Where It All Began
Published in the April 2008 Home Magazine
Max Heintz wasn't always a car lover. He just needed a job. He and his wife Marlyn lived in California when they were first married from 1946 to 1948. Max worked for his brother who owned a milking machine business. "I hated my job. I hated breaking in the new cows that had never been hooked up to one of the machines before," Max remembered, "The cows would kick me, it was terrible. So I quit." Max was a newlywed, he had his first baby on the way and no job. So, Max and Marlyn climbed into their DeSoto and headed back to South Dakota, where he was born and raised.
Max's 1947 DeSoto gave him a lot of trouble. He constantly had his car in and out of Lakeside Motors, a new garage in Watertown, South Dakota only 17 miles from Florence, where Max grew up. As a result of spending so much time at the garage, Max got to know the service guy pretty well. "He asked me if I'd like to sell cars," Max declared, "I told him I didn't think so. I was trying to buy a farm implement agency and I didn't know how much it would cost me to buy one. My dad was a farm implement dealer for International Harvest for 43 years. After looking at several, it dawned on me that I didn't have enough money. I didn't have any money but my mother was going to loan me all she had, she had $7,000 total. She said I could have it all. I don't know what she was thinking. "
The year was 1948 and Max was 24 years old. After realizing he couldn't purchase a farm implement agency, he went to work selling cars, for Lakeside Motors, a DeSoto & Plymouth Dealership. The only other salesman was a close friend of Max's. Since Max was the novice, they had him selling the used cars. "We'd have as many as 20 used cars out there on the lot at a time," Max explained, "I received a commission but it was pretty skinny." He sold practically all Chrysler products, Plymouth, Dodge and DeSoto, but these were not the most popular models of the time. Most people wanted to buy Chevrolets or Fords. Max worked for Lakeside Motors for 2-1/2 years and got to know the cars really well. He had an innate knack for selling and people responded to his no nonsense, straight forward, honest approach.
Mullen Motors only sold Oldsmobile, but Oldsmobile was the hottest car in 1950. It wasn't until 1955 when the dealership added Pontiac and Cadillac. Max was doing most of the selling himself. He was alive and paying the bills but that was it. So after ten years with Mullen Motors and not really making any money, Max considered this a pretty unsuccessful business venture. Yet, the experience he acquired in Faribault and the people he met on the job, both customers and employees, helped pave the way for a very successful opportunity soon to come.
It was August of 1960 and Max didn't know what he was going to do. "I was contacted by both Oldsmobile and Pontiac as to where I was going." Max found out the Chevy garage was for sale in Le Sueur and began considering a business proposition presented to him earlier. One of the relationships Max developed over the years, was with a customer in town who owned Vogel Ice Cream Company. "He said if I ever wanted to go into business, he would help, he would give me the money. That was just a flat thing. 'Cause I didn't have any money," Max reflected. Yet, as luck would have it, Max got sick and spent some time at St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester. One of Max's bought the garage in Le Sueur.
With only enough money to live on for a month or so, Max agonized about what to do next. That's when he got the call. "We have a dealership to talk to you about. The place is Mankato." The Pontiac representative told Max. Max was concerned because he know Pontiac had just introduced a new dealer to Mankato nine months earlier. However, some unfortunate business decisions caused a considerable financial loss and now the dealership was in jeopardy. Pontiac really wanted Max to take a look at it. Having worked with Max for ten years while he was in Faribault, Pontiac knew he was the right man with the right knowledge and determination to get this dealership up and running.
"The upshot is that I bought into the dealership in Mankato. Of course, I didn't have the money. So I borrowed $5,000 from my wife's father. That was a big deal." Max conceded. Max's brother-in-law loaned him the other $10,000 he needed to buy into the business as a 50/50 partner. Max and his family had a house in Faribault, it took him 10 months to sell it. Max continues, "But I needed the equity for the contract with my new partner, Sunny Wishnick."
The dealership was located in a four year old building on 2nd street. It was owned by the bus company. "It was heck of a good facility," Max recalled. "It had 18,000 square feet upper and a lower full basement that was usable." They had one mini car lot but no other space for parking new cars. "That first month we lost money, the second month we lost money, and the third month we made a little profit. We didn't have another month in the red for the next 84 months, a little over 7 years." Max stated proudly. They stayed in that building for a total of 13 years until 1974 when HUD decided to tear it down. That year they moved up to the hilltop. They built the new building with the help of the small business administration and a direct loan rate of 4.25%.
Max spoke fondly of both his Pontiac and Cadillac representatives. "They were both very helpful, Jim Buck was with Pontiac and Ken Sandstead was with Cadillac." They helped Max pay attention to trends in the market and they made sure he had the right models at the right time. Max revealed, "A lot of the time we didn't have enough money to keep a large inventory, so they helped us make sure we had the popular models."
