Delaware as seen in Cadillac’s rear-view mirror
By Larry Nagengast
Special to Delaware Business Times
One hundred years ago, Pierre S. du Pont, one of the three cousins who built the modern DuPont Co., could look out the windows of his new office building in downtown Wilmington, gaze directly across the public square that had not yet been given its name and watch the final stages of construction of the new government office building on the east side of the square.
To the left of that new building, on the northeast corner of what is now known as Rodney Square, at the intersection of 11th and King streets, a new business had just opened. It was the Delaware Motor Sales Co., the first, and for many years the only, Cadillac distributorship on the Delmarva Peninsula.
In those early days Pierre probably had a more than passing interest in the Cadillac showroom because, in addition to serving as president of the family business, he had built a significant financial stake in Cadillac’s owner, the General Motors Corp., and was named chairman of GM’s board of directors. On top of that, the first owner of the Cadillac dealership was believed to be Eugene du Pont Jr., yet another member of Delaware’s first family, according to Mike Uffner, president, chairman and CEO of AutoTeam Delaware, which now owns the Cadillac franchise in Delaware.
GM’s records of the Wilmington dealership’s early days aren’t complete, Uffner says, “but they’re aware that it was founded in 1916.” And, Uffner said, “members of the du Pont family have told me that their relatives were the original owners” of the dealership.
So Uffner, who acquired Delaware Motor Sales in 1982 and went on to build the AutoTeam Delaware organization, is celebrating the centennial of the business this year. A highlight will be an antique auto show, organized by the Cadillac La Salle Club, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on June 11, at the current location of Delaware Cadillac, 1606 Pennsylvania Ave.
The Cadillac business moved from Rodney Square “to out in the country” – the Pennsylvania Avenue address – in 1939, and an office building for the Continental American Insurance Co. was built where the showroom once stood, Uffner says.
He’s not totally clear of the ownership chain, but it passed from the du Pont family, perhaps through some others, to a businessman named H. Roy Freck, who sold it in 1972 to Jay Tarlov, who had been the service manager of the dealership, who in turn sold it to Uffner a decade later.
The stories behind the subsequent use of the original site and Uffner’s acquisition of the business possess the “Only in Delaware” feel that’s easily appreciated by those with an eye and ear for the state’s culture.
In the late 1980s, WSFS Bank, then at Ninth and Market streets in Wilmington and desiring a larger, more prominent headquarters, bought the Continental American site, tore down the old building – and promptly fell on hard times. The site, dubbed “the hole in the ground,” sat idle as businessman John W. Rollins, once a car dealer in Lewes, invested in the bank and restored it to stability. Then, along came MBNA Corp., looking for a downtown home for the booming credit card business it had launched at the site of an old A&P Supermarket in Ogletown. Charles Cawley, MBNA’s founder and a renowned collector of more than 100 classic cars, including a 1941 Cadillac convertible, cast his eye on the corner property and made it the location of MBNA’s new headquarters, which opened in 1995. Eleven years later, Bank of America would acquire MBNA, but it kept the Rodney Square site as its main Delaware office.
As for the business, in the early 1980s, Uffner was general manager at the Union Park dealerships, a block west of Delaware Cadillac on Pennsylvania Avenue, owned by his father-in-law, Anthony Ursomarso. Uffner’s brother-in-law, Frank Ursomarso, had landed a key political position – working in the White House as communications director for President Ronald Reagan.
Uffner and his wife, Marilyn, had been thinking about buying a dealership of their own, but without a specific timeline. Then David Gergen, who had been director of communications in the final months of President Gerald Ford’s administration, joined Reagan’s staff and Frank Ursomarso decided to return to Wilmington and the family business.
The Uffners stepped up their search, checking out several dealerships in the area, and found that Tarlov was interested in selling. They purchased Delaware Cadillac on June 1, 1982.
“My brother-in-law’s family now runs Union Park. We’re two separate companies, with no relationship to each other,” Uffner said.
