In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the fleet industry had yet to see the advent of nationwide drop shipping. At the time, lease companies and company-owned fleets bought vehicles from regional fleet dealers. That’s how Don Fenton got his start in the dealer fleet business.
Fenton’s career began in 1957 selling fleet vehicles at Nickey Chevrolet in Chicago. Then, in 1968, Jim Long, seeking to complement the retail side of his Chevrolet business with fleet sales, hired Fenton to foster fleet sales.
Today, many regard Fenton as the “godfather” of the dealer fleet business. That’s because he was one of the first fleet salesmen to travel the country prospecting for fleet business from lease companies and company-owned fleets that had vehicles in the Midwest, making a name for himself — and Long Chevrolet — along the way.
When vehicle manufacturers started allowing fleet dealers to drop-ship vehicles, Fenton and Long Chevrolet were already well known across the country. With a solid reputation established, it was easy for Fenton to move Long Chevrolet from a regional fleet dealer to a nationwide drop-ship dealer. And, so began their impact on the fleet industry.
A Long History of Milestones
With access to the nationwide market, Long Chevrolet saw incredible growth in the years to come.
“At any given time in the late 1970s, we had 1,500 to 2,000 cars and trucks in inventory,” said Rick Nicoletti, general manager for the Napleton Fleet Group, and former Long Chevrolet fleet operations manager. “If a fleet needed a Chevrolet out of stock, we probably had it. The fleet department did a tremendous amount of out-of-stock business, and we routinely delivered out-of-stock vehicles as far west as Denver and east to the entire east coast.”
In 1976, the dealership sold approximately 7,000 vehicles with a completely manual system. Within three years, fleet sales topped 20,000.
“In 1979, we sold more than 20,000 Chevrolets through the fleet department at Long — and that was with no sub codes. These were actual orders that we processed,” Nicoletti said. “While we were selling those fleet vehicles, the dealership sold 10,000 retail vehicles. It was a whole different time.”
While Fenton contributed much to Long Chevrolet’s success as a fleet dealer, Nicoletti also credits the talent and hard work of the other Long Chevrolet employees Fenton hired, too.
“We had an amazing group of individuals that worked extremely well together,” he said. “At one time, we had a staff of close to 40 people in the fleet department. As I’ve said before, many of those individuals are still in the business today. It’s a testament to the training that Fenton gave us all.”
Becoming an Innovator
In addition to phenomenal sales, Long Chevrolet was also an innovator in the fleet dealership industry. In late 1977 — years before the PC was invented — the Long Fleet Department “inherited” a DEC PDP 1105 minicomputer from the retail sales department. With no knowledge of computers, Nicoletti searched for a partner that could program and create software for the PDP 1105 and got the names of a few Chicago-area companies who could help.
“I hired one of the companies, which allowed us to become the first fleet dealer to utilize a computer in our business,” Nicoletti said. “We were able to create and mail our customers order acknowledgements, weekly order status reports, and vehicle billings. We also mailed courtesy delivery dealers notification that a new vehicle was on order and would be shipped to them.”
Gone were the days of manually wading through status reports or drawers of deal jackets. The computer did all the work. Long Chevrolet was now in a position to handle the increased order volume.
A year after the fleet department became automated, another innovation followed. In 1978, Long Chevrolet instituted the first draft to pay dealers courtesy delivery fees for drop-shipped vehicles.
“Once drop-shipping of vehicles became the accepted fleet acquisition practice, courtesy-delivery dealers required payment upfront for their courtesy delivery fee and any additional charges — sales tax, title, registration fees, dealer installed equipment, etc.,” Nicoletti said. “Calling the dealer and getting the fees became a time-consuming and often inexact process. Instituting the first draft immediately impacted the business. Dealers were much more interested in accepting courtesy deliveries.”
The draft became the accepted method for payment to courtesy delivery dealers. In fact, it’s still in use today.
A Lasting Impact
After many successful years in the fleet dealer business, Long Chevrolet’s impact on the industry is clear.
“Long Chevrolet helped establish the idea of centralized purchasing of fleet vehicles,” Nicoletti said. “No longer would companies use regional dealers — they could buy their Chevrolet cars and trucks from a single source for the entire country. It changed the way lease companies and company owned fleets acquired their vehicles.”
The industry has definitely changed since Long Chevrolet closed in 1981, but the innovations and many of the people who worked there are still involved in the fleet business. It’s a testament to Fenton and what he created at Long.
Falling Into Fleet: Nicoletti’s Career with Long Chevrolet
In 1976, Rick Nicoletti, general manager for the Napleton Fleet Group and former Long Chevrolet fleet operations manager, was a special education teacher in the Chicago Public School system. But, for the coming school year, staffing changes would force him to change schools — and he was less than thrilled about it.
Fortunately, a fateful run-in with Don Fenton changed the course of his career. Just a year earlier, Fenton and his wife Ann had bought a house across the street from Nicoletti’s parents in Elmhurst, Ill., and Nicoletti had met them once. In 1976, Nicoletti’s father had an emergency appendectomy, and when visiting him at the hospital, he ran into Fenton.
“I mentioned to Don I was thinking about a career change. A month later, I was working for him as the assistant truck manager! I sort of fell into the business,” Nicoletti said. “Don had a way of attracting an incredible group of people through the years. Ernie Lancaster, Brian Farrar, Mike Lureau, Laurie Nicoletti, Judy Baxter, and Joe Griff are all Long Chevrolet alums. All of us have had many successful years in the fleet industry because Don gave us our first opportunity.”