Like Jon and Albert

I lost some people recently. Not family, and not even friends in the traditional sense of the word. Just random people who I came in contact with over, of all things, a vehicle.

In July 2020, I reserved a new Ford Bronco. Not the little Bronco Sport that you’ve seen cruising around town, but one of the big boys—a body-on-frame, 4×4, off-roading, 6th generation Bronco. Coming from a Suzuki SX4 hatchback, this was a big step up for me, but considering all the trail-driving I do to get to the hiking trails, it made sense. So on July 13th last year, I logged onto Ford’s website and waited patiently. At 6 p.m., the reservation page opened – and immediately crashed. After about fifteen minutes – and a lot of refreshing – I got my name on the list for a 2021 Bronco.

The next step was finding a dealership. With demand for the Bronco so high, I was leery of ADMs – additional dealer markups. The way Ford set this up, once you had an order (not a reservation, but an order) in with a dealership, you could only buy it from that one place (note that Ford has since changed this policy). I worried about sales departments jacking me around. I’m not putting down salespeople here – I was in sales myself for years – but I’m not naïve either. I know the deal. If a salesperson locks you in with an order without first giving you a price in writing, you lose all your leverage. They can charge as much as they want, and if you don’t want to pay it, they can turn around and sell the vehicle to someone else. I saw this playing out in a lot of ugly ways: car dealerships “stealing” people’s reservations and selling them to their top clientele; or adding 5, 10, 20, even $50,000 on top of MSRP to the cost and then, if the person who reserved the Bronco didn’t want to pay it, selling it to the highest bidder (think this doesn’t happen? A quick google proves otherwise – that’s exactly what happened).

Anyway, last summer I didn’t want to end up in that situation, so I called dealerships all over the state. I just wanted to know one thing: If I place my order with you, are you going to charge me MSRP – which is the price quoted on Ford’s website when I made my reservation – or are you going to add a markup to the price? After dozens of conversations, and no clear answer, I finally landed on one salesperson who said he wasn’t adding a markup. Not only that, but his dealership was also currently running a special: $1,000 below invoice, or roughly $4,000 below MSRP. Could I get that in writing? Yes. And so the deal was done.

Albert, the salesguy, wasn’t a regular salesperson. If I emailed him at 5 a.m. to tell him I was thinking of changing my trim from Base to Big Bend, or from Big Bend to Outer Banks, he’d call me. He would actually call me on the telephone to discuss the differences: what I would lose, what I would gain, and what it would cost. “Did it make sense to get the 4A, on top of the 2H, 4H, and 4L?” I’d ask. “Yes,” he said, “in Colorado you’d be crazy not to.” “With the high demand, how can I get my Bronco sooner?” “Switch to a 4-door Big Bend,” he said, “the 2-doors, which have a hard top, are going to be delayed.” (He was right on both accounts – adding the 4A was the right choice, and my 2-door Outer Banks has been delayed until 2022.)

Albert loved Broncos, and he loved Colorado. He would talk at length about his favorite mountain towns and trails. And he knew the Bronco inside and out: the details of every trim, transmission, tire, and engine. Honestly, I have never been so happy to get a phone call from a salesperson as I was on those mornings when my phone rang, and the caller ID said “Albert.” Over time, I met some of Albert’s other customers online. They all shared their experiences, which were similar to mine: long talks with our favorite car salesman about Colorado towns and trails, and about the Bronco.

One thing Albert didn’t talk about was his health. But we all kind of sensed it: he was not well, and probably wasn’t going to get better. The calls were shorter because he had to rest his voice. Then he was working from home, and eventually, we were communicating online and through email. Still, it came as a shock last month when the owner of the dealership contacted Albert’s customers to let us know that he had passed.

None of us were family, or even friends of the family, yet we had to do something to honor this man. He had brought together hundreds of Bronco enthusiasts from across the country, who shared one other thing in common: an appreciation for this man and his upbeat attitude, indomitable spirit, and his drive to do right by his customers. One person raised funds for flowers, and another guy picked them out and made sure they got to the memorial. There was so much money left over – about $4,500 – that another customer found out Albert’s favorite charity was a fire and rescue operation in a tiny town in Iowa, and the funds were donated. Still another one of Albert’s customers, Jon, designed patches, stickers, T-shirts, and tote bags and sold them, with the proceeds going to the same charity. I couldn’t believe all that people were doing to honor this man who had made such an impression on all of our lives. I ordered some stickers, a magnet, and a patch. Jon shipped them to me with a nice note, and I reached out to thank him for his lovely work. I mean, who does this for their car salesman?

A few days ago, I was notified by Jon’s wife that he, too, had passed away. It happened suddenly – a heart attack at work. I couldn’t believe it. I had just spoken to him online a couple of days ago. She wanted to make sure that I didn’t have any outstanding orders that Jon hadn’t shipped. She wanted to take care of the orders and get the proceeds to the charity honoring Albert.

Last night, I sewed the patch on my jean jacket. And I thought about friendships, and people, and how one person’s attitude and actions can have such a profound impact on the lives of so many other people. And how you don’t have to be a celebrity, or a politician, or a CEO, or a church leader, to bring people together and show them what it means to be treated well. To make so many other people want to be better people too. You can be a guy who designs stickers and patches to raise money for charity. You can be a car salesman. You can be like Jon and Albert.

This blog first appeared as a column in the September 7, 2021 Gazette North Springs Edition.

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