From Flint to Saline, and the Tanglewood Trio to Briarwood Ford

 01/22/2015 - 03:21
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Steve Whitener, co-owner of Briarwood Ford, is pictured in front of his shiny new dealership. Briarwood Ford celebrates its grand re-opening Thursday from 4 to 8 p.m.

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Thursday, local residents, government officials and business owners will help Briarwood Ford celebrate the grand re-opening of the auto dealership at State Road and Michigan Avenue in Saline.

The dealership, incorporated in 1986, underwent a total makeover over the summer and fall.  The new silvery, smooth building looks much more modern, if not a little futuristic.

The community is invited to celebrate the grand re-opening of the dealership between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Guests will enjoy cake and entertainment and be entered into several raffles for local gift packages. Additionally, guests can enter to win a brand new 2015 Ford Escape (2-year lease) or cash prize when they purchase a Foundation for Saline Area School's Snowblast ticket.

Community leaders and executives will cut the ceremonial ribbon at about 5 p.m.

It was a long and challenging construction project, co-owner Steve Whitener said, but it went smoothly because his 75-strong staff was prepared. Thursday’s grand re-opening is in one way a celebration of the completion of the project. But it also marks the beginning of Act II for the dealership. Act II has a tough act to follow. In the first 28 years, the dealership was twice awarded the prestigious Ford President’s Award for customer satisfaction. Briarwood Ford was honored as Business of the Year by the Saline Area Chamber of Commerce. It’s also been voted “Favorite Family-Friendly” dealership by an Ann Arbor magazine and most “Friendly Dealership for Women in Washtenaw County.”

Briarwood Ford is also known for its unwavering support of Saline music programs and the Foundation for Saline Area Schools.

Briarwood Ford is owned by Steve Whitener and Eddie Hall, who also own dealerships in Royal Oak and Vicksburg.

Whitener typically heaps praise on his employees for the success of his business, but in this story, after some arm-twisting, Whitener reveals the unlikely route to becoming the owner of a big-name auto dealership in the small town of Saline.

From Flint to Saline

Steve Whitener was raised in Flint. His mother and father were longtime employees of General Motors. Whitener’s parents hoped his son would go to college, come back to Flint and work as a supervisor. Those are the kinds of aspirations parents have for their children in an auto town like Flint.

Whitener had other ideas. Upon graduating from high school, Whitener, a talented musician, earned a scholarship to study at Olivet College. It was there, 42 years ago, while in the marching band, that Whitener met Sue.

“I fell in love and we got married while we were in school,” Whitener said.

Whitener studied music education and psychology. As a college graduate, he could work at GM as supervisor on the third shift. It was what college grads from Flint did.

“My mother worked for GM for 41 years. In my mother’s eyes, starting as a supervisor was a great idea. But I didn’t like the atmosphere. I didn’t like the idea of going to work for a paycheck. I thought there had to be way to do something you like and make money,” Whitener said.

The Tanglewood Trio

Whitener worked as a substitute teacher during the day. His real job was in music. Whitener played trumpet and guitar. He was also handy with keyboards.

“Right after I graduated my friend told me about an audition for a job playing in a band at the Sheraton Inn,” Whitener said.

He got the gig. The band played six nights a week. It was a plum job.

“One of the worst things about being in a band is moving equipment all the time, but since we played six nights a week, we left all of the heavy stuff there,” Whitener said. “Plus, I was making more in the band than I did teaching.”

The band was called Tanglewood Trio. During dinner, the band played soft jazz and easy listening. After dinner it was top 40 and the hottest disco hits of the era. Whitener was deep into the band scene. He had long hair. He wore silk shirts with big collars cut all the way down to his navel.

There are pictures, he says, but they are not for public consumption.

“Those days were a lot of fun,” Whitener said.

The music took Whitener to clubs around mid and west Michigan. At one point, the drummer from Junior Walker and the All Stars joined the band.

“Apparently when they toured around the world, all anybody cared about was Junior Walker. He stayed in all the nice hotels, and the All Stars didn’t get very much,” Whitener said.

Life in a band was fun, but Whitener felt like he should be doing something with his education. He took a job as a band director at a school in Jackson. He was also teaching music lessons on weekends.

Whitener began working at an academy for troubled students in Albion. The frequency of the music gigs began to fade.

Sue was working at Consumer’s Energy and she was promoted to a position in Ann Arbor. The couple moved to Saline.

Steve was inspired by Sue’s grandfather.

“He was a successful entrepreneur. I learned so much from him. He taught me you could figure out your own path and make it work,” Whitener said, noting the contrast to the nearly inevitable pull of the GM job. “In some ways he was my role model.”

In the Car Business

Whitener went to work for his father-in-law, Ted Benson. Ted owned T&M Chevy, named for Ted and his wife, Margo. T&M Chevy was located where Chelsea Lumber now stands. Ted sold his business to Bill Cripsin in 1978. But he never gave up his business -- buying and selling used vehicles.

“Most of what I did was clean cars for seven years. My father-in-law was very good at what he did. After I went through training, I would go out on the road to buy used cars, recondition them and sell them for a profit,” Whitener said. “I enjoyed it. There was a thrill to it.”

In 1984, the owner of Community Ford, on North Ann Arbor Street, called Ted and asked for help with the used car portion of the business. Ted Benson bought into the business. Steve and Ted’s son, Tom, both took a desk at the dealership.

“We weren’t on the payroll. We were running our used car business from there, which helped him with that end of his business,” Whitener said.

After just 10 months with Community Ford, Ted sold the business to a man who wanted to buy the dealership and move it to State and Michigan.

“My father in law took the money and ran. He just wanted to sell used cars. He and my brother-in-law went back to what they were doing,” Whitener said. Tom still runs T&M Auto in downtown Saline.

On the day Briarwood Ford opened, Whitener went in and introduced himself to Eddie Hall and his business partner.

“I explained that I really didn’t work there. I wished them luck. But they said, ‘Wait a minute. We don’t know Saline. We don’t even know where to eat lunch,’” Whitener recalled. “They asked me to stay on for a few months to help them with the transition.”

A few months turned into nearly 30 years.

Whitener moved into management. In the late 90s, Whitener got the itch to own his own dealership. He’d begun scouting locations but didn’t want to move his family from Saline, where he loved the schools and the safe environment.

“As I was thinking about this, shockingly, one day the partners called me into their office. They said one of the partners was retiring and they invited me to join,” Whitener said.

Whitener became a partner in 1998. In 2005, Whitener and Hall opened the Royal Oak store. In 2013, they opened a dealership in Vicksburg.

Steve and Sue raised two sons, both of whom are in college. Noah, who swam at University of Michigan, is now in medical school. Adam swims at Virginia, where he studies computer science.

Tran Longmoore
Tran Longmoore founded The Saline Post on Aug. 15, 2012. Follow him on Twitter at @tranlongmoore. Follow The Saline Post @thesalinepost. Follow The Saline Post on Facebook by clicking here.