Suzuki jeeps were hot back in ’87. My brother Gary was a salesman for Coggin on the Arlington Expressway. I had retired from selling cars a few years before. I called myself and entrepreneur. I sold cars and boats in my front yard, built decks and gazebos, sometimes a portable building. Gary would bring his work home with him, telling me about his “almost deals” that he couldn’t close out. Me, big brother with all of the experience would oblige him and tell him what to do to make it work. I had given up on car selling here in Jax. Sell 20 to 25 cars and only make $2,500. No way Jose. Then, I spent two years in San Antonio working at North Central Ford for the same guy that owned the Spurs, Red McCombs.
The economy must have been a lot better in Texas because when I sold 20 cars a month there, I earned around $8,000 a month, plus getting free tickets to the Spurs games and winning/ free trips to Cancun and Acapulco. I ended up giving these trips to the Finance Manage and the Used Car Manger. These were the people that helped me make it.
After we moved back to Jax. I lost heart in the car business and started building decks and gazebos out of cypress. At the end of the summer my business slowed down and with winter coming on, I got to worrying about Christmas for my four boys.
Gary and I were drinking coffee early one morning and he started coaxing me into going back to selling cars again. He told me that the Suzuki Samurais were cheap and hot sellers. The place he worked for was Coggin Suzuki on the Arlington Expressway. They got plenty of traffic. He also told me that since Coggin financed their cars through GMAC, they could get anybody financed, since they kissed the paper.
That sounded pretty good to me. Here was an opportunity to go make some good Christmas money. I asked my brother if he thought that his boss would hire me in the middle of the month, 10 days before Thanksgiving. He asked me, “Are you kidding? I’ve already told him about you. He asks me every morning if you’re coming in today.
Since Gary had paved the way for me, I figured why not? I had never even heard of a Suzuki Samurai but I knew they had a used car lot full of GMAC repos. GMAC will finance anybody on one of their “repos” with a down payment, driver’s license and insurance and oh yeah, a job. I started licking my chops.
The boss man was Gary “K.” Don’t ask me how to spell it, please. Kazcoski, Kaslowski, Kawasaki. Gee, I just called him Mr. “K.” He welcomed me to work and told me that he would appreciate it, if I could show the young men in his crew some pointers.
I told him the best way I knew was to lead by example and I walked out on the point. As I stood on the point waiting for an “Up.” I watched the young daredevils at Kona Skate Park, across the Arlington Expressway. Some of those guys were pretty good. I watched them get airborne, do flips and 360’s.
My first morning went just as I planned. I hustled, caught as many ups as I could. By the end of the day, I had three deals in finance, all used cars. With Coggin, they signed all the paperwork, dotted the “I’s” and crossed the “T’s”, took the trade-in and let them roll, burning gas, pending financial approval. I was told not to worry about that.
“You just sell cars and we’ll get ’em financed.”
The Samurais were a little different. I had to be shown how to work the convertible top a time or two and build up some product knowledge. The sand dunes behind Regency were close by. Every time I caught a young Navy guy for an up, I would drive us to the gas station on the corner, buy two beers and put the top down. We drove the back way into the dunes going down Mill Creek Rd. After a few minutes of whizzing up and down the dunes, I could tell that my strategy was working. It was time to head to the Finance Office.
Just in case my buyer was still skeptical, there was a topless bar on the service road to the expressway. I had been down there a time a two on test drives and had prepped the girls to help me close out my deals. For every customer they helped me with, I would send the girl that helped me a $25.00, “Bird Dog Fee.” The girls would come out to swoon over the potential buyer’s new jeep.
“Oh I like this, are you gonna come back and take me for a ride?”
I’d tell the gals thanks. I’ll see you with another one as soon as I can. After getting back to the dealership, it was just a matter of pointing the new buyer towards the Finance Office, done deal.
To say that Gary “K” was happy is putting it mildly. He clapped me on the back and told me that he could see new enthusiasm spreading among the sales crew. He asked me if I had any ideas that might help out.
