Durant auto legacy has wheels
Opal and Julian Durant started an auto wreckage yard;
their sons have built a career with cars
by Gail Bennison
Fort Worth Business Press – March 28, 2003
Their mother, Opal, gave the boys their names, Tom and Jerry, after the combative, cat-and-mouse cartoon team. She sparked them, gently pitted one against the other, encouraging them to be autonomous and creative.
Their father, the late Julian Durant, provided a compelling prototype of the rewards derived from hard work, business aptitude and resolve.
Jerry and Tom Durant are a product of those parental values. Their excellence was recognized last year when Jerry and Tom were invited to New York to receive the prestigious Jack Smith Award (Chairman of the Board of General Motors), given to only 50 dealers in the country for sales, service and customer satisfaction.
Jerry has passed those traits and characteristics to his son, Brian. Today, the family legacy is thriving with seven dealerships spread from Weatherford to Granbury and Granbury to Grapevine. It’s a long way from the tiny wrecking yard beginnings in Granbury 51 years ago.
According to Jerry Durant, none of the history of the humble beginnings of the Durant Automobile business has been transcribed. It is, however, etched into the hearts of family members.
This is how Jerry recalls the history of the Texas Durants.
The year was 1865. The Civil War had just ended.
The feisty son of a South Carolina judge, had to “high-tail it” out of the state to escape punishment for the beating of a former slave and for chopping off the tail of the man’s steed. He headed for the Wild West.
The fugitive’s son, Alfred Durant, eventually settled in Mitchell’s Bend in the lower part of Hood County on the Brazos River, where he married, sired six children, and made a living as a poor farmer. While fishing one day on the Brazos, he fell in the icy water and subsequently died of pneumonia, leaving his eldest son, eight year-old Julian Vernon Durant to assume the role as breadwinner for the family of seven. Alfred never did see the twins, who were born after his death.
These were the depression years, the days of dandelion soup as dinner fare. It also was the end of a carefree childhood for Julian, who, out of necessity, ended his formal education while in the third grade. But the hard times likely prepared him for future success, instilling a work ethic that passed through the generations of Durants.
By 1941, Julian and two of his brothers were serving their country overseas during WW II, all three sending money home to secure the survival of their family.
After the war had ended, Julian married Opal Maples. They provided for themselves and two small sons by laboring on the construction of pipeline through Louisiana, Mississippi and Missouri. They instilled a powerful work ethic in their sons, Tom and Jerry, holding steadfast to their primary goal of providing stability and a permanent home for the boys.
The meandering road of construction life led the Durants back to Texas.
In 1951, the family settled in the agricultural town of Granbury, where the ever-industrious Julian founded Durant Construction Company, as well as running a small grocery business.
That same year, in order to make ends meet, Julian and Opal established a wrecking yard business behind the family home. Opal managed the business’ books. By 1954, the wrecking yard venture was successful enough for the hard-working couple to purchase acreage on the west side of town, across the street from the drive-in movie theater.
In that wrecking yard, from humble beginnings, a farmer with a third-grade education founded the Durant Automobile business.
“My dad taught us determination, the value of family loyalty and hard work. My brother, Tom, and I are independent of each other in a business sense, but our personal relationship is tied to the family and the community,” Jerry says.
Jerry remembers his father’s tenacity in the expansion of his business in Granbury in 1960.
“Mr. Durham, who owned Durham Ranch, also owned the local Chevrolet dealership on the east side of the square behind Cunningham’s Service Station. We had the building next door. Dad wanted to buy Durham’s business. He talked to him about it, and Durham said he would let my dad know the next day. Dad didn’t just sit around and wait to hear from him.
“He went to the square, because he told me he figured if Mr. Durham really wanted to sell, he would be hauling stuff out of there right away. As it turned out, Mr. Durham only took his hat out of the building. My dad bought the building and everything in it. The next week, they had closed the deal, one that the Chevrolet office in Dallas almost messed up. My dad had already written a check for the dealership, but, when he called the Dallas office, they said he couldn’t buy it because he had not been approved.
