By KATHLEEN HOERSTEN QUIRK
Special to ADAMM
Oscar Johnson has the ideal personality to succeed in auto sales.
“I love sales. I love just dealing direct with people.” Johnson, who is 77, “and proud of it,” has been selling Chevrolets for 50 years as of Jan. 17. For most of that time, he has been with ANDREW Chevrolet in Glendale, starting at the dealership in 1979. Before joining Andrew, he worked with two other dealerships, Garfield and Humphrey Chevrolet.
“Oscar is an inspiration to our organization,” says Andy Schlesinger, president of Andrew Automotive Group. “He’s an outstanding example of someone who is diligent and has worked hard to achieve a great deal of success and longevity in the retail automotive business.
“We are proud he has been and continues to be part of our organization.”
As a pioneering African American in auto sales, Johnson recalls starting his career wasn’t easy. When he went for his first job interview at Garfield, he says, he was asked to enter through the back service door because the managers didn’t want other sales people to know they were interviewing an African American. In spite of that, he was hired.
“They gave me the opportunity,” he says.
The early years of his career were a challenge.
“I did face some difficulties at times, but my wife would console me. She suggested I tough it out,” he says. “There were days when it was hard. I’d come home ready to quit, but my wife always encouraged me.” Johnson and his wife, Jimmie Ruth, have been married for 54 years.
He persevered, and built a successful career. “I deal a lot in the Christian arena. At a lot of the churches the pastors refer the members of their congregation to me, but I enjoy working with all people,” he says.
His customers keep coming back, and often recommend him to friends and family members. “I have a lot of clients who are in their 90s who are still buying cars. I hate to hear someone say when they’re 60 or 65 and retired that ‘this will be my last car.’”
While he has reduced his hours a bit in recent years, Johnson estimates he has sold “somewhere around” 13,000 Chevrolets in his 50 years in the business.
His interest in auto sales started after he studied business at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, where he and his wife met.
“I just saw the level of people that were selling and I thought that I could do a little better than some of the guys that I saw,” he says. “I was determined to make a difference.”
Why Chevrolet? “My dad would buy nothing but Chevrolet trucks and cars. I chose Chevrolet mostly because of my family.”
He has driven many models as company cars, but if pressed for a favorite Chevy, he says: “My real love is the Chevrolet Impala. I believe it’s one of the finest cars that a person could ever own. I still enjoy selling that car because it’s a family car.”
He also has enjoyed working at Andrew Chevrolet all these years. “I loved it. I came to work for Andrew’s dad, Mel Schlesinger. He was a gentleman and a scholar.”
Andy Schlesinger, now owner of Andrew Chevrolet, “inherited me,” says Johnson with a laugh. In fact, Andy Schlesinger encouraged Johnson to stay on with more flexible hours when he considered retiring a few years ago.
Johnson is popular with both his clients and his co-workers.
“He is as good a human being as he is a car salesman,” says James T. Henry Jr., a retired school principal who has been buying cars from Johnson for the past 40 years. Henry’s wife and son also are customers, and he has referred many others to Johnson. “You don’t send your friends to someone you don’t trust 100%,” says Henry.
Frank Kelbel, Andrew Chevrolet’s vice president and general manager, says, “Oscar has been a blessing to each and every one of us.”
Nine members of the sales staff have been at Andrew more than 20 years, and Kelbel says he sees Oscar’s influence as part of building that team. “I think that’s a tribute to all of us, but Oscar Johnson has been as a big a part of that as anyone.”
Julie Johnson, the dealership’s sales and finance manager, says: “Oscar is such a nice man, such a humble man. And he’s very well-respected in the community.”
When he is not at the dealership, Johnson plays a little golf, but devotes most of his time to New Testament Church. He is one of the founding elders and heads up the men’s ministry.
Johnson and his wife, a retired Milwaukee Public Schools teacher, also work with couples at the church, using the example of their own 50+years together. “We tell them, ‘you can do it’,” says Johnson.
Oscar and Jimmie Ruth Johnson have two sons. Older son, Derrick, has followed his dad into the car sales business as a manager at Hansen Brothers; younger son, Oscar D., is a senior vice president at BMO Harris Bank.
The Johnsons also enjoy entertaining. “The Lord gave both of us the gift of hospitality,” says Oscar Johnson, and the two have opened their home to guests from around the nation and the world over the years. They’ve also enjoyed traveling.
“With Chevrolet, I’ve been able to travel to so many places around the country. My wife and I have won trips and a lots of gifts,” he says.
Did he ever think he would stay in sales for 50 years?
He laughs. “No I did not. I had no idea I would survive this long. When I started, I was the first person of color in this business. Now that’s history, and it’s a lot easier now than it once was.”
He was offered a management position, but declined it because he prefers sales. He also encourages young people to enter the profession.
“When I started in 1967, it was one car per family,” he says. “Now people have cars for every member of the family. There are great opportunities for new sales people.”