The History of Hank Graff Chevrolet | Over 100 Years of Service
Although Graff Chevrolet in Mt Pleasant opened its doors in 2003, the Graff Chevrolet franchise has served customers from across Michigan for over 100 years! At the Hank Graff Chevrolet store, we work hard to uphold the values that our founder laid down a century ago. This includes treating our customers like family and committing ourselves to their complete satisfaction.
To learn more about how the Graff Chevrolet franchise came to be, continue to scroll this page. If you have any questions or would like to Schedule an Appointment with one of the friendly professionals at Graff Chevrolet, feel free to give us a call at (989) 773-3937.
1914 – 1926 The Man Who Started It All: Otto P. Graff, the Graff Grandfather
For almost a century, the Graff name has been prominent in Flint, Michigan automobile circles – beginning with our founder, Otto P. Graff. From the years 1910 until 1914, Otto was the treasurer of Genessee County and was well known to the Flint banking community.
It was his prominence in the community that caught the eye of Ford Motor Company. When Ford removed the previous Ford dealer in town, they asked Otto who he thought would make a good dealer. Seeing it as an opportunity to join the growing automobile industry, Otto volunteered himself.
So in 1914, with $600 and high hopes, Otto and his wife Flora launched the Ford Sales Company, located on N. Saginaw Street in Flint, MI. When Otto signed the agreement with Ford Motor Company, he agreed to sell 125 cars a year – a lofty goal for the time period!
However, no matter how ambitious the goal seemed, Otto was determined to be successful in the growing American automobile industry. With this determination, Otto exceeded the 125 quote his first year with sales reaching the 150 mark!
Having seen incredible success in such a short period of time, the name of the company was changed from Ford Sales Company to Otto P. Graff Motor Sales. The location of the company also changed, as they moved to a bigger location just around the corner of Kearsley and Harrison Streets.
The company remained at this location until 1918 when Fordson Tractor was added to the Ford Line and the company needed a bigger location. This same year, Henry Ford bought Henry Leland’s controlling interests in the Lincoln car, which meant that Lincoln automobiles were now part of the Ford Motor Company.
Otto jumped at the opportunity to add Lincoln to his company, so what was once only a Ford dealership quickly grew to include Ford, Ford Truck, Lincoln-Mercury and Fordson Tractors.
The business continued to grow and in 1924 reached a new sales peak of 2,4000 vehicles, and there was no doubt in anyone’s minds: Otto had officially succeeded in the automobile industry.
1927 – 1948 Business is Growing; But Great Change is on the Horizon
In 1927, the Model T was discontinued from the Ford vehicle lineup and converted to the Model A. This was disastrous simply because for 18 months while the conversion happened, there were no Fords available.
Despite this, Otto continued to prosper and built a new garage at 914 Harrison Street in 1927, as well as a new sales department on Saginaw Street. During this expansion, Otto added five sub dealers, plus a variety of other holdings to his enterprise – he was quickly growing and showing no signs of stopping! Not to mention, the advent of the Model A made business look bright.
Then disaster rocked the country: the Depression of 1929. Otto P. Graff lost everything he had worked so hard to achieve, and for the first time in a long time the future looked uncertain. Otto was able to continue on with the help of Citizen’s Bank and Mr. Edward Burroughs, the bank president.
With their assistance, Otto was able to weather the financial storm that devastated the country. The bank took all the stock in the corporation and held it as Otto earned a weekly salary of $75 and paid the entire amount to the bank. This continued until 1948 when the last of it was redeemed by Otto’s persistence and hard work.
During the period where Otto worked to pay off the bank, Max H. Graff, Otto’s son, went to work for his father in 1936. Max was no stranger to the business having worked during vacations washing, servicing, and selling cars.
However, fresh out of the University of Michigan, he was ready to run the business with his father. After a year of working alongside his dad, Max was assigned to manage the Graff branch at Dort Highway and Davison Road.
The assistance of Max was sorely needed during this time since the automobile industry was about to take another hit with the start of World War II. During this time, cars were not manufactured because all manufacturing facilities were dedicated to the war effort. As a result, there was a huge pent up demand for vehicles following the end of the war. Much to the chagrin of Otto Graff, Ford Motor Company decided to take Lincoln and Mercury brands away at the time when over 2,000 orders with deposits were on hand.
