Central Cadillac looks a lot like any other dealership whose owners have complied with General Motors’ efforts to standardize the appearance of its luxury brand stores. Outside, there’s the limestone facade. Inside, there’s the cherry woodwork and an Italian-tile floor so highly polished it reflects the undersides of cars. Nothing mars the perfection in which a gleaming SRX crossover vehicle, a CTS sport wagon and a pair of CTS coupes are displayed.
But Central Cadillac isn’t a replica of its competitors in, say, the affluent suburban neighborhoods of Beachwood or North Olmsted. The owner, 67-year-old Frank Porter,
shows off a 65,000-square-foot Midtown Corridor facility with a spotless 105-bay service area and body shop, even a little coffee shop that serves soups, sandwiches, salads and daily specials. It has remained at the same location – 2801 Carnegie Ave. -- through the urban unrest of the 1960s, the urban blight of the ’70s, the Cadillac name’s loss of luster in the 1980s and 1990s, and the recent economic downturn. He estimates the business has sold 144,000 Cadillacs during its 70-year association with the brand. According to Cadillac zone manager Doug Susitko, Central Cadillac was 53rd out of over 900 U.S. dealerships in new-car sales for 2011.
“It’s an institution!” the reserved Porter declares with uncharacteristic zeal.
Lou Vitantonio, president of the Greater Cleveland Automobile Dealers Association, agrees, not only because of Central
Cadillac’s longevity but because of its continued family ownership.
“To get a dealership to a third generation is extremely rare, not only in northeast Ohio but in the country,” he says.
Frank Porter comes from a family that knows how to get through hard times. His maternal grandfather, George Lyon, opened Central Chevrolet with a loan from General Motors at E. 70th Street and Euclid Avenue – the “automobile row” of the time – one day before the stock-market crash of 1929.
“He worked very, very hard,” Porter says. “The dealership was open from six in the morning until 12 at night. It became one of the largest Chevrolet dealerships in the state of Ohio.” Lyon’s association with Cadillac began 13 lucky years later during World War II, when GM asked Lyon to temporarily assume distributorship responsibilities for its luxury brand in Northeast Ohio. When the war ended, GM offered him a more permanent deal: He could have Cadillac’s Northeast Ohio distributorship if he built a state-of-the-art dealership in downtown Cleveland.
Central Cadillac opened in 1949 with Porter’s father, Frank Porter Sr., as its general manager. Construction of the Innerbelt greatly improved access to the business. Lyon sold the Chevrolet dealership in the late 1950s so he and his
son-in-law could concentrate on the Cadillac operation.
The younger Porter worked in various positions at Central Cadillac during his high-school and college years. But after graduating from the University of Denver, he took a job with American Sales Masters, a company that staged motivational sales seminars.
“I wanted to work on my own – for a few years, anyway,” he says.
In 1970 Porter’s father managed to lure him back to Cleveland and into the family business, where he worked his way up from car salesman to general manager, surpassing his younger brother George in tenure. In 1999 he finally agreed to let Porter begin purchasing the business, a buyout that wasn’t completed until after his death in 2002.
“Like a lot of entrepreneurs, he didn’t give it up easily,” Porter says with a chuckle. Nor, he adds, did he give it freely. Most of the estate went to The Cleveland Foundation. That organization owns the land and building from which the dealership operates. “I pay ’em rent,” Porter says. “My father just thought people should work for what they get.”
Porter talks about the days when
Central Cadillac’s employees decorated the
dealership windows as elaborately as any downtown department store and sold
several cars to flamboyant Las Vegas entertainer Liberace.
“He had some kind of connection in Cleveland,” Porter recalls. “He ordered a special interior on one of his convertibles. It had piano keys embossed in the leather.”
But he also remembers the factory’s transition to a zone distributorship in the mid-1960s, the business exodus from downtown in the 1970s, and Cadillac’s loss of prestige (and many of its customers) in the 1980s and 1990s.
“For a while, General Motors was on a mission to standardize everything,” Porter explains. “They pushed it to the point that all their cars kind of looked alike. The net result was that we had some years of not-very-
attractive products that probably didn’t perform very well.”
Through it all, Central Cadillac’s customers kept coming. New corporate leadership also reinvented the brand with models such as the Catera.
“We went from a lumbering, front-wheel-drive car to very crisp-handling, rear-wheel-drive cars that really competed nose to nose with the Germans and were way above the Japanese,” Porter says.
And then General Motors filed for bankruptcy in 2009, one of the low points of an economic downturn from which the world is still struggling to recover. The period that followed was the most challenging in Porter’s business life. He had invested heavily in General Motors’ Hummer truck brand by opening a Beachwood dealership in 2005. When GM announced plans to sell the Hummer brand to a manufacturer in China, he scrambled to cover his overhead by buying existing Buick and Pontiac dealerships and moving them to the Hummer store. At exactly that point, the deal to sell Hummer fell through, and General Motors announced that it was going to stop making Hummers and Pontiacs.
Although General Motors gave Porter the GMC brand to sell, the store struggled. At the same time, Central Cadillac’s sales volume dropped by half. Porter sold the Beachwood operation to the Collection Auto Group last year.
“It was not making money,” he says. “We had a lot of overhead, and it was going to be a long uphill battle. I just thought, if I were 10 years younger,
that would be great. But at my age . . .”
Porter credits Central Cadillac’s survival to Cadillac’s ever-evolving quality and design. He talks of a smaller entry-level model, the ATS, due in showrooms this fall and a battery-operated plug-in car to be unveiled in the next couple of years. He also praises his approximately 80 employees, some of whom have been with the business for 25 or 30 years.
“We believe very strongly in promoting from within,” he says of the dealership’s ability to retain talent.
His goal now is simple, if not easily accomplished: continue increasing sales and improving customer service at Central Cadillac’s downtown address. He concedes that most car manufacturers now prefer that dealers establish themselves in well-to-do residential areas near their competitors. Cadillac zone manager Doug Susitko can think of only one other dealer in his 57-store area that operates in a similar urban environment. But Central Cadillac sits on an easily accessible site in an ever-improving downtown neighborhood located squarely between the east and west suburbs and just minutes from University Circle and Rockside Road employment centers. Vitantonio of the auto dealers association believes many dealers actually desire a similar location. “If they had an opportunity to open a dealership downtown, they would,” he says.
Keeping Central Cadillac in the family for another generation, however, may not be possible. Both of Porter’s children are happily employed elsewhere. He is working on a
succession plan. “But my intention right now is to continue running the dealership,” he