They entered this business during a 1980s recession when interest rates were higher than 20 percent. They enjoyed the early years of the new millennium, when car sales soared to record highs. More recently, they have survived one of the worst economic crashes in our nation’s history.

As the economy slowly begins to recover, Jim Bass, Jack Matia and Bob Fisher have positioned themselves to succeed in a county saturated with car dealerships. Lorain County has 24 franchise dealers today, in part because of the 17.5 million new vehicles that were sold nationwide about eight years ago. By 2009, that figure had plummeted to 10 million.

“That was an unnatural level that I’m not sure we’ll ever get back to,” Bass says of 2009. “Manufacturers were selling hundreds of thousands of cars at losses just to keep factories open. No manufacturers are willing to do that today.”

Some dealerships were closed, car companies were redesigned and the sharpest dealers survived. That includes Bass, Matia and Fisher.

“Car dealers are like cockroaches. You can’t kill them, they just keep living,” Fisher says. “We adapt, we improvise, we overcome, we get it done.”

Changing Dreams

Jack Matia’s passion for cars became a career choice much sooner than he anticipated. Born and raised in Lorain County, Matia was a top offensive line prospect in college football before injuring his left knee in the 1979 Senior Bowl.

He was projected to be a first-round pick in the NFL, but he fell to the seventh round following the injury. He spent one season with the Oakland Raiders before he was released, prompting his post-NFL life to begin immediately.

“What I was hoping would be a long football career wound up being a long career in the automobile business,” he says. “There’s a lot more longevity here.”

A self-proclaimed car nut, Matia could name every car on the road during his teenage years. He learned to drive in his mother’s ’57 Chevy. His first car was a ’73 Camaro. His first job in the automobile industry was in ’73 while attending Elyria Catholic.

He started by washing cars at the old Chevrolet store owned by Houston “Biff” Prout — the same store he ultimately purchased 20 years later. Back then, he was simply a porter who drove the parts truck and later helped Prout move the store to its current location off Route 57 in Elyria.

When his football career was cut short, Matia returned to the car business. He sold Cadillacs for a year, then became a manager at Ron Miller Chevrolet after Miller purchased the business from Prout.

Miller ultimately sold the dealership to Matia in ’92. Later came the land purchase the dealership was on and finally the Honda dealership three years later. Matia moved the Honda dealership to its current location near Midway Mall a few years ago.

“After I sold cars for a year, I knew I’d be in the business for the rest of my life,” he says. “I love it. Still love it today as much as I enjoyed it 30 years ago. I like to see the joy on people’s faces when they buy a new car. You don’t buy a new car every day. I like to see the joy on a 16-year-old kid’s face when he gets his first car. Buying a new car should be a happy experience, and it should be fun.”

The differences between selling Hondas and Chevrolets lie in the consumer. Matia doesn’t consider them to be competing brands because they appeal to entirely different clientele groups. Chevrolet competes against Ford, he says, while Honda competes with Toyota.

During the month of April, Matia sold 147 new Hondas. That was second in the county in volume behind only Mike Bass Ford.

“A Honda customer will travel 30 to 50 miles to buy a Honda if it’s the right Honda,” Matia says. “The majority of Chevrolets you sell are within 10 miles of the dealership. What separates dealers who just exist and dealers who are successful is the service after the sale. In a small town, you have to take care of your customers. Everybody knows everybody.”

Climb to No. 1

After six years in college and a brief career teaching business at Miami University in Oxford, Jim Bass gave his father, Mike, a two-year commitment to learn the car industry.

That was about 26 years ago. Since then, Jim has taken over ownership of Mike Bass Ford and evolved it into Ohio’s largest Ford dealership in the midst of a crippling economy.

“Growing the dealership is something we did slowly, through persistence,” Bass says. “We showed customers there’s stability, our advertising is consistent, our stocking levels are consistent. Our sales people and employees here have a longer tenure than what is standard in the industry. When the economy slowed down over the last few years, ours did as well. But not nearly what the average was in the industry.”

It was a long, grueling climb to the top that began with Jim washing cars for two weeks in 1985. He systematically worked his way through the entire business, working in every department under his father’s watch and making changes — with his father’s blessing — to most.