I told the boss that we should “trick up” a few jeeps. He agreed. We started putting wood grain panels on the sides to make them look like the Old Woodys’. Then we put on different colored tops, tan, silver, leopard skin, even denim. Catlin Griffin on Main street wood add power windows and door locks, fancy tires and wheels we even had a few custom paint jobs to make them look like they came straight out of a a Miami Vice TV show.
The Jeeps came in with a $3,999.00 price tag from the factory. Coggin would boost it another $2,500. with undercoating, dealer prep, an extra special wax job. Once we started doing the add-ons with the extras from Catlin, the price soared to around $12 to $14,000. They sold faster than ever. Since Coggin “backed” the note, the extra profit was easily financeable.
Even with success, my daily routine was about the same. I came to work, got a cup of coffee and assumed my position on the corner of the concrete apron, guarding the point looking out for unsuspecting buyers. Across the way, the Kona skateboarders were hard at it, especially when they were getting some “air.” They were amazing to watch sometimes. Christmas was coming up it gave me and idea.
We got paid every week. Sometimes my pay checks were in the thousands, with Christmas coming up; I went over to Kona Skate Park to look for Christmas ideas, stocking stuffers or something. I got sticker shock at first. Guess what? Skateboarding ain’t cheap. I have four boys. I can’t just buy one of them skating stuff and tell them to share. So if bought one helmet, I had to buy four. It was the same with the knee pads, the wrist pads, the elbow pads, not mention 4 pairs of “Sketchers.” I decided to put the stuff on layaway, go earn some more money and come back and pick out the skateboards on the next payday.
My first paycheck at Coggin was around fifteen hundred dollars bring home. I was pissed. I was expecting much more. I went to the girls in the office to find out why my check was short so much. Oh, they said they were just looking out for me. They didn’t want me to have to pay all that money in taxes one week and then the next week, have a zero check. Oh, I got hot about that. I know how it is. The girls in payroll don’t make that much money, they type out the big checks for the good salesmen and the bad ones alike. Maybe they figured that some of the guys don’t earn that much and are their friends. Maybe they were jealous and were just trying to even the playing field.
I got the attention of the Office Manager and told her that I want all the money I’ve got coming, every payday. If I have to pay $400.00 a week into Social Security, then that’s what I pay. I wanted my money, all of it. Mad enough to chew nails, I had to get Gary “K” into the argument.
I told the boss, “If you think these Jeeps were hard enough to sell before my brother and I started working here, just wait and see how hard they are to sell when we go across town and start working for Pete Kirill.
That did the trick. The next week I grossed around $3,800. My bring home check was $2,700 and some change. The way I looked at it I’m not interested in the gross, just in how much I take home each week.
Having a good feeling about my earning capacity, I started going by the skate park after work. You could get a cheapo skateboard at K Mart for around twenty bucks. Looking at the customized blank boards alone, the price was over a hundred bucks, twice that for a “Tony Hawk.” Then you add the price of the axles, the polyester wheels, “the trucks,” and then the rails, the nose pad, mouthpiece and so on. It wasn’t cheap, times four.
I bit the bullet. I gave them a deposit and made my order for the best of everything. Heck it was just money. Coggin was paying for it, not me. My pockets looked like elephant ears when I went to work there and now I was paying close to four hundred dollars for a skate board, plus the safety equipment that went with it and oh yeah, don’t forget the math, because it was all times four.
The month of November was coming to a close. Now that I had a goal, I was more inspired than ever. I drove past the dealership late one evening. I saw a couple of black kids eyeballing the Samurais through the windows. They left big handprints on the glass in the dew. I had seen their paw prints on the windows in the mornings. I remember thinking that Spiderman must have paid us a visit. That gave me and idea. I started putting my business cards under the wiper blades of all the cars on the front row.
