You can take the young man out of Dorchester, but you can’t take all the Dorchester out of the man.
That’s why Herb Chambers, who grew up on Draper Street in Dorchester, drove back to the old neighborhood last spring to say goodbye to the folks at Hamilton Hardware on Bowdoin Street, which was closing after 92 years of family ownership.
“I’m sure a lot of people were asking themselves ‘What’s he doing here?’ after I drove up in a Rolls-Royce,’’ he says, “but I had to come back to see the family and relive the memories.’’
One of the store’s policies left a lasting impression on Chambers.
He remembers the “All Sales Final’’ notes taped to the cash register. “That was to prevent folks from buying something like a screwdriver for a minor repair, then returning it,’’ says Chambers. “That’s how poor folks were. We grew up watching every penny.’’
It’s a lesson about people and retailing that he’s been able to use in reverse in his 54 (and counting) dealerships.
“One thing I don’t like about the automobile business is that the people who can afford to pay the most often pay the least,’’ he says. “A professional litigator, for example, is going to drive out with a better deal than the average person, who might not be as articulate. I don’t know how to fix that in the new-car business, but I’ve figured out how to do it with used cars.’’
His solution: A fixed price on used cars combined with a liberal return policy—one used not long ago by the late Thomas Menino, former mayor of Boston.
“The price is fixed, and if you’re not happy with your purchase for any reason, you can return it within five days for a full refund,’’ he says.
Further, for an additional 25 days, the buyer can return the vehicle for an equal credit toward another vehicle as long as it hasn’t been driven more than 1,500 miles and is still in the same shape as when it was bought. (Note: there are some exclusions on high-end and performance vehicles).
“There’s always a certain fear in buying a new car,’’ says Chambers. “You ask yourself: ‘Did I get the right price on the new car? Did I get a fair trade-in on my old car? Did I pick the right dealer?’ And that’s with a new car. That apprehension can be 10 times worse with a used car.’’
And it can happen to anyone.
When Mayor Menino left office, he was faced with the private-sector reality of becoming his own driver again and called Chambers for advice on buying a car.
“He was considering a used SUV, either a Lexus or Ford Explorer. I told him to visit our Sharon Lexus dealership, and I’d send an Explorer there for comparison. It turned out he bought a big Lexus. When he brought it back for service, we gave him a smaller SUV, the RX, as a loaner.
“He called me the next day and said Angela [Mrs. Menino], who was doing most of the driving, really was more comfortable driving the RX, and he didn’t know what to do.’’
Chambers did, putting the Meninos into an RX and cutting them a check for the difference in price.
“He was amazed that he not only got the car he wanted but also the refund check,’’ says Chambers.
The payback: A bunch of Menino referrals. “Referrals are what built this company,’’ he says.
Of course, Menino had hit up Chambers for a check in the past.
“One of the mayor’s pet projects was Camp Harbor View for inner city kids on Long Island,’’ says Chambers. “The Mayor had fundraiser extraordinaire Jack Connors working to fund the project. You have to back that combination.’’
Chambers also is a long-time benefactor of Massachusetts General Hospital and the Joslin Diabetes Center, both among the nearly 100 charities noted on the company website: HerbChambers.com.
The 54 Chambers dealerships include every brand except Acura and Subaru. “We’re going to be building six new dealerships in 2015—and those are the ones I’m sure about,’’ he says, showing plans to convert the former Channel 56 studios on Morrissey Boulevard to a BMW showroom.
Reminded that the adjacent Boston Globe building is for sale, he replies, “A little too big for me.’’
Chambers says that when his company made the Globe’s “Best Places to Work’’ rankings in 2009, “it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.’’ He takes pride in noting that not only has he been a fixture on the list but his is also the only auto dealership that’s honored.
It represents a remarkable 29 years of growth.
Chambers’ story itself is fascinating. He eschewed the opportunity to re-enlist in the Navy, an inducement that included officer training and possibly flight school after he got a rapid start in the copy-machine business following his initial enlistment.
After he built A-Copy into the nation’s largest copymachine business, he sold it in 1983; he was effectively set for life and knew he’d left Dorchester forever.
Then Chambers bought a dysfunctional Cadillac dealership in New London, Conn., in 1985“as a hobby.There were 31,000 auto dealers in the United States then, and we were probably No. 31,001 on the list.’’
Today, Herb Chambers Companies is the No. 13 dealership group in the United States. And, among the privately held groups, Chambers is in the Top 5, selling 50,000 cars a year and servicing 250,000.
“Like everything else, I got totally engaged,’’ he says. “It’s part of my personality. I thought I’d buy one or two more … and it just keeps going.’’
Now it’s to the point that Chambers’ latest advertising campaign—and surely you’ve seen the billboards, online presence, and full-page print ads—is about burnishing his own brand more than pushing individual car lines.
“Others are smarter, but I’m the luckiest and most fortunate,’’ he says.
As to the future, Chambers is going strong. “Retire from what?’’ he answers. “From what I love?’’