“Well, my dad just told them, ‘You’d better approve me, because I have just given all of my money to Durham.’ Dad got the approval.
“We stayed there until 1964, and moved it east of Granbury before the by-pass came in.”
The by-pass was constructed the following year, dramatically cutting Durant’s business.
“We got really lucky,” Jerry says. “The Army Corps of Engineers bought Lake Granbury, and bought our land at the same time. We moved in 1967 to the new dealership, in its present location on Highway 377.”
From the time Jerry was 14 and Tom was 11, the wheels were set in motion to prepare for their own vistas in the car sales business.
In addition to attending college fulltime–Jerry at North Texas State University, and Tom at Texas Tech — they worked at Julian’s business, and hauled hay in their spare time to save money to buy their dealerships.
Jerry says his dad sent them to the General Motors school during the summer months.
“On Saturdays, my brother and I would work in the wash rack and change tires. We learned sales, too,” Jerry says. “One of the hardest things about selling trucks was the customers always wanted different tires. They rarely wanted the factory tires. Our job was to switch them out and do the make-ready. We were learning the business from the wheels up.”
The hard work and experience paid off for the Durant brothers. Julian’s plan for his boys to be independent of him and each other became an actuality.
“In 1970, I used my $20,000 in savings and negotiated for the lease of the building and parts of the bankrupt Ferrill Chevrolet in Weatherford,” Jerry says. “I was only 23 years old, and one of the youngest ever to apply for a dealership. That bank was sure glad to see my money. GM made me wait six months for approval after I had already put all my money down with the bank. They tried to get my dad to take it because of my age, but he told them that he had taught me everything I knew to be able to run it myself. I got my approval and started my first car dealership in July of that year.”
Julian Durant retired when Tom graduated from Texas Tech University, leaving a passage for Tom to pursue his dealership interests. Tom set up a buy-out for his father’s business and the next Durant generation had its presence.
According to Jerry, the brothers always have been very competitive.
“Tom was constantly trying to beat my numbers, and I was trying to beat his,” Jerry says. “My mother instigated a lot of the competition. She would tell Tom something I did to be successful in an area, and then she would tell me something to make me work harder to beat Tom. It worked, too. We eventually got the nicknames of ‘Tom and Jerry’ like the cat and mouse on the cartoon show. But Tom could never beat me from Granbury.”
Tom Durant found a way to top Jerry’s numbers in 1987, when he bought Classic Chevrolet/Geo. He assumed a three-year lease on the old rundown store on 7th Street at $40,000 a month. Eventually, GMC financed land that allowed Tom to move to the current location on SH 114 in Grapevine.
Jerry says with brotherly pride that Tom spent every penny he had to put himself in a position to surpass Jerry’s sales.
“He immediately began beating me at Classic,” Jerry said, laughing “He started faxing his numbers to me daily, as he still does today.”
Under Tom’s able leadership, Classic Chevrolet is the No. 1 volume Chevrolet dealership in the Fort Worth-Dallas area. He also owns Durant Autoplex and Durant Chevrolet in Granbury.
In Weatherford, Jerry’s four dealerships last year sold 6,100 new cars and trucks and 2,200 used vehicles, at an average cost of $25,000 per vehicle. That’s $55,000,000 in revenues.
“In the beginning,” Tom says. “it was set up for Jerry and me to work together. I realized that I didn’t want to work for my older brother all my life. I called my dad about working for myself. He told me I was ready. Jerry and I have always been competitive. I wanted to make a name for myself, even though I knew I was taking a big risk. I bought something that no one else wanted at the time.It turned out to be a big success story. I have always thought that I brought a little bit of the country to the city.”
Tom speaks highly of his father and his brother.
“My father taught me how to take care of a customer,” Tom says. “If you take care of your customer, they will bring business to you. They will send the business back. Our business was built by word of mouth.
“Jerry … I have always looked up to him. He has set the standards for all of us.”
In 1986, Jerry expanded his business with the purchase of Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile and GMC Trucks in Weatherford. Once again, GM did not make it easy. Says Jerry: “GM did not want the same man to own two dealerships in the same community.”