Within days this started to pay off. We got a flurry of young black customers coming on the lot holding a business card, mine. Gary K was amazed. Almost every one of them had some money for a down payment, but not all of them had a job that would qualify them for finance. I asked them where they got the money and they told me about their “boss.” They worked and had jobs, just not on paper. I told a few of them to, “Tell your boss to come see me.”
Early one morning I caught an up and introduced myself, “Hi, I’m Mike Frailey.” My “Up” was in his late 30’s, early 40’s. A well dressed, be speckled black man with balding hair. He carried a brief case with a chain, cuffed to his wrist. That really caught my attention. He introduced himself to me as “Henry Mann.”
Business is business. I don’t care if you are black, white or green. Money talks and B.S., well B.S. walks and I don’t let any body walk until I’m sure they can’t buy a car. I asked Mr. Mann what could I do for him, because he obviously came looking for me.
He asked me if there was somewhere we could go to talk. I thought about the sand dunes behind Regency Square or the topless bar down the street but after looking at his well tailored pinstriped suit, his gold watch and cuff links, I nixed that idea. I asked him to follow me. I walked towards Gary K’s Office, it was empty. I passed his secretary and asked her, “to hold all my calls please, I’m going to be in conference.” I ushered Mr. Henry in and asked him to have a seat. Then I shut the door and asked him what was it that I could help him with?
Mr. Henry told me that he employed a group of men, under the table. They made good money. As long as they worked for him, they represented him. He wanted them to look nice, dress nice and drive a new car. New cars were expensive, he said that he wanted something with a little flash and pizzazz, but he didn’t want to break the bank.
At first I thought he was interest in a couple of the little Suzuki cars. They were new, cheap, got great mileage. He said “No, he wanted Suzuki Samurais, the Jeep.” Quickly adjusting my way of thinking I said, “Sure, why not?” He described to me what he wanted. He preferred vehicles with a lot of flash. Leopard skin tops, Chrome chain steering wheel, power windows, locks, air conditioners, with stereos and cassette players, custom chrome spare tire covers, the whole nine yards.
“Wow, I told him, that one is gonna cost you some money.” He said, “Well, I drive a Jaguar, I’m not worried about the money and I don’t want just one, I want eight of them, all jade green.” If you ever heard the saying “Jaw dropping,” well mine was on the floor. At first, the devil on my right shoulder was thinking this guy is pulling my leg. Then, the angel on my left shoulder started whispering, “What if he’s on the level?” I had a pretty good idea where the money was coming from but feigned indifference. After all, I’m here to sell cars. Where they get there money from is their business.
What convinced me was when he opened up his briefcase and showed me stack after stack of hundred dollar bills. Now we are definitely speaking the same language.
I knew off the top of my head that a fully loaded Samurai ran about “12 to 14 something,” list price. At that figure there had to be around 5 to 7 thousand dollars mark up. Plenty of profit. I didn’t need a calculator to times uh, say at least 6,000 dollars profit times, then times 8 equals, uh hell, that equals a lot. It was over a hundred thousand dollars grand total. Then I had to add the 4% sales tax that we had at the time, title fee and tag fee.
I think the total was around a hundred and twelve thousand plus tax. He offered a hundred thousand even. That was a lot of money. I believe I had to loosen my collar a couple of times. I still had to get the boss’s okay on everything. When I walked out of the office I could tell that Gary K was steamed at me for using his office. Once I showed him the stacks of hundred dollar bills with the band still wrapped around them, I think he cooled off.
It took about an hour and a half to count all that money two or three times and close out our deal. We bumped him up a little bit, you have to or they’ll back out. Gary K came in, sat down and kept my mullet busy, while I went out on the lot to if I could find eight green jeeps that hadn’t been to the custom shop yet. I still needed to get their serial numbers, fill out eight separate buyer’s orders, then fill out the odometer statement and the title applications.
The only stickler to the deal was we had to verify insurance. I had to get Mr. Henry to give me the names of the drivers. I needed to verify their licenses and get them insurance before they could drive the car off the lot. After my conflict with the Office Manager and her clerks, I knew I couldn’t get paid until the paperwork was done.
