Debbie Ledford Melton, general manager/owner of Don Ledford Automotive Center Inc.—Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac, was recognized by the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce for her excellence in business and community involvement at its Business Development Month kickoff luncheon today.
Ms. Melton is the 15th individual to receive the Bedwell Small Business Person of the Year award since its renaming to honor the contributions of the late Mel Bedwell and 20th to receive the award since this recognition program began. Mr. Bedwell was one of the most loyal and supportive members of the Small Business Committee of the Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors Business Development Month.
Staying power, growth in number of employees, increase in sales or unit volume, innovativeness of product or services offered, response to adversity, and evidence of contribution by the nominee to aid community-oriented projects form the basis for this award.
Debbie Melton might well be called a fighter too. When auto dealers were closing during the General Motors dilemma of 2009, Cleveland’s four GM brands were on the front lines of a closure battle. A 60-year-old family-owned Chevrolet dealership closed its doors, and a then 28-year-old family-owned Buick-Cadillac-GMC dealership chose to fight for survival. With her family’s business and her employees’ livelihoods on the line, Ms. Melton prepared for battle.
The Don Ledford Automotive Center story was one of steady growth and progress. It started in 1981 when Donald H. Ledford Sr. realized his dream of being a franchised automobile dealer with General Motor’s Pontiac and Buick lines. In 2001 the dealership grew again when the family added the GMC and Cadillac franchises. This addition of a truck line and a luxury brand successfully took the business to a new level of service to the community.
Then in the midst of an economic turndown in 2009, GM decided to discontinue the Pontiac line, and Ms. Melton learned that the family-owned-and-operated dealership in Cleveland was among the hundreds notified by GM that their franchise points were being closed.
“They fell victim to a nationwide downsize effort by GM that caused many dealers to close their doors,” explained Karen Dyer, controller for the automotive center and nominator. Cleveland’s other GM dealer, Jack Hall Chevrolet, closed its doors after more than 60 years in the area.
“Debbie was not willing to go so quietly,” Ms. Dyer continued. With dogged determination, the dealership remained in business, focusing on their pre-owned and service operations while Melton rallied the troops for battle to save her family’s business—“a business with significant economic impact on the community.”
Ms. Melton received her bachelor’s degree from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and worked as a mathematical analyst at Bowater before joining her family’s business in 1989.
“Her past experience paid off,” husband Ken Melton said, as she worked the numbers, penned a business plan and began making appearances before GM officials to make her plea to save the family dealership.
“She took control of the situation and rallied the community,” Ms. Dyer added. “With unflagging tenacity, she began working with city, county, state and national legislators and began making presentations to GM officials to have her voice heard.”
Her daily focus was to keep the business going, save jobs for her employees and service existing customers with her GM Certified Service Department. Without the delivery of new vehicles, she and her team focused on their pre-owned vehicle sales and their service and parts department business while she worked diligently to restore the Buick, GMC and Cadillac franchises to Cleveland.
When the announcement came that Buick, GMC and Cadillac were returning, Ms. Melton’s goal was only partially complete.
“She wanted to return the full GM line to Cleveland,” Ms. Dyer said, “so she applied, pursued and received the Chevrolet franchise.”
In June 2012 Don Ledford Automotive Center finally had all four GM franchises on the ground.
The hard-won battle to regain the family’s franchises and add Chevrolet, however, did not come without some concessions.
“GM demanded specific facility image construction,” Ms. Dyer explained. “Debbie worked with the architect on the design and then supervised the construction of a more than $2 million investment in the facility. Her goal? To meet GM expectations and create a WOW customer experience.”
Construction of a new dual sales facility began in February 2012. The addition of the Chevrolet franchise was finalized in June 2012. The team moved into the final phase of the new facility in March 2013.
“After four years of turmoil and disruption, we are focused on the future,” Ms. Dyer said. “2013 is the time for our star to shine brightly once again.”
As a GM dealer, Don Ledford Automotive Center constantly showcases fresh new product. The new facility is designed for the convenience of customers. It includes a new and enhanced service drive entrance with easy access to the customer lounge areas—both a television lounge and a quiet lounge with free WiFi, a kids playroom, a hospitality area and a new dual bay delivery area.
The new facility also includes a state-of-the-art conference/training room for team members who are committed to continuous improvement to enhance both their work experience and the customer experience.
“We strive diligently to meet our mission every day to ‘Exceed Everyone’s Expectations 100% of the Time,’ ” Ms. Dyer explained. “We have a single vision: to be The Place of Choice … for vehicle purchases, for service and parts, and for employment.”
The striking new complex in Cleveland’s northern business district now stands as a “shining star” and a beacon of hope, illuminating the area, proving what can happen with a strong leader’s determination and showcasing a new beginning to serve future generations.
Ms. Dyer, whose strong working relationship and friendship with Ms. Melton began in 1989, summarized the past four years.