Bass renovated and expanded the parts department, becoming one of the first dealerships to sell parts to consumers in the mid-‘80s. It sold everything from buckets and sponges to auto parts for weekend mechanics who wanted to work on their own vehicles. Around that same time, he extended the hours of customer service until 9 p.m. They have since been extended to midnight.

“One of the things my dad taught me is you never bite off more than you can chew,” Bass says. “I’ve taken a lot of risks over the 25 years I’ve been here, probably risks a little bigger than my dad would take. I knew if I was going to take a risk, I had to make sure it could impact me negatively, but never to the point it would hurt the corporation.”

Bass was named the No. 1 Ford dealer in Ohio during one of the worst economic times in history. There was a time when Bass sold more than 3,000 cars in a year, but, ironically, it wasn’t named Ohio’s top Ford dealer until those numbers plunged below 2,000.

While some dealers cut staff, dropped inventory levels and shredded their ad budgets, Bass slightly modified the advertising, but kept purchasing the same amount of inventory. In fact, that wide selection of models and features is what has made him No. 1.

He has stocked everything from 50 conversion vans when they were most popular to now a wide array of Fusions, Focuses, Escapes and pickup trucks, extending from the common Ranger and F-150s up to the F-650s and commercial trucks. In 2009, thanks in part to commercial truck sales, Bass sold vehicles in 34 states.

Still, Bass believes it will be a few more years, if ever, before the auto industry completely heals itself. When it does, he’ll still be here.

“It’s coming back slowly,” Bass says. “You have to keep a positive outlook because you know overall, there is a lot of good in the economy. And people will always have to buy cars.”

Premier service

Bob Fisher was an 18-year-old college dropout when he entered the car business in 1981. Jobs were hard to come by in the Boston area where he was raised, but he found a dealership in Dover, N.H., that was willing to take a shot on him.

He stayed 13 years, becoming the dealer’s first used-car manager and later becoming the general sales manager. He was named Salesman of the Year his first year in the car industry and quickly turned it into a rewarding career.

Fisher was eventually recruited to take over a failing Toyota dealership in Richmond, Va., and the results were evident. When he arrived, the dealership was ranked 117th out of 120 in customer satisfaction and was failing financially. Fisher turned it into a top-20 performer in the region and earned Toyota’s President’s Award, the company’s highest honor.

When Toyota wanted to plant a dealership in Lorain County, it chose Fisher from a pool of about 60 candidates to lead the expansion for what would eventually be Premier Toyota. He began doing market research as far back as 2002 and found numerous similarities between the Cleveland and Boston areas. While the education level was higher in Boston, Fisher discovered a workforce here that was willing to work hard and change.

“There’s a tremendous body of people who are looking to move forward and are willing to let go of the past and embrace the future,” Fisher says. “There is this dynamic in Greater Cleveland and Lorain County of trying to move from yesteryear’s industry to tomorrow’s industry. There are small businesses bubbling up. As there are more displaced workers and businesses, as they rejuvenate themselves, there will be a rebirth of their ingenuity.”

Premier Toyota opened off Oak Point Road in Lorain in June 2006. But in 2009 a recall crisis stole the headlines. Fisher credits Toyota’s swift work for quickly cleaning up the problem. He says it takes, on average, two years for a recall to meet 70 percent completion. Toyota managed to do it in six months.

Fisher credits the quality of the Toyota product with his unfailing demands in customer service and a whole lot of prayers for making it through the lean years. He says he survived the recession by simply “doing the right things.”

Premier offers rewards such as lifetime free car washes; a lifetime courtesy loaner car anytime a vehicle needs service; a buy-three-tires, get-the-fourth-free sale that never expires; and it tops off all fluids on all service visits. It also serves free Seattle’s Best Coffee in the showroom and has state-of-the-art technology everywhere, including the tech bays where three master diagnostic technicians (the company’s highest level) can order parts directly from Torrance, Calif.

“At the end of the day, it isn’t gimmicks,” Fisher says. “It’s customer service and knowledgeable, friendly people. It’s not that hard. Not easy, but not that hard.”

Fisher hopes he’s seen his last recession, although he knows that probably isn’t the case. He has already endured three, but says this one was by far the worst.

“I’ve probably worked harder the last five years than I did the previous 10,” he says. “So how do you survive? You tighten your belt, you throw more money at it –— and you pray.”