Bickford family quickly forges a new deal at Westminster Motors on the boulevard

The biggest challenge facing Thrifty Car Sales at Westminster Motors on Morrissey Boulevard is letting people know they are still in business.

After operating on the site for 45 years, Westminster lost its Dodge
franchise when Chrysler was forced to downsize as a condition of receiving federal bailout money earlier this year. The decision resulted in the closure of 789 dealerships nationwide, and 12 in Massachusetts.

Chrysler gave Westminster three weeks’ notice, a very short time to sell $3 million worth of inventory, said sales manager Joe Lawlor. “We could no longer do any warranty work,” he said. “All of the revenue streams were cut off.”

Westminster’s owners, the Bickford family, fought the move by Chrysler with several appeals, but they lost the final battle, and the franchise, June 9. Two weeks later, Chrysler removed all its signage, giving the highly visible boulevard operation very much a closed look.
But the Bickfords had no quit in them. Within three months, they transformed the old dealership site into a new full-service automotive center, including sales, service, body shop, and parts store.

“We came back from the dead,” said Lawlor, who has been the sales manager at the business for six years. “We were near death. We had to reinvent ourselves in a short period of time. We picked the people [franchises] we wanted to get involved with that would be the best fit for us and our customers. We want to offer value, affordability, and quality.”

With new relationships in place, including a franchise associated with the Oklahoma-based Thrifty Car Sales, auto parts from NAPA Auto Parts, and a franchise with Goodyear Tire, the business has been able to offer better pricing and value, he said.

The company’s three owner-brothers, Jim, Bob, and Tom Bickford, never stopped working both to build awareness that they were still in business and to put together the new operation.

“We sat down with many franchises before making the final decisions,” said Bob. “We wanted to align ourselves with other businesses that would be good for customers. These are all good businesses and all good products.”

The franchise with Thrifty Car Sales “enables us to provide value,” Lawlor said. The 80 vehicles on the lot are all pre-owned and purchased at auctions, and they represent more than a dozen different brands from Honda to Mercury, Hyundai, Toyota, Nissan, Pontiac, Dodge, and many others. About half of the inventory is domestic and prices range from $5,000 to $15,000.

“We can buy cars that we think will sell, that we think people will like,” Lawlor said. “Rather than only what the manufacturer said you could sell. We buy it, inspect it, run it through a 100-point inspection in the shop and then it is Thrifty-certified, meaning it meets the standards set by Thrifty. The buyer gets a minimum of three months or 3,000 mile-warranty, plus free roadside assistance for one year,” Lawlor added.

In addition, as a franchisee, Westminster has first option on whatever cars that Thrifty puts out to auction. For example, Thrifty may take a car out of its rental fleet after a year and put it out to auction. When purchasing a former rental car, the buyer gets the balance of the warranty if there is one. If not, they get the three-month or 3,000-mile warranty, Lawlor said. To get the Thriifty-certification, the car must also be less than seven years old and have less than 75,000 miles on the odometer.

With NAPA, auto parts are available to the service center as well as to retail customers. The warehouse is in Quincy and a part can be delivered in 10 minutes if it’s not on site, Lawlor said.

The Goodyear franchise is another opportunity for Westminster to serve a wider customer base. The products have warranties so that the parts can be serviced at Goodyear centers throughout the country. The company also has corporate accounts where fleets of cars may be sent to Goodyear repair centers, which now includes Westminster.
Today’s car buyers are doing a lot of shopping at home on the Internet before coming in, Lawlor said. People can check out what’s available at
thriftycarsales.com/Dorchester.

That approach has been attracting more customers from outside of Dorchester. Last week, the company sold vehicles to buyers from Yarmouthport, Northborough, and South Egremont.

With its new operations in place, business is starting to gain traction at Westminster, Lawlor said. At its peak, the dealership employed 50 people and had about 300 cars on the lot. Today, there are 35 employees and 80 vehicles for sale. “But they are 80 cars that we want,” Lawlor said. “Now our success depends on ourselves.”

For a longtime family-run operation, there was more at stake for the Bickford brothers than simply keeping their livelihood. “I came in as a son in this business,” said Bob Bickford said. “I have children and my brothers have children. At some point we will be looking to turn the business over to them or to at least give them the opportunity to make that type of decision. We have employees who have become like family, people who we have worked side by side with us for 25 years.”

Despite the dealership’s success as Westminster Dodge, Chrysler wanted to expand its footprint in the suburbs and so it closed many city locations as part of its restructuring, Bickford said. ““I am more determined than ever to prove the mistake that they made when they turned their back on the city of Boston. Every day things keep getting better.”

In sales, it’s all about starting over and “it’s one customer at a time, every customer is important,” Lawlor tells his sales staff. In making choices for inventory, it’s about variety, he said. “What’s hot is value and affordability; it has to be priced right.”