John Bleakley Ford is marking fifty years as a car dealership. Half a century. Thousands upon thousands of cars and trucks sold, serviced, and sometimes resold. Generations of employees and customers, some who return from their homes in other parts of the country, just to buy from the dealership that their parents and grandparents bought from. But, it wasn’t always chrome and V-8s for the Bleakley family.
John Bleakley Sr was born and raised on a small farm in Ireland. He was one of five children, four brothers and a sister, who lost their father when John was 13 years old. After attending the Masonic School in Dublin, John Sr immigrated to Canada at age 19, the year his mother passed away. After working as a lumberjack, he joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. During that time, he met and married his wife Dorothy. They moved to Anchorage, Alaska where John Jr and his sister, Renee, were born. Then, it was back to Canada until 1966 when they moved to Acworth, Georgia.
In Acworth, John Sr took a job selling VWs in Marietta. He was a natural. In 1967 he was one of the top salesmen in the country, selling over 600 cars in one year. The next year he was offered the opportunity to take over the struggling Ford dealership in Douglasville. Estes-Williams Ford became Five Flags Ford in 1968 and then John Bleakley Ford when ownership of the business was paid in full. The 31 year old dedicated himself to working seven day weeks to build the business into a successful venture with staying power in a sometimes challenging economy.
John Bleakley Jr reflects on growing up in the car business: “It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 50 years since we moved our single wide trailer from Acworth to Flagview Mobile Home Park across the road from the dealership in 1968. It has been a great business for me and my family, we have gotten to know some wonderful people as customers, friends, and especially co-workers.” John remembers spending time at the dealership as a kid, hanging out in the office and drawing cars on his father’s desk pad. Eventually he worked in the Parts and Service Departments when he was in high school. While he wasn’t pushed toward the business, it just seemed a natural thing to do.
The car business is very sensitive to economic changes. The move, in 1981, from Fairburn Road, at the corner of Cherokee Boulevard, to 870 Thornton Road, was needed to own the building instead of renting and to have the chance to expand. It came, though, during a period of exceptionally high interest rates that all but strangled new car sales. Lean years followed, but eventually rates lowered and sales rebounded. Again, a bust economy in 2008-2010 caused the business to contract significantly. John Bleakley Ford, unlike many long term companies, struggled through the recession, but emerged successfully, though John Jr still feels the pain of those difficult times.
Fifty years and counting and much has changed in the business. One thing that hasn’t changed: pickup trucks continue to be the best sellers. The Ford F-150 is, day in and day out, the top seller at John Bleakley Ford. Other products can get hot, like the Mustang, the Explorer, and the Expedition, but the truck is a constant. Occasionally there are models that are somewhat forgettable, like the Tempo and the Fairmont, but even they have had their fans.
Customers and advertising have changed. The internet has made customers far more knowledgeable before they ever set foot in a showroom. That access to information has also driven advertising toward internet-savvy customers. More than ever though, Bleakley believes “ it still comes down to people buying from people they like and trust.” In that sense, Bleakley believes that the car business is really the people business. The dealership thrives on those generational customers who return for every vehicle purchase decade after decade.
John Bleakley Jr asserts that it’s also about familiar faces in the dealership: “We are blessed to have some very long term employees! Warner Webb has been a service advisor since 1971! Bobby Linch has worked in our parts department since 1973. Mary Godwin has worked in our office and sales department since she was in high school, in 1980! Shelia Brawner is my office manager and started with us in 1989. Ann Chhim has worked in our detail department since 1992. Vic Riggs has been in sales and sales management since 1994. Joe Pritchard and Richard Creighton are techs with 21 years each. Glenn Rainwater retired after 27 years, but returned last year and is our most senior salesperson. We have a lot of five to 20 year employees as well. It’s these long term dedicated people that have made this company a success. Benny Earl retired a few years ago as our general manager after almost 35 years and was a huge part of our success.”
An early life in Ireland of hard work, perseverance, and a willingness to take a risk set the stage for a business that has now spanned half a century in this community. By the way, if you purchased a 1968 Mustang GT that first year on Fairburn Road and took really good care of it, that $3,000 purchase is slightly more valuable today (one recently listed for $199,000).