I’m a fifth-generation car dealer,” Charlie Burton says. “I don’t think there are a dozen of those in the country.”
As the saying goes, the first generation builds a business, the second enjoys it, the third often runs it into the ground. Yet there’s been a Burton dealership on the Eastern Shore since 1908. The current one, i.g. Burton, in Milford and Seaford, is named for Charlie’s grandfather, Irwin Gwen.
I.G. moved to Baltimore during World War II to build airplanes. Afterward, about 1947, he opened a Chevrolet-Oldsmobile dealership in Milford. Charlie’s father ran the business for about 30 years. When he retired in 1990, Charlie took the wheel.
Burton hadn’t planned to join the family business. He studied criminal justice in college, then went to work in the insurance business. For several years, he traveled the country, writing policies for car dealers, helping with their fee and inspections work before rising to district manager. “It was a brutal, boot camp-like experience,” Burton says. “But I learned a lot. I saw a lot of different management styles.” And he made a lot of contacts in the local community of auto sellers.
After some time, he started working for his brother as a Toyota salesman. Now he’s the only family member involved in i.g. Burton, the sole owner. Yet he stresses that i.g. Burton is still very much a family business.
“People know my family. We’ve had a great reputation for a long time. That’s a great advantage for me. We don’t have to market so aggressively. We can spend that money in other ways on customers. And they come back to us.”
The TIME Dealer of the Year for Delaware in 2011, i.g. Burton does about $135 million in annual sales. That was more than 3,600 vehicles in 2011. More importantly, the company employs about 200 people. Burton gives them as many opportunities to succeed as possible. “If you make $40,000, why not make $100,000?” he says. “I show them how. That helps people send their kids to college.”
Burton has three children of his own. They’re too young to decide how to spend their adult lives, but at 48, he is starting to think about succession.
“I really want my son to do what he wants,” Burton says. “I just really want to stay a viable business that employs great people and lets them enjoy a nice lifestyle. I have good people in place here.”