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RICHARD COLTHARP FROM THE PUBLISHER

Forty years later, nobody beats Sisbarro dealerships

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Pat and Lou Sisbarro sat at La Posta, sharing a meal, discussing decisions and thinking about the future.

This meal could have happened last week, but it didn’t.

It happened 40 summers ago, in 1981.

“Here we were in Las Cruces, where we didn’t know a soul,” said Lou. He brought Pat from Michigan to look at a Las Cruces car dealership that had gone through three owners in four years. “We had just been to the dealership and were considering buying it. We had lunch at La Posta, and put a pencil to things and the prospect of moving across country. We had three little kids.”

“They were 9, 10 and 11,” Pat said.

The couple had grown up in New Jersey, and moved to Flint, Michigan, as Lou attended the General Motors Institute. He learned the car business, and a friend’s father-in-law owned a dealership in nearby Fenton, Michigan, where Lou cut his teeth on sales.

In 1969, while American astronauts were landing on the moon, Lou was trying to land paying customers on a used car lot.

Today, he still has a clear picture of that first sale.

“It was a 1965 Buick Electra 225,” Lou says with a grin. “And the couple that bought it, I can’t quite recall their names, but I remember their faces like it was yesterday.”

He became a partner in a dealership but eventually wanted to run his own show.

A dozen years after that first sale, July 15, 1981, to be precise, Lou Sisbarro had his name on a dealership in southern New Mexico.

Forty years later, are there any regrets?

“Not one,” said Lou. “Never a doubt. Pretty early on, I was talking with Pat and I remember saying, ‘This is going to do better than I ever expected.’”

In 1983, Sisbarro added a used car lot, Bi-State on North Main Street. In 1985, they opened the Volkswagen dealership on Valley Drive, where it remains today. And in 1995, they opened their dealership in Deming.

What began with 15 employees, selling about 25 cars a month, has grown to about 150 employees, selling hundreds of cars a month. Sisbarro estimates his dealerships have sold around 150,000 cars in the intervening 40 years.

“It didn’t just happen,” Pat said. “We worked hard.

“On Sunday, the store was closed, so we’d go down as a family and work as the cleaning crew,” Pat continued. “We couldn’t afford janitors at that point. We really did put our heart and soul into it.”

The heart and soul of any organization are the people who make it go. As the Sisbarro dealerships grew, and the number of employees increased, Pat and Lou realized their co-workers had become friends and another arm of the family.

“We have 14 employees who’ve been here more than 25 years,” Pat said.

They’ve seen young people come to work, watched them get married, raise children, and in many cases, become grandparents. They’ve seen those bright times, but also darker times.

 They’ve had employees struggle with personal issues, including substance abuse.

“We didn’t fire them,” Lou said. “We paid for their rehab. You can’t turn your back on your people.”

And while co-workers can become family, family can also become co-workers.

Their son Dan is now the general manager of the dealerships, and daughter Nicole is human resources manager, “and a million other things,” Lou said. Their other son, Chip, lives in Arizona, but his son is now attending New Mexico State. Pat and Lou have seven grandchildren.

Their philosophy toward the business is taking the long view.

“The key for us is not selling the first car, but the second and third cars,” Lou said. “The cliché is the guy in the plaid jacket, screaming, yelling. That hasn’t been us.”

“Trust is critical,” Pat said. “And if your dealership’s 40 years old, the community trusts you.”

“You help the community, and the community is going to respond to you,” Lou said. “Pat and I have done that for 40 years.”

The list of community projects the Sisbarros have assisted or spearheaded is long. The Tough Enough to Wear Pink campaign became the world’s largest breast cancer fundraiser. And the Pat and Lou Sisbarro Community Park on the NMSU campus attracts people daily.

“For Pat and I, it’s been the great American Dream, something  we built up personally,” Lou said. “I don’t think anybody could have a better life than we’ve had in Las Cruces.”

Sounds like a deal nobody could beat.