Terry Hanks takes a moment to explain how the ‘cowboy carsalesman’ look happened and why it has stuck around. Video by Dave Wasinger/Lansing State Journal
Terry Hanks laughs as he sits in his office at the Sundance Chevrolet dealership in Grand Ledge in February 2016. Hanks has been selling cars for nearly 50 years. (Photo: Dave Wasinger, Dave Wasinger/Lansing State Journal)Buy Photo
GRAND LEDGE – In the game for over 50 years and consistently a top used car dealer in the state, Terry Hanks has every reason to hang up his trademark tan Stetson and ride one of his horses into the sunset.
Hanks could easily accept an offer to buy his Sundance Chevrolet empire. He could drop the cowboy image and become a more sedentary man of leisure.
Go ahead, try to convince the 75-year-old he’s got nothing to prove. It’s a waste of time. Hanks still has the drive to deal. He attends staff meetings daily and has plans to expand Sundance.
“Everybody is trying to sell to the guy with the suit and the tie,” Hanks said of his sales philosophy. “I want to sell to the guy with the blue collar that’s out in the barn.”
In his personal life, Hanks prefers driving used cars over new, saying he’s “too hard” on his vehicles. During an interview last month, Hanks drove a reporter and photographer to his Sundance Riding Stables in his diesel-powered 1999 Chevy Suburban with over 300,000 miles.
A Lansing native, Hanks has an image that his mostly working and middle class customers relate to. His longevity and ubiquitous television ads have made him something of a local celebrity and one of the most recognizable businessmen in mid-Michigan.
It’s been a long road for a man who once thought he’d spend his working life as a grocery store meat cutter.
Whether it’s going shirtless to make a sale or sitting on top of a bull in a dealership lot, Hanks has a passion for wheeling and dealing and an unconventional, wild-west marketing style. Both helped grow his dealership from 18 employees to over 220 and made Sundance one of the top-selling dealerships in the state.
Hanks ranked No. 1 in the state last year with 5,402 used cars sold, according to the Michigan Auto Dealers Association. He’s been No. 1 at least since 2012, said Larry Parker, the association’s program development director. Sundance also sold 1,802 new cars last year, ranking 74th out of 640 dealerships in Michigan.
Hanks hopes for another banner year in 2016. Just last month, the dealership sold nearly 800 used and new cars.
That success gets noticed by competitors. “I think Terry Hanks is one of the smartest car guys I’ve seen — ever,” said 56-year-old North Clark, a co-owner of Rose City Motors, with locations in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.
Hanks’ love for cars started early. His father was a milkman and time keeper at Motor Wheel Corp. who instilled a disciplined work ethic. His mother worked as meat wrapper. Hanks, who cut meat at a grocery’s deli counter while in high school, purchased his first car at age 16 — a ’37 Buick with suicide doors. A farmer sold it to him for $30.
After graduating from Sexton High School, Hanks and some buddies went to Long Beach, Calif. He again found work at a grocery store. “I thought I’d be a meat cutter, and screw everything else!” said Hanks, reflecting on his beginnings. “I thought I’d go to work, have a beer at five o’clock and then go hunting.”
When the allure of California’s beaches and babes wore off, Hanks and three friends headed for the Big Apple, despite having no money, no place to stay and no jobs.
If a flight from Chicago to New York hadn’t been delayed, there’s no telling where Hanks might be today. But getting stuck in the Windy City presented options: wait it out or travel to Lansing. Hanks and his buddies headed home to think things over.
When Hanks realized he could buy an acre of Michigan land for about $300 — as much as it would cost to get a fancy suit out East — he stayed put. He found the car business too lucrative to pass up.
A stint at Jack Dykstra Ford in Lansing eventually paid off. When the former Huhn Chevrolet in Grand Ledge went up for sale in the early 1980s, Hanks jumped at the deal. Sundance was born.
Hanks first sold tractors to gauge how well he could draw customers. It didn’t take long for him to start selling vehicles.
Hanks quickly realized the power of unconventional marketing and started pounding the Lansing market with commercials.
The “Sundance Man” had something to say, and people became eager to listen. To this day, he’s still known for delivering catchy slogans while decked out in western attire. Most ads feature live horses, employees waiving relentlessly in the background and deals flying across the screen to country music.
Hanks is a firm believer in authenticity and wants to show that in each commercial. “I’m a working guy; I’m not a white collar guy,” Hanks said.
Terry Hanks talks with an auto technician at the Sundance dealership in Grand Ledge. Hanks has been selling cars for nearly 50 years. (Photo: Dave Wasinger, Dave Wasinger/Lansing State Journal)
Hanks has also traveled to advise other dealers on how to rebrand their business. He’s told several to ditch their suits, have more fun and do everything possible to make the customer feel comfortable.
Hanks’ clever commercials inspired North Clark, the Rose City Motors co-owner.
Rose City Motors has found success with commercials that usually show Clark in a polo shirt. There’s no flash, just straight forward messages, often emphasizing that a customer’s bad credit isn’t a problem and ending with the phrase “We’ll bring the vehicle to you.”
Hanks is so successful that Clark decided years ago not to add a Rose City location in the Lansing area. Consider it a sign of respect.
“Have I lost deals to Terry?” Clark said. “Yeah. Has he lost deals to me? Yeah. But we’re all a family. I think he thinks ‘There’s enough out there for everybody.’”