Starting in 1987, Uffner launched an expansion that evolved into the collection of dealerships now known as AutoTeam Delaware. “Opportunities present themselves,” he said. “If you have good people, they push you to expand. They’re looking to improve, to make you more successful.”
First he acquired a franchise to sell the Sterling, a British car, through Norman Braman, the former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, who was the U.S. distributor for Sterling. The Sterling didn’t remain popular for long, so, in 1993, Uffner acquired a Mitsubishi franchise and housed it next door to Delaware Cadillac.
Five years later, when the Delaware Olds-Volvo-Saab business on Governor Printz Boulevard was shutting down, Uffner acquired that franchise. GM’s marketing strategy in those years was to try to pair Cadillac and Olds dealerships, so Uffner turned the Mitsubishi building into an Oldsmobile showroom and built a new Mitsubishi showroom across the street, on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue. Soon after that, he bought adjacent buildings that housed a gas station, a construction company and a dry cleaner and turned it into a Saab dealership.
Since then, some nameplates have come and gone, and Uffner’s current AutoTeam Delaware lineup consists of Delaware Cadillac, Delaware Saab, Delaware Subaru and Kia of Wilmington, as well as Chevrolet of Dover, the former Townsend Bros. Chevrolet, which was acquired last month and reopened May 21 under its new name. The Uffners’ son-in-law, Lee Asher, is general manager of the dealerships in Wilmington.
Together, those Wilmington dealerships sell about 2,000 cars a year, new and pre-owned, including about 300 new Cadillacs, Uffner says.
Cadillac sales are not what they used to be, at it’s peak, Delaware Cadillac sold close to 600 a year – but lower volume is to be expected with higher-priced vehicles. Prices for new Cadillacs range from the low $30,000s for an ATS model to $90,000 or more for a top-of-the-line, fully equipped Escalade Special Edition SUV, he said.
While Uffner is proud of his other nameplates – “Kia is strong … At one time, we were one of the top 10 Saab dealerships in the northeast … Subaru was the only brand that increased sales year over year during the financial crisis.” – Cadillac remains closest to his heart.
From his second-floor office, in what was once a used car showroom, Uffner reminisces about history of the 1939 building.
Shortly after acquiring the dealership, while checking out its body shop, he came across a dust-covered sports car with a fiberglass body, tucked away in a dark corner. It was a Bricklin SV-1, known for its gull-wing doors, and manufactured from 1974 to 1976, when the company went into receivership. “We couldn’t fix it. The company had gone out of business, and we couldn’t get the parts,” Uffner said.
One interesting discovery was made in 2004, when the building got an extensive makeover and an expanded service department was added at the back of the ground level. As part of the project, workers removed an overhead conveyor belt that ran from the second floor down to a ground-level loading area.
“I assumed the belt was used for moving engines,” which might have been kept upstairs, Uffner said, but then he talked to John Todd, a longtime employee at the dealership who remembered how the building was used during World War II. Back then, Uffner learned, as part of the war effort, artillery shells were either manufactured or stored on site. “You could push the artillery shells onto the conveyor belt and get them down to load onto a truck,” he said.
Looking forward, Uffner is pleased that Cadillac’s marketing is placing renewed emphasis on customer satisfaction. “Most of the luxury manufacturers have concluded that their products are all good and last for a long time, so the differentiator is going to be how clients are treated during and after the sale,” he said.
Making that change “could be a real shock” for some other Cadillac dealers, but it is consistent with the culture he has built at the dealership, Uffner said. As a daily reminder of that culture, each associate at AutoTeam Delaware carries a laminated index card that spells out the company’s vision, business principles and service pledge. “You can have a good product and a good nameplate, but it’s easy to destroy it with weak customer service.”
“We take the long-term view,” Uffner said. “We’ve been here for a long time and we intend to stay here for a long time.”
Mike Uffner is probably the most honest man in the car business. He is both humble and an astute businessman.