas engine kicks in.
Cotton says he also likes the Focus, Fusion and Escape in the brand's lineup.
"Ford has the right focus on these vehicles because they have the right styling and fuel mileage," he said. "Of course, we're also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Mustang, which has the most passionate owners out of any vehicle."
If Cotton is passionate about anything, it's about helping the community. Those who work with him indicate he has a mission.
"He really does care about kids a lot," said fleet manager Kim Schweppe, a 26-year employee who is responsible for moving about 100 vehicles per month through the dealership. "He is involved with a lot of organizations, allowing them to do (charity) car washes and participate in test-drive programs where these groups can earn money."
Cotton particularly likes the car washes because they are a team-building activity that results in fundraising and youth groups have fun while doing it. While many dealerships concentrate on only two or three organizations for their charity efforts, Joe Cotton Ford seems to spread the wealth around. For more than 25 years, the dealership hosted the annual party for the village of Carol Stream's Christmas Sharing Program, an event that Ford Motor Co. recognized in a 2009 video, congratulating the store for its commitment.
"That's another thing I really admire about them is their commitment to the community," Chappell said. "I've gone out in the past and helped with that Christmas party, jumping in and doing whatever they need."
The Carol Stream Park District has also benefited for years from donations from Joe Cotton Ford. Most recently, the dealership helped out the park district with a grant to install electric vehicle charging stations at one of its recreational centers.
"Their sponsorships have really helped us out across the board," said Kelly Carbon, Carol Stream Park District community relations manager. "He has donated money to us to reach out to populations that might not be able to participate in our programs. In the past he has been a very big supporter of the Just Play program. We value his partnership at the park district tremendously."
When he isn't in the dealership, Paul Cotton loves to travel, particularly abroad, estimating that he has visited about 20 different countries over the years. Many times, he and his wife have taken their entire family along, experiences he considers important to education and a well-rounded view of life. Give him a few more minutes and Cotton will tell you another story. With him the possibilities are endless.
True to form, Joe Cotton Ford is celebrating its 40 years in business in a manner different from most dealerships. This summer Joe Cotton will be the grand marshal of Carol Stream's Fourth of July Parade. An extended grand finale fireworks celebration, funded with a donation from the dealership, will cap off the day.