The service manager that they had at that time, was named Elgin Kaderlik. Max and Elgin worked together for eight years back in Faribault. Elgin came to Mankato the second week Max was in business. Max told him, "If you didn't have a job I would be thrilled to death to have you, but I can't take you away from Faribault. It was really important that he be there. He was the best employee they had. That was on a Friday, when I talked to him. Monday morning Elgin showed up for work. I said, 'What the heck are you doing here?' He said, 'I quit! I'm going to work for you.' And that's the way it was. We didn't steal him. He quit. He stayed for 22 years.
In the later years, Elgin was running both the service department and the body shop. The body shop has always been a big producer for Heintz. Max spoke with admiration, "Elgin was so very important to the evolution of this business. He was so well liked, by everyone, by his customers and his crew." Elgin was the manager and there was no question about it. The guys who worked for him, listened to him and learned from him and they really respected him.
The natural progression of the Heintz dealership was accomplished by hiring great employees to provide superior customer service. Max Heintz is a man who understands that if you don't keep moving forward, you could be left in the dust. The year was 1971 and Max had been in business long enough to trust his instincts and watch for opportunities that might find him when he least expected it. To Max Heintz, Toyota was that opportunity! Max attested that smaller vehicles were an untapped market and "GM had made a few disastrous forays into the small car business. Their models left a lot to be desired." So Max made the inquiry to Toyota. From the initial conversation Max realized Toyota didn't really want them as a dealer. "Which, of course whetted my appetite even more," Max confessed. We signed a contract with them for the franchise and our initial financial outlay was $7290 for the signs and special tools, parts and inventory!! That's how much it cost us to get into the Toyota business."
The first shipment of Toyotas arrived in January of 1971. They received 19 cars and had no place to park them. John Thro, the same man who would later sell Max the land to build a new facility on the hilltop, offered to let Max park the cars temporarily in his parking lot on Front Street. John had just remodeled the building that was home to the Thro Drug Company. "We moved the cars over there the same day and that night we got a heavy snow, of almost blizzard proportions, needless to say, the cars were buried," Max verified. "We didn't sell one. We sold our first car, actually our first two cars, three weeks later on a Saturday when we had an unusual thaw," Max confirmed. They sold the first two Toyotas to Lowell Rasmussen. He bought one for his son and one for his daughter. Max reminisced, "They sold for the sticker price of $1900+. I could have made more money buying two used cars off the street and selling them. That was the start."
How does the story go from there to here? What was the vehicle that carried this business across that bridge? Ben Heintz is the man that saw a vision and transported that vision from one era into the next. "Ben started coming to the garage when he was just a youngster. During the time Ben spent at the garage, he acquired a mechanical interest that involved taking things apart and ALMOST putting them back together again," Max teased. Ben is the youngest of the six Heintz children, but they all used to go down to the garage on Sundays. Max described how his kids "liked to play with the telephones and run up and down the stairs. That was dangerous. And they were always getting dirty. 'Do they have to get that dirty?' Marlyn would ask me."
When Ben graduated from high school he went to Northwood University in Midland, Michigan. He studied dealership management for two years. It was 1980 and he couldn't wait to get back to the garage and go directly to work selling cars. In 1990 Ben decided he would like to start buying the business from Max and work toward eventually owning all of it. He started a contract at the end of 1990. He finished his total purchase in 2004. Ben was clear on the direction he wanted to take the business and it didn't include General Motors. The very next year, Ben completed the sale of the Pontiac and Cadillac franchises to Snell Motors and embarked on establishing Toyota as the leading brand in the Mankato market. Business steadily increased under Ben's guidance. Max verifies the "increase of business, paralleled the time of Ben taking on more ownership. Under Ben's tutelage, the Toyota business just continued to improve." Ben had the business well on its way to the future. So in 2004, Max Heintz retired at the age of 80 years old. "Not exactly an early retirement," Max admitted.
The philosophies and values that customers experience everyday at Heintz Toyota, began with Max Heintz. He knew how to treat his employees and his customers like family. Every time Max speaks of the dealership he uses the word "we" or "us" rather than "I". He knows he could never have done this alone and there are so many people who have helped to make this business a success. Max has put his heart into this business and he sincerely cared about his customers. That is why Max's customers are now Ben's customers. Max passed those beliefs on, by leading by example and demonstrating through his actions how to treat people with respect. It is these people, customers, employees and family members that have made all the difference in Max Heintz's life. Max's words tell the story, of how it all began and it is easy to see the gratitude and warmth he feels as he remembers the journey.