“We responded to adversity and overcame the odds,” she said. “We are poised once again for continued growth, and we look for that growth to be a means of further serving the needs of our community.”
That growth is already reflected in employment numbers. At the end of 2009, the dealership reported 29 employees. Currently, 41 full-time and four part-time team members manage the growth.
“Debbie is a good corporate citizen,” Mayor Tom Rowland observed. “Through all her trials, she exhibited a consistent commitment to her God, her family, her business and her hometown.”
Mr. Melton said that while “Don Ledford Automotive Center is a testimony to the hard work and dedication of many people, it’s also a tribute to my wife Debbie’s tenacity and passion for her family, her business, her employees and her customers. She would hesitate to take credit because she attributes the achievements to the support of the community and the faithfulness of her employees and customers.”
And if you ask Ms. Melton about her success, she would say that she attributes it to her faith in God.
Ms. Dyer said, “During this trying time, she kept a sign on her office wall in the old dealership building that read, ‘The joy of the Lord is my strength.’ And she was confident God was guiding her path during the process.”
Mayor Rowland pointed out that “keeping the four major GM brands in Cleveland was important for her dealership, but it was also important to this community. Had Debbie not regained the brands, our local citizens would have been forced to travel out of town for sales and service of the GM brands. It would have also meant long-time employees being forced to seek employment elsewhere.”
Speaking on behalf of the Don Ledford staff, Ms. Dyer said, “Debbie inspired and encouraged her team [in the midst of the struggle with GM], and as those team members, we are all honored to be led by a woman who is carrying her family legacy into the future, preserving its history and creating a new beginning for all of us.”
Contributions to community service are also part of the criteria for receiving the Bedwell award. The recipient has been actively involved with United Way of Bradley County, first as a campaign division chair and later as co-chair of a campaign, helping to raise over $2 million to fund the various agencies.
She has also been actively involved in the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce, serving on the board of directors and supporting various committees. In 2014 she will become chairman of the board of the organization, which she acknowledges gave her essential support as she struggled to bring the GM brands back to Cleveland. She has also participated in the Chamber’s Youth Leadership program for Local Economy day.
Ms. Melton is also a staunch supporter of the Salvation Army, His Hands Extended Ministries, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland, particularly supporting its Empowering Women program for young girls.
When tornadoes struck local schools, this year’s recipient opened her dealership to help collect school supplies, filling several school buses with much-needed items.
Ms. Melton is also a member of the board for Diaper Love of Bradley County and collected diapers for The Caring Place, another community organization that benefits from her assistance when needed.
Her donation of a new GMC Terrain supported the Cleveland Civitan Club in fundraising efforts for a new inclusive playground for disabled children and adults on George R. Stuart Elementary School campus.
Said Ms. Dyer, “Those close to her also know that anonymous acts of kindness and charity are commonplace for Debbie.”
The one characteristic that prevails in the life of Ms. Melton, both in her professional career and her personal life, is determination.
“If I have learned one thing during my 29 years of marriage to Debbie, it is that when she sets her mind to do something, she gives it her all!” said Mr. Melton.
He shared, “We were married 14 years and had a very difficult time with infertility. Debbie endured over 20 infertility procedures and two miscarriages. But through prayer and a strong faith in God, Debbie did not give up.”
He continued, “When we finally got the news that we were to become parents, we discovered we were not having one but three!”
Ms. Melton and her family practice their faith at First United Methodist Church, where she leads the youth hand bell choir and helps provide inspirational music for worship services and special events.
“I consider myself a blessed man to have Debbie by my side as my wife, my best friend, my soul mate and mother of my children—our greatest gifts: Ella Marie, Jessica and Will.”
Previous winners of the Small Business Person of the Year are Shannon Ritzhaupt, Café Roma; Ed Jacobs, Ed Jacobs & Associates Inc. and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network; Hal Roe, Bradley Rentals; Jim Workman, Bender Realty LLC; Don Geren, Cleveland/Bradley Business Incubator; Steve Robinson, Cleveland Plywood; Lynn Jones, Lynn Jones Enterprises; Ross Tarver, Tarver Distributing Co. Inc.; Loye Hamilton, Coldwell Banker, Hamilton & Associates; Kenneth Higgins, Santek Environmental Inc.; Kay Jenkins Cowan, Jenkins Restaurant & Deli, Dan Cooke, Cooke’s Food Store and Panera Bread; Catherine Boettner, Cleveland Tubing; Jim Duggan, Robinson Building Center; Reba Garrison, State Farm Insurance; Ron Braam, Manufacturers Chemicals LLC; Susan Shelton, Bradley News Weekly; Larry McDaniel, Town Squire; and Mel Bedwell, Cleveland Business Machines.
The Small Business Committee of the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce sponsors Business Development Month as part of the Chamber’s commitment to the business development of its members, the economic growth of the region, and the highest quality of life in our community.