Plaza Ford owner named Dealer of Year

September 13, 1992|By Frank Lynch | Frank Lynch,Staff Writer

Ralph Walls has never sold a car in his life, but that didn't keep him from being selected Maryland's Time magazine Quality Automobile Dealer of the Year.

"Never been a salesman . . . never worked on a commission basis," said the longtime owner of Plaza Ford in Bel Air. "I've always been on the business side."

Mr. Walls has been in the automobile business for 45 years, beginning as a bookkeeper at Central Motors, the forerunner of Plaza Ford, in April 1945. He rose to general manager in 1959 and in 1962 became owner.

He likes to think that his philosophy has allowed him to remain an integral part of the community.

"I treat every customer exactly the way I'd like to be treated. Maybe that's why we have families who have dealt with us through three generations," said Mr. Walls, whose award makes him one of 52 finalists for Time's national dealer of the year.

That award will be presented Feb. 6, at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention in New Orleans. Time's awards,

originated in 1969, recognize new-car dealers for exceptional performance in their dealerships and distinguished community service.

"I can't begin to express my feelings fully," Mr. Walls said of his selection. "In all the years I've been in this business, I honestly thought I had experienced just about everything."

Mr. Walls is treasurer of the Baltimore Ford Dealers Advertising Fund and serves on the Ford Advisory Board for Catonsville Community College Assets Program. He has served as director of the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association (1981-1987) and as its president (1986-1987).

"I got involved in both the industry and community because that's my personality," he said. "I enjoy meeting people who have similar interests. I have found it keeps me on top of things."

After graduating from Bel Air High School in 1945, Mr. Walls took a job with an insurance company but said he "became bored and didn't see a future for me in that business." He said he's never found the automobile business boring, adding, "I guess that's why I stayed."

"It's been a good business," said Mr. Walls. "I've seen many changes in the industry and managed to make the necessary adjustments in order to survive."

The marketing and selling of autos has changed dramatically, he said, pointing to more sophisticated and better-educated buyers.

In 1947, Central Motors, a Ford dealership, sat on Baltimore Pike near the current site of Bel Air Plaza. Charles T. Stephens and Emily Smith owned the dealership, which employed 10 people, Mr. Walls said.

He remembers it as an exciting place to work as the automobile industry began emerging from the shadows of World War II, and people settled into jobs and buying houses and cars.

Each dealership was allotted only a certain number of cars, because the automobile manufactureres were retooling plants used in the war effort.

PD "If memory serves me right, we [Central Motors] sold 150 cars in

1947," Mr. Walls said. "We could have sold twice that amount because the demand was so great."

He recalled the 1950s and 1960s as other periods of change. In the '50s, cars took on personalities because of radical style changes and the use of various exterior and interior color combos. The 1960s brought the "muscle cars" with powerful engines -- and Ford's legendary success, the Mustang, which made its debut in April 1964.

"We were selling about 15 a month," Mr. Walls said, recalling that he thought he'd be lucky to sell five a month. "We sold as many as we could get from the manufacturer."

As good as those years were, Mr. Walls said, a quick check of the ledger shows 1986 was Plaza Ford's best year for sales. That year, the dealership sold 2,700 vehicles -- 1,600 new cars and trucks and 1,100 used ones.

Giving to the community has also been important to Mr. Walls. Through the years, he became active in civic and church organizations. He's been a director of Fallston General Hospital, a founding director of the Bank of Maryland, an 18-year advisory board member of Equitable Bank in Bel Air, director of the Route 1 Business Association, past president of the Bel Air Rotary Club, a member of the Harford County board of estimates and a prominent member of the Oak Grove Baptist Church.

Mr. Walls' wife, Betty, works for the dealership, as do sons Tom and Charles. Tom is general manager, while Charles works in sales. A daughter, Carol Bearden, lives in Birmingham, Ala.

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