My next chore was getting Mr. Henry to give me their names and addresses. He knew their nicknames and street names but he said he didn’t know their legal names. After a few minutes he came up with Robert Johnson, Ronnie Jackson, Richard Jefferson, aw heck I just started calling them “RJ.” Every one of these guys lived in the projects. Phoenix Ave., Brentwood, Blodgett Holmes, Emerson Arms, Durkeeville. I started cruising the projects in a new Suzuki nights after work, trying to hunt the new owners down. I wanted to hurry and close this deal before it went sour. I wanted to get paid. This just seemed too easy. At first, no one was home, I would leave my card to no avail. I realized that these addresses was where they “stayed,” not where they lived.
Maybe I look a lot like a cop, I thought. I started leaving my tie in the car. I got my brother Gary to ride out with me every night trying to find these guys. I told Mr. Mann that I was having problems. He would call these fellows on the pager and find out what corner they were on and tell them I was coming by in their new Suzuki Samurai.
That did the trick. As luck would have it, none of them had a driver’s license. Oh, they might be wearing a shoulder holster with a Glock or a Mac 10, but not a driver’s license. I had to take a car load of these fellows down to the DMV to get their license. It was easier in those days, not as much of a hassle as it is now. Elizabeth Pendarvis was a family friend and she was a supervisor at the DMV underneath the Fuller Warren Bridge, she gave me a hand. Some of the guys couldn’t read and needed to take the test orally.
Next was the insurance. No body had insurance. None of the guys wanted to give up any of their cash to get it either. When they found out that they needed to make a down payment on the insurance, they went “MIA.” I still had to chase these guys down on the corner to find them and tell them how important it was to get that insurance, then they could be riding in style. I got one of my insurance friends that would come out on the lot to write new policies’ to ride with me. If I remember right, his name was David Gray. Every time he wrote a new policy he would give me a fifth of liquor as a finder’s fee. I didn’t drink at the time and would give the bottles of booze to the Used Car Manger or the Finance Manager.
For my motivation I kept watching the guys skating at Kona, thinking that all I had to do to get paid was to finalize these last few deals. I got my brother to help me; I was scared to go out alone in a flashy car, wearing nice clothes, running the dark streets in the city projects. Christmas was on the line. I did what I had to do.
I just know those gals in the payroll office sure musta hated typing that check. I told Gary K that if I didn’t get paid one hundred percent of everything I’ve got coming, I’m quitting. He told me to calm done. He said that his paycheck depended on the size of mine. The more I make, the more he makes.
Then I heard that the Office Manager came up with the idea that it was too much money for one guy. She came up with the plan to make Mr. Mann’s purchase a “fleet deal,” and to give me a $200 dollar commission per vehicle. I was afraid that I might lose that big pay check. It wouldn’t be the first time a salesman got pencil whipped out of his pay.
The last week of November 1987, my gross pay was over $14,000. My bring home pay was in the neighborhood of $8,500.00. Even so, I found out later that the office girls trying to be sneaky, withheld money anyway, making a $1500 dollar mistake conveniently in the company’s favor by over charging on the tag and title fees. After I got my paycheck, I quit.
One morning a few weeks later, I was sitting at the kitchen table looking for the want ads in the newspaper and drinking coffee with my brother. On the front page I read that Henry Mann had been arrested for dealing drugs. It was the biggest crack cocaine bust in the history of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office at the time. The story in the paper described how sophisticated an organization he had. All of his men were rounded up and arrested for selling drugs. The paper also mentioned they were all driving around in the projects in matching sporty new Suzuki Samurais.
My boys had their greatest Christmas ever. I have no idea what my gross pay was, but for the month I brought home close to $12 thousand dollars. I started at Coggin Suzuki about 10 days before Thanksgiving and sold 22 cars that month. My picture was in the paper, “Coggin Suzuki’s Salesman of the Month.” I never did go back to selling cars after that. Like those kids at the skate park, I just figured that I’d done my best and I would just go out on top.