During the entire year of 1946, Ford allocated only 176 cars and trucks to Graff, leaving many customers unhappy. It took Otto 2 1/2 years to clean up the backlog of orders, but his persistence carried the company through.
When Otto’s second son, Rex, a graduate of Ferris State College, returned from World War II, he was put in charge of the motor rebuilding department. Since so many materials were used in World War II, new vehicle parts were very scarce once the war ended. It is because of this that the rebuilding business prospered. Meanwhile, Max was made General Manager of the Ford dealership in 1948.
1949-1981 The Graff Business Welcomes More Family Into the Fold
In 1949, a few short years after the rebuilding business began prospering, Otto sold it and put Rex in charge of the tractor franchise. A new tractor building was constructed at Davison Road and Dort Highway, and Rex worked hard to make the business thrive. Although it eventually sold in 1969, the business saw great success under the watchful eye of Rex.
Otto Graff semi-retired in 1958 and Max became the dealer-designate. In addition to running the Graff business, Max also took great enjoyment out of being an active part of the community, which is why he was President of the Kiwanis Club (1958), Chairman of the United Fund (1961), President of the Flint Golf Club (1965) and President of the Michigan Auto Dealers Association (1967).
In 1969, the Graff brothers faced a different type of hardship: the death of Otto Graff. Although the loss of their father was difficult, the brothers worked hard to make sure the Graff business continued to see success – after all, succeeding in the automotive industry was one of Otto P. Graff’s biggest dreams.
Rex Graff returned to the dealership as General Manager after selling the tractor business in 1970. After five years at the dealership, Rex retired and became the executive secretary of the Genesee County Dealers Association. This same year, Max H. (Hank) Graff, Jr., Max’s son, graduated from Michigan State University and began teaching in Flint. While he enjoyed teaching, he left the school in 1971 to begin working full-time at the dealership as a Used Car buyer.
Hank was experienced in the car business, having worked a variety of the jobs at the dealership while he was growing up. With years of experience and a reignited passion for the dealership, he quickly moved up the ranks and became General Manager in 1975. This same year, he hired Phil Goldman to assist him in Sales Management, and two years later Hank became the Dealer and a stockholder when he purchased Rex Graff’s stock.
1982-1998 Big Things Are in the Future for the Graff Family
In 1982, the business was forced to take a drastic step for two reasons; first being General Motors gave all of its employees the option to purchase any General Motors vehicle below dealer cost.
At that time, about 50% of the Fords sold by Graff were to the United Auto Workers members employed at General Motors, which meant Graff could not be price competitive with Ford vehicles. Secondly, Ford had a continual problem keeping a second successful dealer in Flint and had purchased that dealership. This meant that Ford would be operating a factory-owned dealership in Flint, which would impede greatly on Graff sales.
With the Ford unrest, Max and Hank discovered that Uptegraff Chevrolet was for sale in Davison. Seeing it as a perfect opportunity to change their business, they were able to consummate a purchase deal.
Ford was notified that Graff would give up their franchise as of August 1, 1982, and Hank Graff signed a Chevrolet franchise agreement the day after on August 2, 1982. At the time of the acquisition, Graff and Uptegraff were the two oldest family held dealerships in Genesse County – Uptegraff for 60 years and Graff for 68 years.
Being owned by a respected family in Genessee County, Graff Chevrolet saw immediate success and sold an impressive 4,703 vehicles in 1986 alone. This amount gave Graff Chevrolet the 95th largest sales volume in the United States and the second largest among the Chevrolet dealers in Michigan.
This Davison Graff Chevrolet dealership saw great success from the moment it opened its doors, with television advertising playing a huge part in the constant flow of business. The television stations used also reached the Bay City community, which opened up the opportunity to expand in the Bay area market.
In 1986, the Wickstrom Chevrolet dealership in Bay City was put up for sale and purchased immediately by the Graff family. Phil Goldman, the General Sales manager at the Davison dealership, was Hank’s partner with the newly purchased dealership until 1990.
After Phil stepped down, Wayne Wedding, the Sales Manager at the Davison Dealership after Phil, became Hank’s partner and General Manager of the Bay City dealership from 1990-2006.
