Small-town Ford dealer has won big-league top award 27 times
Morton, Wash.—If it’s excelling at customer service and satisfaction, then Van Cleve Ford has accomplished that and more as the small-town Ford store has won Ford’s prestigious President’s Award about as many times as any dealer in the country.
With just 14 employees, Van Cleve sits in the shadow of Mt. Rainier along Highway 12 that connects western Washington to the eastern side of the state via White Pass. When Jim and Joan Van Cleve opened the store in 1953, Morton was a major logging community and the business center for East Lewis County. Though the height of logging may have peaked, there remains a large lumber mill at the edge of town that operates 24/7.
Today, under the ownership of Jim Van Cleve, the store has three family members, including James Van Cleve, grandson of the founders, who is the parts and service manager. He grew up in the business but later expanded his experience working in the parts departments of Ford stores in Seattle and Auburn, returning to Morton in 2007.
“Two of us run the parts and service counter here so we wear two hats,” James Van Cleve said. Patty Armstrong, a 20-year veteran at the store, is the parts and service adviser who works adjacent to Van Cleve. Managing a $300,000 parts inventory that’s sourced from a Ford parts depot in Portland or from Factory Motor Parts near Seattle, neither close to Morton. Tracking needed parts and handling obsolescence are issues that are critical to managing a viable inventory, he said.
“With a car count of 250-300 vehicles per month, and a diversity of vehicles that we service, sometimes we have to wait awhile for parts to arrive. It’s different than being in a large city where parts are more available. We have loaner cars and can shuttle local customers when needed.”
While a large percentage of vehicles serviced are F-150 Series pickups and SUVs, Van Cleve said they sell parts and service virtually all Ford-related products, as well as providing service for the occasional non-Ford vehicle.
In the parts realm, Van Cleve Ford doesn’t have a formal wholesale program as larger stores in metro areas may offer, but “we do have multiple fleet service accounts as well as accounts for independent repair facilities in the region,” Van Cleve said, adding that being a Roush Performance Dealer adds to parts sales. “We sell a lot of Roush parts and install some of the purchased products for customers.”
For sales and service, their customers come from an immensely large geographic area, including some out-of-state customers. “It’s not uncommon for us to have customers who travel three to four hours for us to service their vehicles. Because we really believe in taking care of our customers, and providing exceptional sales and service, we have third-generation family members who come to the store for sales, parts, and service.”
With nine service bays, there are currently four factory-trained technicians who perform everything from oil changes to full repair to tire installation, Van Cleve said. “We are tech challenged at times because of where we’re located. We’re not close to a Ford ASSET training program, so when we need a technician it’s more word of mouth. We have obtained one tech from the training program at Centralia College, which has an excellent diesel program.”
Technicians routinely obtain Ford training in the greater Portland and Seattle areas, as well as online training at the store. While technology is constantly being upgraded, Van Cleve said the store’s technicians use Ford factory tools and are able to provide service and repair in an efficient manner. “We’re constantly being updated by Ford on technical and service-related issues.”
For several decades, all three generations of Van Cleves have been involved in drag racing in the Northwest and across the country. A number of races were won by family members, including a first-place win in 1972 at Indy 500 track in a 1967 Ford Fairlane. The store founder and his son, Jim, went on to win numerous races and set national records.