Huebsch hangs up keys to 75-year career in auto sales
By Correne Martin
In his distinctly calm and slightly raspy voice, Fred Huebsch sat back in his sport coat and slacks to narrate his own personal story of 75 years as a car salesman: “I started sweeping floors, washing windows and washing cars at the age of 9, so I get to brag that I had a 75-year career in the business.”
Fred, a Prairie du Chien resident, has announced his retirement from Brown’s Sales and Leasing in Elkader, Iowa. His last day will be Saturday, March 29. Owner Forest Brown has planned a open house in Fred’s honor for March 28 and 29. All of his customers and friends, past and present, are invited to stop by and wish Fred all the best in his retirement, or take one last test drive with the trusted salesman.
Born and raised in McGregor, Fred’s days of helping his father, Fred Sr., at McGregor Motor Company started in 1939, one year after Senior started the business. His dad actually got into selling cars because the family owned the North Iowa Times and he felt there was a need for advertising by the local dealership in the newspaper.
Fred graduated from McGregor High School and the University of Iowa with a business degree, but he always worked at the dealership after school, on weekends and during vacations.
In 1948, in addition to running McGregor Motors, Fred Sr. established Huebsch Chevrolet on the corner of Park and Illinois Streets in Prairie du Chien. “At that time, the Burlington Northern train depot was right by there and hundreds of people a day came through that area,” Fred recalled. “It was a well-known location, a busy corner.”
After college, Fred Jr. spent seven years in the U.S. Air Force as a finance officer, including two years of active duty. “Our job was to defend the eastern coast during the Cold War/Korean War years,” he stated. In 1954, he was offered a captain’s position in Rio de Janeiro and he remembers wanting to accept it. But his dad traveled to Long Island, N.Y., and informed him he was to come home and work at the family business.
“He needed my help and I had always liked cars, so I came back,” he said.
That year, Fred became a full-time sales manager at Huebsch Chevrolet. He still remembers his very first sale of a new car.
“My dad sent me over to Dr. Conley Taylor’s office. I was really nervous. When he said he’d take the car, I couldn’t believe it.” It was a 1954 Chevy Bel Air.
In 1957, Fred’s dad was diagnosed with cancer, and he later died in 1960. That left Fred to become owner/operator of the family business at the age of 30. Not long after, upon a nudge from the Chevrolet company, he sold McGregor Motors and moved its five employees to Prairie du Chien, which had about 15 workers then.
“At one time, there were five new vehicle dealerships in Prairie du Chien: Huebsch, Lochner, Dagnon, Watson and Prairie Auto Sales. There was also an International Harvester dealer that sold pickups and big trucks. There used to be a Hudson dealership and Joe Sebastian had American Motors as well,” Fred said. “The achievement I’m most proud of is that, from 1957 to 2000, Huebsch was the leader in car sales in Prairie du Chien. We had over 50 percent of the sales in town.”
Over the years, Fred got to know a lot of area residents as owner of the local business. It also afforded him the opportunities to belong to and serve in leadership positions with organizations such as the Jaycees, Chamber of Commerce, city council, St. Feriole Island Reuse Committee, Prairie du Chien Memorial Hospital Board, a performing arts committee, the Fort Crawford Museum board, the McGregor American Legion and the Pleasant Grove Cemetery board. Fred was also elected PdC’s mayor in 1979 and served one term. He remains on several boards to this day.
“One of my greatest enjoyments in life were all the organizations I belonged to and their activities,” he said. “A lot of people said to me, especially when I was on the council and mayor, that it was going to hurt my business. I didn’t find that. In fact, I think it helped. I got to meet a lot of people.”
In 2000, Fred turned 70 and was ready to retire. He sold Huebsch Chevrolet, and the dealership became Great Country Motors. He was talked into staying on with Great Country as a sales consultant, but after a short time, he decided it was time to hang up the keys to his sales position (a second time). “I was sure I was going to retire,” he said.
But, his phone started ringing. It was Forest Brown calling to see if he would be interested in becoming a salesman at Brown’s Elkader dealership. “He called me three times,” Fred said. “He said, ‘Just come over and we can talk.’ I was very impressed with how he ran his business.”
So Fred put a hold on his retirement yet again and happily stayed connected to the car business.
“I’ve had a good time working. I’m going to miss it,” he added. “I’ve worked for Forest for three and a half years. I found out how a dealership should run. He’s very customer-oriented. He treats his employees well and has a nicely-staffed business. He’s done a lot of expansion, and he carries a lot of stock. Where I used to carry 50 or 60 new cars, he has 400.”
In Elkader, Fred has continued meeting with customers, mainly Chevrolet buyers, for three days a week. Most of them come looking for him in particular. In fact, in the short period he’s worked for Brown’s, he’s serviced more than 230 customers who wanted to buy from him.
“It’s always great to have the older customers come back,” he said. “As a matter of fact, last week, a gentleman who bought a car from me in 1958, who had always followed me, came in to buy one. I also had a guy, last month, who had purchased a new Camaro from me in 1968. He still has it, so he came over and wanted me to take a ride with him.
“I am a firm believer that good service will keep people around, but there has been a great change in the way companies sell cars. There used to be a great deal more loyalty than there is today. Now, especially with the Internet, the right car and the right price seem to drive the sale more.”
Those aren’t the only parts of the industry that have changed in 75 years either. Fred said he’s been astounded by the evolution of the vehicles themselves, particularly in terms of reliability and technology.
Today’s vehicles can last far beyond 100,000 miles, easily, he said. After all, Fred has been around since the good old days when cars only featured AM/FM radios. These days, he’s teaching new car owners how to run their Sirius Radios and Bluetooth systems.
“There’s so many more requirements for equipment and training for these technical vehicles,” he pointed out. “It takes a technician as long to get proficient as it does a doctor.”
Upon retirement, Fred said he will turn over his portfolio of customers to veteran salesman Troy Larson at Brown’s. “He’s one of those guys who is a real pro. He knows his technology; almost every day, I had to ask him a question about it,” Fred noted. “He’s a nice guy too. I would encourage people to come back to Brown’s for their transportation needs.”
Until then, Fred is available Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Once he steps off the lot on March 29, Fred will be officially retired. “You know when you’re ready, and I’m ready this time,” he said. His post-career plans include spending as much time on the river as possible, taking his wife Barbara on a trip, spending more time with family and “keeping up with my automobile news.”
When asked to sum up his career, Fred said, “Cars are in my blood. I’m always going to be faithful to Chevrolet, but I’ve found out all of today’s products are good. I have worked with and sold vehicles to some great people who have been very kind to me and shown me loyalty over the years. I’m very thankful.”
With his familiar gracious expression, Fred added, “It’s been quite a ride.”