A year after the Bay City purchase, Hank discovered that Rich Roehrs, the Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Chrysler dealer in Gladwin wanted to retire – so Hank promptly purchased his store and expanded the Graff franchise. Tim Bell, the controller from the Bay City dealership was Hank’s partner at the Gladwin store until 1995 when he retired. At the time of his retirement, John Kirby, a sales manager from the Davison dealership, became Hank’s partner and General Manager.
In 1990, Hank and Tim Shannon, a Sales Manager from the Bay City dealership and long-time Graff employee, acquired a Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile dealership in Fostoria, Ohio. Hank eventually purchased Tim’s share of the dealership and in 1996, Jeff Cole became Hank’s partner and General Manager.
Several years later, the Pontiac, Cadillac, GMC dealership in Fostoria was purchased and merged into the Graff Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile store. The Fostoria store was the unfortunate recipient of one of General Motors’ wind down letters during GM’s bankruptcy and the doors were closed in late 2009.
1999 – 2005 The Graff Franchise Continues to Expand and Change
1999 was a year of growth in the Graff Group, as two additional dealerships were acquired. In May of 1999, Hank purchased the former Schaffer Volvo and GMC Truck dealership located in Flint and Saginaw. Keith Whitmore, Hanks son-in-law, became General Manager and partner of both the Graff Flint and Saginaw Truck Centers.
Later that year in September, Hank acquired the Chevrolet, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile dealership in Durand. Mike Benmark, from the Davison dealership, became the General Manager and partner of this newest dealership acquisition.
Mike retired from the Durand dealership in 2012 and Chip Watt left the Davison dealership to become the General Manager in Durand. Chris Graff, Hank’s son, was then promoted to General Manager of the Davison dealership and subsequently purchased the dealership stock. Chris is now the Dealer Owner of the flagship Graff store in Davison.
The Durand dealership became Hank’s seventh operation – a true achievement that Otto P. Graff would have been proud of! However, the Graff Group didn’t stop with seven operations – in 2003, Hank purchased his eighth operation in Mt. Pleasant, and a ninth operation in Ottawa, OH.
Meanwhile in Mt. Pleasant, Hank purchased M&M Chevrolet. Wayne Wedding partnered in the store with Hank and took oversight responsibilities for both Graff Chevrolet in Bay City and Graff Chevrolet in Mt. Pleasant. However, Wayne’s interest in those stores was repurchased by Hank in 2007. At that time, Jim Messick became the General Manager in Mt. Pleasant and Lisa Kusey-Rechsteiner became the General Manager in Bay City.
Jeff Cole added oversight responsibilities in Ottawa with the purchase of Ottawa Chevrolet. That store, called Graff Chevrolet-Ottawa, moved out of its aging facility in 2004 to a newly renovated facility on Perry Rd. Jeff Cole left the Graff organization in 2009. Ottawa Chevrolet is currently run by Mike Pauley, Hank’s partner, and is proud to be the newly renamed store’s General Manager.
2006 – Present Day! Proud to Serve Customers Across the State for Over 100 Years!
In 2006, Hank Graff purchased Pres Kool Chevrolet in Okemos with Chris Graff as a partner, and Matt Sloan as the General Manager/Partner. Matt worked his way up through a variety of positions in Davison and is currently doing a first-rate job upholding the Graff standards in the greater Lansing area. Chris purchased Hank’s stock in the Okemos store in 2011, as well as Hank’s interests in the Graff dealerships in Durand, Gladwin, Sandusky, and Mt. Pleasant. Chris also acquired 51% of the stock in the Bay City dealership, shortly after Lisa Rechsteiner purchased a minority interest in 2011. Hank also sold his interest in Graff Truck Centers, Inc. to his son-in-law Keith Whitmore.
Later in 2012, Chris Graff purchased the Shaheen Buick GMC Cadillac dealership in Mt. Pleasant, making Jim Messick the General Manager, while his wife Lynette Wedding took over as the GM at the Mt. Pleasant Chevrolet dealership. In 2013, Chris sold a minority interest in both Mt. Pleasant dealerships to Jim Messick.
As the Graff footprint grows in the future, we will continue to service more customers with a smile and the attitude of “Making Friends Since 1914”. The Graff group of dealerships is proud to be a fourth generation family-owned enterprise and will continue to grow and prosper in the future by continuing to treat its customers, employees, and business associates as if they were family. Thank you for allowing us to continue for one hundred years as an ongoing family business.