Thursday September 21, 2017
Love comes in many forms and Wilfred Racine would not be the first person, nor the last, to have had a strong affection for a certain brand of automobile. His son, Tom, explains, “My dad always had a love affair with the Jeep product; from driving them in England during World War II to always having one to use during his Texaco and Auto Service days for plowing.” Racine’s passion for Jeep is just one of the reasons the Racine family is about to celebrate 50 years of business this September 26. It was on that day in 1967 when, Willie, as he was well known, along with his wife Annette, purchased a Jeep dealership, converting a building on Pine Street in Burlington into a one car showroom. Tom, who is now vice president of Willie Racine’s Jeep on Shelburne Road in South Burlington, says his father developed a loyal following, citing Willie’s belief in “treating the customer the way we would want to be treated.” Tom adds, “He taught me early on that the most important part of our business was repeat customers or customers for life that I still, to this day, very firmly believe in.”
Back then in the Willie Racine’s Jeep of the late 60s, there was the Jeep CJ5, the civilian version of the military World War II Jeep – coincidentally called Willys, the Jeepster Commando, and the original Jeep Wagoneers. Although today’s showroom boasts an evolved Jeep inventory, what remains the same at Willie Racine’s Jeep is a dedication and commitment to customer service. Current sales manager of the business and grandson of Willie Racine, Brian Racine says, “My grandfather was always known for his transparency and honesty and we continue that business philosophy today. To survive in this business for 50 years you need to have topnotch customer service. That is really what makes our dealership a special place.”
From Shelburne Road to Pine Street and Back
Willie and Annette Racine’s business career began in 1953 with a Texaco service station they owned and operated on the corner of Shelburne Road and Flynn Avenue, where the current Subaru dealership resides. Following that venture, in 1964, the two built and ran Willie Racine’s Tire and Auto Service on Pine Street, the current site of New World Tortilla. That location became the Jeep dealership in 1967. It was a change in Jeep’s corporate structure that would bring the Racines back to Shelburne Road.
In 1970, American Motors Corporation (AMC), then known for their Rambler and muscle car contenders, purchased Jeep to complement its existing passenger car business. AMC told Willie and Annette that in order to keep the Jeep franchise, they would need to build a larger facility and also sell their brands of cars. So the Racines purchased the land on Shelburne Road, where the business stands today. They broke ground and built their dealership, opening the doors in May of 1974.
The Tumultuous 70s
The 1970s was a time of change in America and so too for the auto industry. The combination of high oil prices and increased competition from foreign auto manufacturers who were promoting small fuel-efficient cars, greatly affected car sales. Tom Racine describes the impact on the family business, “The first fall with the AMC franchise became a struggle as an energy/gas crunch hit the U.S. and all the current cars were not very gas efficient.” He adds, “A Jeep employee from the old days helped Willie and Annette sell off those gas guzzlers to some metropolitan dealers and make it through that tough time.”
According to a Time Magazine February 14, 1977 article, even though AMC lost $73.8 million in the previous two fiscal years, they also noted record Jeep sales. In fact, it was in the 70s that AMC introduced the Jeep CJ-7, which Four Wheeler Network describes as “an immediate hit” with booming sales.
A Growing Business and Family
As new Jeep products were continuing to be introduced, so was Tom Racine to his career at Willie Racine’s Jeep. Although he worked for the business from the age of 13 doing odd jobs from washing vehicles to helping in the parts department, he began working full time at the dealership in 1977, the same month he graduated from the University of Vermont. He says, “I worked a year as parts manager and then went into the sales department as one of two salespeople on the showroom floor.” He adds, “My parents never insisted that I come into the business, but I was always interested.”
Once again, Jeep was changing ownership and changes were in store for the company and the brand as the result of a $2 billion Chrysler Corporation takeover of AMC in 1987. Tom recalls the addition of the Eagle lineup of all wheel drive cars to the Jeep brand, as well as the Jeep Cherokee, the first major small SUV in America. It is noted that the term, “sport utility,” appears for the first time in a Cherokee sales brochure. “It was an instant success and Jeep was a major player in the automotive industry once again,” states Tom.
By this time, Willie and Annette’s three boys had all started working in the business. Michael, who is now president of Willie Racine’s Jeep, was overseeing the service and parts department, Doug, who is currently co-vice president, was helping Annette with the accounting while establishing himself as a Vermont State Senator, and Tom was overseeing the sales department.
1984 saw the addition of the Isuzu lineup at the dealership, which, according to Tom, “was mostly about trucks and a brand new sport utility was just arriving from Japan: The Isuzu Trooper, a lower priced four-wheel drive.” 1985 brought the Renault franchise to the Racine’s and, while it only was a four-year proposition, it introduced many new customers to the family business.
Willie and Annette retired in 1989, knowing they were leaving their company in good hands. Tom’s youngest son, Brian Racine came on board in 2007 as a sales consultant and internet manager. He says, “My first task was to create and administer a dealership website at which point I partnered up with Dealer.com to come up with Willieracine.com. Up to today’s date, this year, we have had over 110 thousand visits on the website from over 65 thousand unique visitors.”
Today Brian is the dealership’s general sales manager. Consciously appreciative of walking in the shoes of both his grandfather and father, he says, “I am proud that I can continue to maintain the honest, transparent and fair business practices that my grandfather became known for when he first opened up for business.”
Tom Racine says, “I am very proud my son Brian wanted to continue his grandparents’ business legacy in this community and that he has grasped the same ideals that my parents gave to me.” He continues, “While dad was still alive and still now while my mom is still with us, she’s 97, they loved to see Brian here working at what they started and knowing he has the right attitude to carry it forward.”
Part of the Community
Willie Racine’s Jeep has now called South Burlington home for over four decades and the Racines are rooted in the city. Tom and his wife Patty have lived in South Burlington for 39 years. Tom notes, “One of our daughters-in-law, Laura Racine, is a teacher at Orchard School, where both our boys attended grade school.” Tom coached baseball for 10 years when his boys were in school. He says, “I am proud to call South Burlington home for both our business and personal home. I love the friendships and business friendships that I have gained in this town.”
Brian recalls his years in school from Orchard to Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School to South Burlington High School and says he and his wife bought their first house in the city in 2009. Although his family has since moved to Colchester, he says, “Our family understands that keeping business local is what makes South Burlington and surrounding areas thrive. We tend to support the businesses that support us and also contribute to community events like Common Roots and National Night out.”
Remembering the Past, Creating the Future
The Jeep continues to be iconic, one of America’s most recognized brands. Linked to history and concepts like adventure and freedom, Jeeps often come with a story. When asked what his favorite Jeep story or vehicle was, Tom recalls one that impacted his entire life. “When I met my wife in high school and picked her up for a date in my CJ5, she said she always loved the looks of the Jeep in the high school parking lot, especially the orange color! It was love at first sight, hopefully with me, not just the Jeep.”
Last year, 2016, was the Jeep brand’s 75th anniversary. This year, Willie Racine’s Jeep celebrates 50 years with an event Saturday, September 30, featuring a band, food, and a “roll of the dice,” where the first 100 customers get a chance to win a $50,000 Jeep. On September 26, the official anniversary, Chrysler representatives will be on hand to help the Racines commemorate five decades of service.
Tom Racine says, “50 years to me indicates that all those values that my parents instilled in me were the right ones for both me, personally, and me as a business person. I love the business I am in, I love the Jeep product, I love dealing with our customers, and I especially love that what my parents started 50 years ago has a chance to live on for many years to come.”
SOURCE: Carole Vasta Folley, The Other Paper