By MIKE FERGUSON
Of the Baker City Herald
It's official new car shoppers can now purchase an import vehicle in Baker City.
With a few signatures and the exchange of a set of keys Wednesday, Don Phillips sold the dealership he's owned for 44 years to fellow dealer John Gentry of Ontario.
The new dealership formally known as John Gentry Ford/Lincoln/Mercury/Subaru received its initial shipment of the popular Japanese imports Wednesday afternoon, according to Ryan Gentry, who's temporarily serving as general manager of the Baker City dealership as well as the flagship location in Ontario.
The sale of his longtime business will allow Phillips to finish a labor of love pruning the andquot;1,700 or soandquot; trees on the property where his cabin is located near Phillips Park south of Pine Creek and west of Baker City.
andquot;After 54 years in the car business, it'll feel good to limb a few trees,andquot; he said Wednesday, andquot;but I'll be here if they need me.andquot;
andquot;He said he'd work for free,andquot; John Gentry joked.
Rejoined Phillips: andquot;I'm still waiting for my tip,andquot; after selling the dealership to Gentry for an undisclosed price.
Phillips said he had a reservoir of happy memories after running the downtown automobile dealership for so many years.
andquot;Baker is such a fun town to be in,andquot; he said. andquot;The people have been great, and I'm going to miss a lot of them.andquot;
He noted that the Gentry family had also been in the business for more than 50 years. John Gentry's father, Keith, bought the family's first franchise, in Weiser, Idaho, more than 50 years ago, he said.
andquot;They'll be an asset to our community,andquot; Phillips predicted.
John Gentry was born in Baker City and currently serves on the board of directors of Oregon Trail Financial Corp., the holding company for Pioneer Bank.
andquot;We're certainly cognizant of what Don has built here,andquot; he said. andquot;We have a lot of respect for Don and what he's done. Our goal is to be as customer service oriented as we can be.andquot;
Talks with Phillips over sale of the dealership have been 18 months in the making, Ryan Gentry said.
andquot;The negotiations went very well,andquot; he said. andquot;Don treated us right.andquot;
Ryan Gentry will be general manager in Baker City until his brother-in-law, Dennis Wright, moves into the position. Wright and his wife, Kelli, along with their two children, moved to Baker City about a month ago.
andquot;We're excited to be here,andquot; Wright said, after working in the truck leasing business for 12 years in the Portland area. andquot;We've been looking to get out here for quite a while.andquot;
Ryan Gentry said his family purchased Phillips' dealership andquot;because we see a lot of opportunityandquot; in Baker City.
andquot;We've got a good group of (employees) here,andquot; he said. andquot;There's a lot to build on.andquot;
The current sales and service staff has been retained, he said, and more training is in store for service technicians so that they can be certified to repair Subarus as well as Ford products.
In addition to the import line Subaru is the most popular import car in the service area, Gentry said, and comprises about half the sales at the Ontario dealership both new and used car buyers will see more cars to choose from at the Baker City site.
That's because both Ford and Subaru allocate the number of vehicles sent to a dealership each month based on sales. Higher volume dealers thus receive more makes, models and colors for their customers to choose from.
The Baker City allocation will be tied to Ontario sales figures, which average about 100 per month new and used vehicles, Gentry said.
Between 50 and 60 used vehicles will be available shortly in Baker City, and local buyers will also have access to the 100 to 140 used vehicles in Ontario, which can be driven to Baker City for inspection and a test drive, Ryan Gentry said.
andquot;We've got people going back and forth every day,andquot; he said.
He said the new owners will add to the number of financial lenders available and beef up its finance department in Baker City.
andquot;We also plan to carry a larger and more diverse inventory of used vehicles,andquot; he said. andquot;It'll give people the opportunity to shop locally.andquot;
Ryan Gentry said he's been working in the family dealership since he was nine years old, andquot;picking up trash, washing cars, and running parts. Kelli's done the same thing. You watch your mom and dad work a lot of hours, and you pick up the business by osmosis.andquot;
Surprisingly, the downturn in the nation's economy has not been a drag on car sales, he said. Each of the past four years have been marked by record-breaking sales nationally, and 2002, despite the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, shapes up as the Number 2 year in history, he said.
National surveys show that the average American purchases a new or used vehicle every 3.5 years, he said.
Zero percent financing has been one of the keys to the large number of sales, he said, as have used-car finance rates, which are currently at 5.25 percent for qualified buyers.
Wright said that he's seeing more and more potential buyers who have researched car and truck prices on the Internet.
andquot;It's too easy not to make yourself educated,andquot; he said, about prices and specifications. andquot;As dealers, we have to adapt to that reality.andquot;
Most people, though, andquot;want to buy from a dealer, and not off the Internet. They want to sit in the leather seats, and take it for a drive especially the used cars.andquot;