Captain of his own ship
By Dana Chrysler
Everett Community College Alumni Outreach Specialist
Working in his dad’s butcher shop, young Rock Peterson learned a lot of valuable skills: inventory management, making change, and a good work ethic.
Now, as owner of Brien Motors Ford-Mitsubishi in Everett, Rock traces one other notable take-away to his days in his dad’s store: entrepreneurial aspirations.
“There is one thing I remember early on: watching my dad run his own store,” he recalled. “Working with my dad, I knew that I’d probably want to be my own boss sometime, somewhere, doing something.”
In 1959, there were no video games or internet distractions to keep Rock occupied. Instead, when he wasn’t in school, he worked Saturdays, Sundays, and after school in the family business, along with his five siblings, including three brothers.
“Sports was my one relief because I could kind of pass the shop work onto one of my brothers,” he chuckled.
A proud member of the “Class of ’65,” Rock graduated from Everett High School and nearly decided to join the army. At the last minute, he decided to continue his education at Everett Junior College (now EvCC), and join the Army ROTC program.
While attending college, he continued working for Associated Sand & Gravel, a job he obtained in high school.
“I just remember . . . having fun. Maybe at the expense of some grades, but we had a lot of fun,” he recalled. “Part of it could be that I was there with old friends from high school, but I made a lot of new friends in different classes, too.”
Graduating from EvCC in 1967, Rock continued his education at Eastern University in Cheney, Wash., partly because of the quarter system and it also allowed him to continue his ROTC participation.
Three months before he was to graduate from Eastern, however, Rock’s plans were side-tracked.
“I got in a car wreck. I was supposed to spend two years in the army right after college graduation,” he explained. “Because I couldn’t walk long distances on my leg, I was out.”
He graduated from Eastern with a degree in business management, with a military minor, and returned to Everett.
“I jumped into real estate because I didn’t have a job offer,” he said. “I didn’t stay in there very long, about two years. Real estate income was either steak or beans,” he stated, “so a regular income kind of appealed to me.”
By now, Rock was married with one child and very motivated to stay busy working. He accepted a job selling office equipment. After a few years, when the company asked him to move to the headquarters in Chicago, he had second thoughts.
“That summer, a fellow from Everett bought a car dealership in Bellevue and said, ‘Why don’t you try selling cars?’” Rock remembered. “So I accepted his offer and found that I really liked it.”
Rock Peterson and car sales were a natural fit.
What did he like about the work?
“Every day was different; they just flew by,” he said. “And there were so many customers. In real estate, you might work with a handful of customers at a time. In the car business, you can see five people in a day, maybe sell a car or two every day. So that appealed to me, having a broad interest in people.”
The idea of not having a boss, however, was always Rock’s goal.
“Even when I first started selling cars, it was temporary. From day one, it was just a means to get to the end.”
What was “the end”?
“To captain my own ship,” Rock stated emphatically. “I wanted my own dealership. So, after about six years of sales and management, I started looking around and found Brien Ford.”
Rock was able to buy the dealership over six years, taking over slowly, as the original owner planned his retirement.
“We had a great relationship. He kind of backed off, let me alone, and let me run the place with a little guidance now and then,” he remarked. “I’ve been here ever since.”
Rock has seen a lot of ups and downs in the car business in the intervening years.
“We’ve grown and we’ve retracted at times,” he stated. “We’ve had up to three dealerships and now we’re back to the original one.”
Characteristically optimistic, Rock sees signs that the car industry is coming back.
“We’ve had times like this before,” he said. “This is the third one in the last 30 years. Overall business is becoming more active, more robust; however, it is gradual, but slowly increasing.”
Rock also admits that Brien Ford is a little different.
“We’re a ‘negotiation free’ store. We mark our lowest prices on our cars that we can live with—and the sales people are paid mostly salary,” he explained. “There are volume bonuses, but the sales people are not paid on a commission basis.”
Rock began using the “one price” model in 1996 and believes it places the emphasis where it belongs: on customer service.
“We find that the customer gets more attention this way because the sales person isn’t trying to steer the customer to a certain car. Whether you’re selling a $5,000 used car or a $50,000 new truck, makes no difference to the sales agent,” he elaborated. “The customer gets their full attention and we feel that’s a better way to buy a new or used vehicle.”
There’s another reason Rock believes the model works:
“People just don’t want to spend hours and hours trying to get ‘the deal.’ We’ll give the customer figures in five minutes and encourage them to go shop before they make a decision. They oftentimes can’t get the numbers from other dealers until they commit to purchase,” he said. “Well, they don’t have to commit—we’ll give them all the information they should have to purchase the car.”
Rock realizes, however, that Brien Ford loses some customers because of the negotiation-free practice.
“We lose the ones who only think about the lowest perceived price, ones that don’t really want you to make a dollar,” he said.
Fortunately, any lost clients are more than made up with the type of customer who hates negotiation.
“We don’t even like negotiation,” Rock laughs, “but the vast majority of customers really hate it.”
Now retired, Rock works half-time at the dealership and admits that he isn’t ready for full-time retirement yet.
“The challenge is: okay, now, I’ve got to stay busy,” he smiled.
Rock looks back on his choice to attend EvCC as a great alternative to a four-year school, saying that it was an affordable start to his college career.
The work ethic instilled in the 12-year-old working in his dad’s butcher shop is borne out in Rock’s parting words of advice:
“Even if you don’t like a job, be the best you can be. If you do 10% more than you’re asked—many times, do just what you’re asked—you stand head and shoulders above most everybody else,” he said. “Come in ten minutes early, leave ten minutes late . . . it all adds up.”