BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — When Steve Rogers opened his namesake Ford dealership on S.R. 64 in June 2003, he didn’t foresee the opening of the U.S. 24 interchange, the increasing popularity of the electric vehicle, a major recession or a global pandemic.
Prospering through these past two decades has been possible because of dedicated, hardworking employees and a supportive community that has grown to be like family, Rogers said.
“It’s been a great 20 years,” he said.
A Michigan native, Rogers opened a Ford dealership north of Muskegon in 2000 but opted to head south and purchase the former Ed Schmidt dealership on Waterville-Swanton Road in 2003. His daughter, Kristy, had just graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in interior design but didn’t have a job lined up.
“I said, ‘You do now!’” Rogers laughed. “She’s been working side by side with me for 20 years now.”
When they first took over the 1970s-era, 8,000-square-foot building, Kristy was typing up contracts on a typewriter and the staff was figuring out how to get an internet connection and add a computer system. Even the technicians had to rely on books to guide them on the latest systems.
“We had to not only run the dealership but research and install a computer system and learn how to work it all at the same time. It was interesting,” Rogers recalled.
The U.S. 24 bypass and new interchange weren’t on his radar when Rogers bought the building, and it turned out to be a stroke of luck, as the opening of the new highway in 2012 increased traffic to more than 11,000 vehicles a day between the interchange and Finzel Road.
“It spurred a lot of growth out here and helped jump start our business,” Rogers said.
That was much needed after a major recession that caused many dealerships to close. While General Motors and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy, Ford stayed afloat.
“That was a really difficult time, but our organization came together in a way that, under Steve’s guidance and leadership, we as a company got through collectively,” general manager Jason Gorr recalled. “The way that Steve stood behind everybody and kept everybody paid and engaged was like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s probably one of the main reasons that I stayed.”
Gorr is not the only long-term employee. Office manager Lisa Willis is nearing her 13th year with the business, and four others have been with Steve Rogers Ford for over a decade.
“We treat our staff well and pay them as best as we can,” Rogers said.
In the past 20 years, the dealership has grown from having two technicians to eight; expanded from one parts and service person to five; and expanded from one salesperson to four. The dealership has three senior master technicians and one senior technician who is about to get certified as a master. The technicians have access to technology that allows them to quickly and accurately service vehicles to get them back into customers’ driveways and out of the shop.
“We’ve poured a lot of energy into making sure we’re growing our service department and recruiting and keeping the best technicians,” Gorr said.
Expanding the service department was one of the major reasons why Rogers decided to purchase the former Yark Chevrolet building to expand into 25,000 square feet in 2021.
“We have more capacity to work on more vehicles per day and more capabilities because we have the room to add equipment that we couldn’t do before, like the big super duty diesel,” Gorr added.
As he looks ahead to the next 20 years, Rogers said he can foresee a new building or addition to accommodate the detail shop, prep work and light mechanical work portions of the service area.
“We’re maxing out here already,” he said.
Over the years, Steve Rogers Ford has seen many models come and go, including the Taurus, Focus, Escort and Fusion. Ever since the Ford F-150 was introduced, it’s remained a top seller. SUVs have steadily grown in popularity while electric vehicles are now increasingly in demand. The dealership has sold and serviced EVs for the past four years.
During the global pandemic, the dealership remained open and showed its staying power, providing service for customers who were unable to find an open service department for miles.
“In the early days of the pandemic, when it was really crazy, the Whitehouse and Waterville Township police were really happy that we were still here to fix their vehicles and get them back on the road,” Rogers recalled.
Throughout the challenges, Steve Rogers Ford has remained a committed member of the community, sponsoring Anthony Wayne Local Schools clubs and events, Toys for Tots, the Cherry Fest and now the Swanton kids’ rodeo challenge.