In 1999, the door was opened for the third generation of Durants to steer in the direction of the auto sales business.
Jerry bought Durant Toyota in Weatherford three years ago and turned the reins over to his son, Brian, now 28.
Brian says he was groomed for the business from the time he was a teenager.
I have worked for my dad since I was 12 or 13 years old, either washing cars or picking up trash on the lot,” Brian says, “I have, through the years, worked in each department, learning the business step-by-step.”
Brian graduated from Texas Christian University in 1997 with a degree in Business Administration, majoring in management.
“After graduation, I went straight to work for my Dad at Jerry’s Chevrolet,” he says. “I married Jeni in 1998, and we now have the greatest gift of all, our daughter Kindel, born March 2 of this year.
“I worked for dad for two years, until July of 1999, when we purchased the Toyota dealership across the street from Jerry’s. From July 1, 1999, I have operated the dealership. In the beginning, the building was not in very good shape. During the first year, we remodeled the entire facility. Selling cars with a concrete saw in the next office is not the easiest thing to do, especially when some of the time there was no air conditioning. But we did our best, and the first month we took over, we sold over 50 new Toyotas.”
“Toyota would not let Brian be the dealer because of his age,” Jerry says. ” I wanted him to have the responsibility of running his own business without working as hard as I did.”
Brian sounds determined to preserve the station of the family name. The work ethic is simply in his genes.
Three years ago, the Toyota dealership was selling an average of 20 cars a month. Under his management, Durant Toyota today averages unit sales in excess of 140 a month.
Brian says the success comes from the Durant philosophy regarding customer service and caring for employees. “We treat our customers exactly the way we would want to be treated if we were in their position going through the car buying experience,” Brian says. “We are not in the middle of thousands of people; therefore we must earn the trust and loyalty of each and every customer. Repeat customers are the key to our business success and I feel that there is only one way to gain it–treat people right–with respect and honesty.
“With respect to our employees, we feel the same way. Treat them with respect and honesty. Always be there for them in any of their needs. Do all we can to help them better themselves. After all, without them we would have nothing. If they are not successful, no one will be.”
His leadership philosophy was molded by his father, Jerry.
Says Brian: “He is a very good man. He cares more for other people and their well being than that of his own. He has given his entire life, and it has paid off. He is very successful to the car business, but has worked very hard to achieve his success. He has the best work ethic of anyone I know. He treats all of his employees with respect and is very fair. He would never ask someone to do anything he has not done himself. He is just an overall outstanding person and businessman. I have learned a lot from my Dad; it seems like there is something new every day. I have not only learned about the car business from him, but about life in general. It is nice to have him around and at the same location. There is always room for improvement or a better way to do things and he is always here to help.”
Don Allen, the general manager of the Buick, Pontiac, GMC, Nissan store has worked for Jerry for 29 years. Jerry and Don have been friends since they were in first grade. Says Don: “If your employees are happy, it will carry over to the customer. Durant employees are happy. You can’t say enough about the things Jerry has done in business and as a community leader. As an example, he was very instrumental in building the new $50-million high school, serving on the school board and laying the general groundwork for the project. Jerry is very trusting, and he gives you the room to navigate. He might tell you something, but he wants you see for yourself how to do it. He allows you to make decisions, but if he sees the need, he will lead it as well. He leads by example.”
Roy Young, general manager of James Wood Motors in Decatur has known the Durant family for over 17 years.
Says Young: “The Durants are worthy competitors, representing GM well. They are good businessmen and operators of their dealerships.”
How important is the family presence to Durant?” Says Jerry: “Car dealers have to work a lot of hours. A dealership that is run by a caring family in the community is good for the dealership as well as the community it serves. I have met a lot of dealers who tried to keep their sons or daughters in one location. In many cases, it has held those kids back, or they have pulled in opposite directions.”
Opal Durant, the matriarch, is semi-retired and living in Granbury. Julian Vernon Durant passed away in 1997.
“I thank God every day that my parents let us be creative and go our own way instead of holding us back,” Jerry says. “They taught us how to work. My dad taught us to provide for ourselves. This was his greatest gift.”