PHOTO: Werner family closes its business after 89 years in Belford. photo credit: Allan Dean
Belford, NJ – After 65 years of work which began when he was a high school freshman and pumped gas at his dad’s gas station, John Werner is tossing in the towel. And what’s worse, when this octogenarian closes the doors at Werner Dodge on Route 36, a thriving business that went from his dad’s gas station to the largest Dodge dealer in the area, selling thousands of vehicles over the years, each with trust, honesty and sincerity, is going with him.
Werner Dodge will be closed by the end of the month, and what will become of the landmark on three acres with 600 foot of highway frontage is still up in the air. What’s known is it won’t be Werner Dodge anymore. Most of the 15 employees have already either retired or found other jobs; the six who are left either have some promises of employment, other ideas, or will find one. Like John himself says, “it’s not hard to get a job if you know what you’re doing.”
John Werner is the epitome of doing things the old-fashioned way. His stock in trade has always been a fair deal, an honest price, keep on the straight and narrow, and run your business like, well, like an old-fashioned hardware store.
That he has done that since he was a Leonardo High School freshman is shown everywhere and in everyone around this genial, easy going, thought-provoking gentleman with the easy smile and quick laugh. It’s shown in the fact there are four and in some cases five generations of families who have bought their Studebakers, or Packards, or Dodges, or anything else from him. It’s shown in the faces of neighbors who drop in on a sunny afternoon because “I just heard the news you’re retiring, and I want to say thank you and good luck.” It’s shown in the awards, trophies and citations on the wall, the photos on the table, the camaraderie among the employees. It’s shown in John’s own personal belief that to be successful in business, you have to “dedicate yourself to the people with whom you do business…..and your employees.”
That’s what happens in a business where your dad, the late Bud Werner, opened his first auto repair shop in his Campbell’s Junction neighborhood just across from Port Monmouth where the family lived. That’s what happens when the family business moves to bigger quarters along the state highway in the same neighborhood, keeping the same standards and traditions. That’s what happens when you learn the business from your dad, put your time in the army and come back to your hometown to continue the family business. That’s what happens when you maintain those same values no matter how big you get.
A graduate of Rutgers when it was still a college, a father, grandfather, and husband, John Werner is homespun and basic. He admits to having mixed feelings about closing shop, admitting “it’s never been a job…when you work 60, 70 hours a week someplace, it’s a lifestyle, that’s kind of how it works.” But he knows he’ll always have something to do…he and his wife live in what he describes as “an old house in Red Bank…there’s always something to fix up or do.” Plus, he’s got a woodshop in the basement of that house, and he loves to do woodworking, furniture making and the like, as well as restorations.
But selling cars today is a far cry from what it was in the ‘50s and 60s. Today, it’s not uncommon for a salesman to pass a prospective buyer on to his manager, then, when the deal is almost clinched, to his manager. “You might go through two or three people to buy a car,” he shrugs. “That’s not the way I like to do business. I like to shake everybody’s hand.”
And that’s probably why the question of whether his friends became his customers or his customers became his friends was such a conundrum to him. John thought a minute or two, sat back in his chair, murmured, “well, I never thought of that,” then answered, “it’s kind of all mixed up. I couldn’t really tell you. It’s like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg.”
The one sure thing is….friend or customer, they all left Werner Dodge as friends.
You might want to stop in and say Hi. Or wish this 80 year-old good luck in his next venture. Or see what he says when you ask what’s going to happen to the property. Or simply hear him say something like ….”See that fellow in the blue shirt that just went out of here? His great grandfather was my dad’s customer.”
You might want to stop in to see the kind of man it takes to run an honest, down-to-earth neighborly business.