By Nick Reiher
Even race car drivers can reach a fork in the road. Michael Bettenhausen did in the late 1980s.
He had been racing a $7,500 stock car around the Midwest since 1985. A few years later, it would cost him five or six times that much for a car and $200,000 to keep competing.
Or … he could go back home to Tinley Park and help his Dad Harlan run the Chrysler/Dodge dealership his grandfather Herb founded with Uncle Tony and Al Schultz on Oak Park Avenue in 1956. Like the past few years, things were pretty tough for the auto industry in the 1980s. And Harlan could use all the help he could get.
So Michael gave up racing and joined his younger brother Troy pitching in at the dealership. “We worked six, seven days a week,” he said. “It takes a great staff … co-workers, multi-tasking … all of us taking care of our customers. We are committed to customer service.”
He pretty much knew from an early age he would be taking over for his Dad someday. He figures his brother Troy felt the same way.
“I loved every aspect of the business,” said Michael, who oversees administration and marketing, while Troy commands the service side.
He remembers when he was young how the excitement would build around the dealership each fall. In those days, showrooms had only four cars. Those were the only cars on the lot. People would come into the showroom and put in their orders.
“There were parties for our regular customers,” Michael said. “We would have food and drinks … some 20-30 people. Life was much simpler in those days. … We would sell seven to 10 cars a month. Now we do that in one day.
“Being in the metro area, you can’t be a Mom and Pop shop anymore,” he said. “You always have to sell more. You have to grow.”
And they did.
Since 1992, their website says, they have been Chicagoland’s only “One Price” Chrysler Jeep Dodge and Ram Dealer. “This decision fueled our growth and our ability to deliver a level of service that most people had never experienced,” the site says.
In the spring of 2002, they completed their largest renovation, updating their showroom, offices and service department with five additional service bays.
Their website also boasts an expansive selection – 200s, 300s, Town & Countrys, Darts, Avengers, Chargers, Challengers, Grand Caravans, Durangos, Journeys, Compass, Patriots, Libertys, Cherokees, Grand Cherokees, Wranglers, Wrangler Unlimiteds, 1500s, 2500s, 3500s and more — to customers in Tinley Park, Orland Park, Matteson, Joliet, Homer Glen, New Lenox, Mokena, Lockport, Frankfort, Chicago Heights, Palos Heights, Palos Hills, Palos Park, Worth, Oak Lawn, Midlothian, Shorewood and Romeoville.
Even a great staff and great cars aren’t always enough to keep a family business thriving for nearly 60 years. Michael said their family also has been about community service, helping to ingrain the business into the Tinley Park area. His Dad was on the volunteer fire department; his Mom Judy on the PTA. And he served on the Village Board.
“Volunteerism always has been a big part of our family,” he said.
Great cars, great staff, hard work – enriched with community spirit – ultimately was a formula for more growth.
In 2009, they opened a Chrysler/Jeep dealership in Orland Park, and then in 2011, they were approached by Fiat for a dealership, just as their grandfather – at the time a dairy farmer and John Deere dealer — was approached by Chrysler/Dodge in 1956.
So the Fiat dealership took over the original showroom on Oak Park Avenue in 2011, and the Dodge dealership moved to “Dealer Row” on 159th Street.
As he watches a youth baseball game, Michael says his kids definitely are interested in the family business, just as he was around their age.
“I’m not pushing them,” he said, however. “It’s a different world now.”