The “Great Recession” of 2008-09 that led to bankruptcy filings at Chrysler and General Motors made Hanks worry he could lose it all.
Since Lansing is a GM town, with about 5,800 employed at the Grand River and Delta Township assembly plants, Hanks calmly told his employees in a staff meeting to brace for a potentially bumpy ride. Sundance pushed used vehicles harder and it paid off.
“There’s a market for everything,” Hanks said. “If you want to have a super-selection, you can’t have just Chevys sitting here.”
Hanks’ dealership in Grand Ledge sells all makes and models. He says the massive inventory – he has about 1,300 used vehicles on the lot this spring — helps keep prices down.
When Lansing native Sherman Outlaw, 40, needed a car last month, he thought of “The Sundance Man” and made a beeline to the dealership.
Outlaw grew up with the commercials and leaped out of a chair when he saw Hanks. He even tried on Hanks’ cowboy hat. At the time, Outlaw was filling out paperwork to purchase a 2003 Saturn LS300 sedan with 203,000 miles for $1,300.
“I like the energy,” Outlaw said of Hanks.
Hanks signature catchphrases in commercials — “We want to make you a deal on an automobile!” and “If we make a buck it’s sheer luck” — are hard to forget.
The often hilarious commercials are usually created in just a few takes. Whenever Hanks stumbles upon a commercial on TV or the radio, he’ll turn up the volume “to see how much I goof up.”
Ask around the region about Hanks and you’re bound to hear everything from “He’s a marketing genius” to “He’s an opportunistic wild man.” Hanks takes it all in stride.
“They’re probably all right — to some degree,” Hanks said laughing, when asked what he’s heard about his reputation.
One memorable phrase from Sundance commercials dates back to the 1980s: “Hey kids! Stay in school, stay out of drugs and bring your parents to Sundance!”
Hanks said he didn’t realize at the time that mentioning of drugs in his commercials would damage his reputation. For years, Hanks and his family say they endured rumors that he was forced to promote an anti-drug message because he had a cocaine problem.
Hanks denies that, but said he did agree to add the public service message because of a legal matter. Hanks said the dealership got in trouble with the Michigan Attorney General’s Office some 15 to 20 years ago for leasing space to an insurance company.
The insurance company offered customers policies that covered vehicle payments in case the customers had some kind of health problems or a death in the family. Hanks wasn’t aware of the arrangement, he said, because he was running Sundance’s Family Home Center at the time.
Terry Hanks said he and the Michigan Attorney General’s Office agreed to a deal that dropped the insurance matter if he gave the anti-drug messages in commercials.
The Attorney General’s Office wasn’t able to find details of that agreement when asked by the Lansing State Journal. A check of Michigan State Police criminal background database didn’t show any criminal convictions for Terry Hanks. There also is no record of any charges in Eaton and Ingham county courts.
Hanks daughter, Terrah Hanks, said it was tough to grow up in Grand Ledge and later pursue college and business in the area while hearing the rumors.
“We were raised to be confident kids so we’re used to saying things or doing things,” said Terrah Hanks, who competes in professional rodeo events and loves to hunt. “We weren’t used to having feelings getting hurt.”
Hanks said he does his best to stay as consistent with his family. His has five children who range in age from 40 to 16 and nine grandchildren. Hanks attends games of his 17-year-old son Colt’s traveling hockey team and believes it’s important to encourage all his kids to take their own route to success.
Terrah Hanks, 38, is the sales manager at Sundance Buick GMC in St. Johns and often co-stars in the dealership’s colorful commercials. His son Joe Hanks. 40, is a sales manager at the Grand Ledge Sundance.
Dad doesn’t just hand over jobs. For example, Terrah Hanks graduated from Michigan State University with a marketing degree and completed a program at the National Automotive Dealers Association Academy before taking charge in St. Johns.
The fun-loving vibe displayed seen in Sundance commercials reflects the way the Hankses live, she said.
It’s not the traditional family, but everyone is close. Terrah Hanks has one sister from her father’s only marriage, two half brothers and one half sister. Walk into his office at Sundance and his desk displays photos of all.
“Everything you see on TV is similar to how we were raised; (the commercials) aren’t fake,” said Terrah Hanks. “That’s Sundance, that’s our family.”
Hanks has a longtime girlfriend in Diane Franklin, who helps keep him in line, Terrah Hanks said. Franklin has been with Terry Hanks off and on for about 45 years and helped save her father’s life when he had a heart attack about six years ago, Terrah said. Terry Hanks ended up getting two stents.
Spend time with Terry Hanks and it’s hard to believe he was ever on the mend physically. He chops wood at his Eaton Rapids home, takes care of horses and tries to keep his mind sharp by following the latest business trends.
Walk into Sundance in Grand Ledge and it’s hard not to notice Hanks’ touch. A log cabin office building, known as “The Bunkhouse” was designed by Hanks and built by Amish friends from Nashville, Michigan. There’s a barn that houses used vehicles before they are reconditioned.
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Less than four miles south is the Sundance Riding Stables, a 200-acre complex offers horseback riding lessons and boarding services. Hanks spent time at the stables as a kid and bought it to provide the family-friendly activity for others.
Hanks can’t think of a scenario that would inspire him to walk away from his work.
“I couldn’t retire,” Hanks said. “I’ll work until I’m underground.”
Eric Lacy is a reporter for the Lansing State Journal. Contact him at 517-377-1206 Media him on Twitter @EricLacy.
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