ARLINGTON – Just like the previous two owners of Bell Ford, Nolan Campbell’s start in the car business wasn’t selling pickup trucks and sedans. Instead, Campbell, who was just a sophomore at Poynette High School in 1994, found himself washing cars, cleaning toilets and taking out the trash at the small dealership in this Columbia County farming community.

Campbell, who bought the business last year, now finds himself continuing another Bell tradition.

With $1.5 million in financial assistance from Ford Motor Co., Campbell is assuring the dealership, founded in 1918 and selling Fords since 1931, remains in this village of 823 people for years to come.

Next month, Campbell will move the dealership from its longtime home in the village’s downtown to a more than $3 million facility that is nearly three times the size of the existing dealership building. The new location, just east of the downtown, will provide amenities associated with big-city car dealerships but keep the longtime employees who have been a staple of the dealership’s success.

They include Marge Kreitzman, office manager for 32 years, and Bill Mootz, parts manager since 1992. Campbell’s older brother by two years, Nathan, has been a diesel mechanic at the dealership for 19 years.

And Bill Bell, the most recent owner who has been working at the dealership for more than 60 years and has been the village’s fire chief for 40 years, will also get an office.

“Ford’s made the commitment to small dealerships but without our reputation, I don’t think we would have gotten (the financial assistance),” said Bell, 74. The new facility is “definitely needed. We’re cramped so bad here.”

In small towns

Scores of dealerships in big and small communities have closed in recent years across the country, but, remarkably, new car dealerships can still be found in communities too small for a Walgreen’s, Dollar Store and, sometimes, even a full-service grocery store.

More than 17,000 new car and truck dealerships operated in the U.S. in 2012, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association. Those dealerships had $676 billion in sales and employed more than 963,000 people. On average, dealerships employ about 55 people. In Wisconsin, in 2012, more than 500 new car dealers accounted for $12 billion in sales and employed more than 21,000. The average dealership, according to the NADA, employed 41 people.

Bill Sepic, president of the Wisconsin Automobile & Truck Dealers Association, said the state has lost about 200 rooftops (each location for a dealership is considered a “rooftop”) since 2008 with the elimination of Saturn, Hummer and Saab dealerships. Today, about 400 dealers account for the more than 500 rooftops that exist in the state with 100 rooftops in the Milwaukee area alone, Sepic said.

Another 250 to 275 rooftops are located in communities like Madison, Green Bay, the Fox Valley and other similar sized or slightly smaller communities with about 100 to 150 rooftops in more rural areas of the state. Wisconsin’s automotive manufacturing industry in Janesville and Kenosha and its proximity to other car plants in the Midwest, helped make the state a hotbed for dealerships who could easily and economically acquire inventory, Sepic said.

“You go back 40 years, every small town had a grocer, men’s clothing store and a car dealership in Wisconsin,” Sepic said. “I see a very, very bright future for the small dealership. What we learned through the challenges of 2008 and 2009 is that the people who have been purchasing are extremely loyal to the dealer.”

Many in the state

Southern Wisconsin is dotted with examples. They include Bushnell Ford in Lodi, Brodhead Chevrolet Buick, Symdon Chevrolet in Evansville, Fillback, founded in 1948 and with dealerships in Highland, Boscobel and Richland Center, and Burtness in Orfordville, which moved into a new, larger facility in October.

Monticello, a community of 1,236 in northern Green County, is home to Voegli Chevrolet and Monticello Ford. In the 1960s, 28 new car dealerships did business in a 20-mile radius. Today, there are eight, said Dan Stenbroten, Voegli Chevrolet co-owner.

“It’s relationships we build with our customers and the service we provide,” said Stenbroten, 58, whose employees average 20 years of service. “I can go to towns with 15,000 and 20,000 and not find two car dealerships.”

Arlington’s downtown is sparse when it comes to businesses.

Bell Ford is the most noticeable with the U.S. Post Office its neighbor to the west and the Yellow Jersey bike shop, now located in the former bank, to the immediate east. The Arlington Inn is a place to grab a beer while the Arlington Curling Club has been around for decades. The station house for the Arlington Fire Department is located to the north of the dealership, where, not including Bell, three of the department’s 31 volunteers work.

The dealership property includes the 6,400-square-foot building constructed in 1919 and added on to in 1949, and a new car lot across the street.

Both are for sale but the new location, in a former cornfield near Highway 51, will allow Campbell and his staff of 15 to better serve their customers. There’s more room for seating, customers can drop off cars for service and pick up new cars in enclosed areas protected from the elements and there will be more service bays. The space to show off new and used cars will grow to 200, double that of the downtown location, and there is room to expand in the future.

The building project is the result of a program by Ford that came out in February that assists dealers with improvement projects. Construction began in October.

“It wasn’t tough for me at all,” Campbell said of the decision to expand. “When we put the numbers together, it showed they’re very supportive here. We have great, loyal employees, a great loyal base of customers, and those two things justified it.”

Campbell, 36, grew up just two blocks from the downtown, bought a lot for a home in the village when he was 18 and built a house when he was 22. He eventually worked his way to service manager, a post he held until three years ago when he went full-time with sales. He bought the dealership from Bill Bell, who has no children, in July.

The dealership has survived recessions and the Great Depression and Bell turned down a buyout from Ford in 2008. That was the same year managers at the dealership took a pay cut and contributions to the 401(k) were temporarily halted.

In 2010, the dealership had one of its best years ever, even though it’s only a 15-minute drive to several dealerships on Madison’s Far East Side. Ford F-150 pickup trucks are a big seller.

“We’ve built relationships over the years with these customers,” Campbell said. “We know most of the people who walk through the door.”

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Barry Adams covers regional and business news for the Wisconsin State Journal.