Michael Bates, a new player in the Downriver auto world, has directly or indirectly sold thousands of cars, but it all started by chance.
Bates was raised with three siblings by a single mother in Inkster. After putting himself through college at Wayne State University for a degree in journalism, he fell on hard times after graduating.
“I stumbled into the car business,” he said. “I applied for a job at Dearborn Pontiac Nissan simply because I needed a job.”
At 24, sporadic hours and low pay at Bates’ job as a sports producer at the Channel 50 news studio wasn’t cutting it and he needed to pick up a full-time job. Bates had worked in landscaping, dug ditches and poured concrete in the past and just viewed potential work at the dealership as the next job to help make ends meet.
“I had one foot in journalism and one foot in car sales and didn’t really think I had a future in car sales,” Bates said. “I didn’t do very well my first few weeks there. In the car business, we work for commission. So you can work 60 hours a week, but if you didn’t sell any cars, guess what? Too bad.”
In the last week of his first month, Bates made several sales, earning him $5,500, which was far more money than he had ever made in that span in the past. His success on the sales floor continued and he was promoted to higher responsibilities at the Dearborn dealership.
Taking a chance
After about five years at the dealership, Bates entered the General Motors Dealer Development Program with dreams of someday owning his own dealership. Bates trained for five years in the program before being offered the keys to a failing dealership in Westborough, Massachusetts.
“I thought being a dealer was so beyond me,” he said. “I grew up with nothing. We grew up on welfare in a single-parent house. I took every dime I had and literally cleaned out my kids’ college funds, my 401(k), IRA, you name it. I cleaned out everything to put in a down payment.”
At 35, Bates finally owned his own dealership, but needed to move his family to the East Coast and would have to sink a lot of money into the business between the purchase and attempting to turn a profit from a failing dealership.
At one time, Bates’ family accompanied him on a business trip to San Diego, where they hoped to make a trip to the San Diego Zoo.
When Bates went to the ATM to withdraw some cash for tickets, his debit card was declined and he was down to his last $40.
“That was kind of cold water in the face,” he said. “I thought, ‘Man, I own a dealership and I don’t have a hundred bucks in the bank?’ I was a dealer, but it was still hard for me.
“I thought ‘No risk, no reward.’ I had done everything I was supposed to do with the training and sooner or later I had to spread my wings and try to fly.”
Bates eventually turned Westborough Buick GMC around and made it profitable, which allowed him the opportunity to purchase a second dealership in Manassas, Virginia, which he named Manassas Chevrolet.
Missing his family’s roots
Business was going well at both of Bates’ dealerships, but he and his family missed Michigan.
Bates would regularly check in with dealers across the Mitten State inquiring on whether they wanted to sell. Finally, he found such a dealer in Pam Rodgers, former owner of Rodgers Chevrolet, now Michael Bates Chevrolet.
“The Downriver area, to me, is full of real people,” Bates said. “This area has salt-of-the-earth people. Just good, hard-working people and I’m proud to say that that’s how I view myself. It was a no-brainer for me. It felt good and I jumped all over it. I could not wait to get in here.”
Bates sold off Manassas Chevrolet to purchase Rodgers Chevrolet and closed on the deal July 18 at the age of 48.
“To be home after traveling, after essentially having to turn around two dealerships completely to make them profitable, to come into this situation which is home and proudly see my name on the building, it’s a dream come true,” Bates said.
Michael Bates Chevrolet, 23755 Allen Road, is the first dealership Bates has owned that bears his name because it’s the first time he said he’s felt at home with his business. Still, he was reluctant to make changes to the dealership initially due to the community trust and customer satisfaction that had been associated with Rodgers Chevrolet.
Coming home to Michigan
“I’m not going to come into a store and clean house,” he said. “This is a winning team already, so I have less motivation to come in and change. For me, it was very attractive to buy a store that I could just walk in and enhance the experience, but not have to change everything.”
None of the 70 employees at the dealership were fired after ownership changed hands, which made Bates feel like: “The new kid in school.”
His office still holds bare shelves, with sparse decor serving as relics of his past life. Small, replica football helmets echo memories of his time as a sports producer. A hanging Virginia license plate bearing his name reminds him of the risks and hard work it took to get here.
“I didn’t have anything,” he said. “I put myself through college. I took out loans. I had some grants, but I used to catch the bus from Inkster to Wayne State. I always thought about: ‘What’s the alternative. Lay down and do nothing or keep going?’”
Bates might have stumbled into the car business, but his mistake has become his passion.
“If you work hard, you can do it because I did,” he said. “You can look at me know saying: ‘Oh he’s a dealer,’ but you didn’t see me when I was broke wearing the same pair of shoes for two years with a hole in the ball of my foot. Wherever your path goes, while you’re walking it it’s tough, but the hard work pays off.”
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