'Cornfield dealership' rolling along
By CHRIS MENEES - Messenger Staff Reporter
Tootie Abernathy's "cornfield dealership" is still the cream of the crop.
It brings a smile to the Union City businessman's face when he recalls how some visiting big shots from the Honda™ industry referred to his family business many years ago. "They couldn't speak English and they had (a Japanese) interpreter with them," he said. "They wanted to see this dealership - they called it, 'This cornfield dealership' - because we were out in the middle of a cornfield outselling other large dealerships in Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis and Atlanta two to one. 'This cornfield Honda dealer' is what they called us."
Even then, Abernathy's was tearing up the competition. It all started in 1955 when Abernathy's grandfather, the late Clarence Abernathy, became an authorized Harley-Davidson® motorcycle dealer in Palmersville, TN and began working with motorcycles in his garage. He and his son, the late Russell Abernathy, who is Tootie's father, were mechanics and heavy equipment operators by trade.
"My dad always wanted to be in the motorcycle business," he said. Russell Abernathy married and moved to Union City, where in the late 1950s he started a motorcycle business in a little garage behind his home on Old Lake Road. In the meantime, he continued to work at servicing and repairing trucks for Gibson Electric Membership Corp. He sold Harley-Davidson motorcycles, as well as Cushman scooters, and in the mid-1960s moved the store into a new building on West Main Street in Union City, Tennessee. In 1969, he made the important decision to add the Honda line. While a lot of boys were growing up playing baseball or football, Russell "Tootie" Abernathy II and his brother Randy grew up with motorcycles. "When other kids were practicing football and stuff, Daddy made us work," Abernathy said. "Of course, we loved it. We loved motorcycles. It was a fun thing. Every kid wanted a motorcycle."
In the early 1970s, the senior Russell Abernathy earned the honor of being the largest Honda dealer in the nation in volume of sales - among the first of many honors which followed throughout the years. He and Abernathy's either won or earned every award ever bestowed upon Honda dealers. "He constantly won trips to Japan, European tours, Germany, France - that's how, back then, they would reward you," his son said. "They'd give you a real nice vacation and plaques. We were always in the top three in the nation all during the '70s. ... Back then, if Daddy sold less than 75 new Hondas on a Saturday, that was a slow day." Abernathy's sold by volume and was noted for being one of the lowest-priced dealers in the nation - resulting in sales of 4,000-5,000 new and used Honda motorcycles per year.
He said his father actually bought his own tractor-trailer rig and hauled his own stock. "I'd see him unload, go home and shower and head right back for another load," he said. "Back then, we worked 24 hours a day a lot of times. We had like 20-something set-up employees that would put bikes together all night long to get ready for Saturday." Abernathy remembers how his father advertised on WLS radio station aired from Chicago and drew clientele from around the nation. "He would open up and there'd be people from Chicago and everywhere else lined up," he said.
The dealership was so well-known in the community that motorcycle parts and accessories were ordered directly from suppliers in Japan in an effort to cut the middle man. "There were only three dealers in the whole United States that were able to do that and Abernathy's was one of them," he said. Ironically, when Russell Abernathy had decided to venture into the motorcycle industry years earlier, he had trouble getting financial assistance, according to his son. "When Daddy decided he wanted to get into the motorcycle business, nobody wanted to help him because they said he would never make it," he said.
Over the years, the business grew and the Abernathy name became synonymous with new and used motorcycles and sales. When the motorcycle business took a turn for the worse in 1984 because of soaring interest rates, the Abernathys added the marine business - which was strong at the time - and began to offer Ranger bass boats and Mercury outboards. Then, motorcycle sales skyrocketed in 1989 when the movie "Terminator" was released. "Arnold Schwarzenegger was riding a Harley-Davidson," Abernathy said. "Plus, Malcolm Forbes was big into Harley-Davidson. They helped turn the image (of Harley-Davidson and motorcycles in general) around and gave Harley-Davidson a boost."
Sales have barely slowed since 1990. "It's been going wide open since then," Abernathy said. Some of the local dealership's famous clientele over the years has included former Dallas Cowboys' star Ed "Too Tall" Jones and country singer Tanya Tucker, as well as other country stars and athletes who send representatives to Union City to shop for their bikes, parts and accessories.
Russell Abernathy Sr. continued as owner until his death in 1997. He left the business to son Tootie, who was also given the local dealership by both Harley-Davidson and Honda. The man who had grown up in the family business knew it was time for it to grow even more. He began making plans to build a new facility - which yielded an impressive new 20,000-square-foot building which houses a Harley-Davidson showroom, as well as Honda and Polaris. The expansion has enabled him to add a massive inventory of parts, accessories, clothing and footwear, riding apparel and collectibles.
Other expansions, including a 15,000-square-foot storage facility for new and used motorcycles and ATVs, have recently been completed; employees have grown from less than 10 to more than 25; and Abernathy is in negotiations for a new showroom that will be exclusive to Harley-Davidson. He added Polaris to the dealership last year and negotiations are complete to add an additional motorcycle and ATV line, with delivery of the products on the way. He continues growth in all aspects of the motorcycle and ATV industry.
Today, Abernathy's Harley-Davidson is the oldest single-owned dealership in Tennessee for a company which is preparing to celebrate its 100th year. Abernathy's Honda is one of the largest dealers in the state, with the nearest competitor trailing some 1,200 Hondas in sales. Nationally, Abernathy's Honda is the fourth largest Honda dealer and continues monthly growth.
"You sit here and you think 'We're out in the middle of a cornfield and we're outselling dealers in Los Angeles, New York.' It's hard to believe," he said. While there has been considerable structural change, some other important aspects of the company have remained the same. Abernathy's continues to operate on volume, with service as the top priority for Abernathy, who still draws clientele from around the United States. "My main concern is how people feel about this place," he said. An avid outdoorsman, Abernathy wants to offer others the same opportunity to enjoy the outdoors. Affordability is a priority which drives him to volume selling.
Abernathy - who became a Christian two years ago and is an active member of Union City's First Baptist Church - also continues to give back to the community which has so generously supported his family's business over the years. He and his wife, the former Carol Fox, consistently contribute to various charitable and school programs. Abernathy recalls the family has endured some tough times over the years - including burglaries and a mid-1980s fire that leveled the building. The business not only survived, but came back stronger than ever. "It's just a family business that's been here for 48 years now," Abernathy said. "We've survived the good times and the bad times and people that didn't think we could make it. We've survived."
Reprinted by permission of The Messenger, Union City, Tennessee - © 2002
Abernathy's Marine is conveniently located near the areas of Fulton, Mayfield, Murray, Gleason, Dresden, Greenfield, Dyer, Trenton, Milan, Humboldt, Dyersburg, Newbern, Hayti and Caruthersville.