Celebrating 106 Years, Hight Family of Dealerships Is Beating the Odds | January 2017
By Maria Landry
Back in 1910 Walter H. Hight was selling hay, hemlock bark, and potatoes in Skowhegan. It’s unlikely that in 1911 when he added Fords to the mix, he had any idea he was starting something that would survive four generations and more than 100 years.
“My great-grandfather would sell anything that people would buy,” said Sam Hight, one of the family members currently running the Hight Family of Dealerships. “The train station was just behind [Walter Hight’s] original barn, so that made it easy to receive goods to sell. Later on, trains would ship vehicles in crates that we would have to assemble.”
Sam noted that it was a gamble to introduce the automobile to an area that only knew horse and buggy.
“Walter was a risk taker by nature,” he said. “Customers would bring their horse-drawn carriages in and would need a lesson on how to start and operate and drive the vehicle. Basically my great-grandfather was the first driver’s education teacher in Central Maine.”
The dealerships are all run by Hight family members. Sam noted that his grandfather, Kirby, age 101, “plays the role of keeping the family straight.” Kirby’s sons, twins Walter and Lou, started in the business in the early ‘70s. Walter now runs the Skowhegan Chevrolet dealership with his son, Corey, while Lou runs the Farmington Chevrolet dealership with Sam; Sam also runs Hight Ford in Skowhegan. Walter’s other son, Toby, manages the Chrysler Dodge Jeep dealership in Madison.
“Those are the main players, but because this is a small family business, everyone is involved,” Sam explained. “All of our wives, whether they work in the stores or not, are part of the business. Not only do they give us advice, but they also network and build the customer base. We are all in this together.”
Even the family dogs take part—Walter’s dog, Marley, is a staple at the Chevrolet garage, and Sam’s dog, Somerset, can often be spotted at the Ford garage.
Sam mused about the beauty of a family business: “When people shop local and shop at Hight, that money stays in this area,” he said. “We have supported and sponsored local events, causes, teams, people, et cetera for 100 years. The community supports us, so we support the community.”
The Hights have a singular focus not only on community but also on customer satisfaction. On the Hight history website, Hight100.com, Kirby notes that in the early years, “You could really sell a man or woman a car if he or she could get over Waterville Hill in Norridgewock in high gear or Magnetic Hill in Bingham. If the car wouldn’t go over those hills in high gear, the salesman might as well go home. Customers today have different demands, but customers remain our focus.”
Sam agrees with his grandfather Kirby, remarking that the saying Walter H. Hight came up with decades ago—”You put us first in sales and we put you first in service”—still survives.
“It’s the reason we’ve been a one-family owned and operated business for 106 years,” Sam said. “We sell to generations of customers. We know the customers’ names and families. Our service departments know how to take care of the customers with loaner cars and fair treatment. Our sales department members know to treat the customers with respect and little to no pressure. It’s what our customers have come to expect because that’s what customers deserve.”
According to Sam, less than five percent of family businesses survive for four generations. He attributes the Hight family’s success to focusing on the customer first, plus offering a good selection of new and used vehicles at competitive prices and with reasonable financing.
“One focus we have going forward is on digital advertising and online marketing,” he said. “Most customers now do all their shopping online, so we need to present a compelling case on why they should do business with us. We want customers to give us a chance. We can compete price-wise with the big dealers, and we can treat customers like family and give them great service after the sale.”
In 2011 Hight won the NADA Century Award, an accolade the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) presents to dealers that have been in the retail transportation business for at least 100 consecutive years.
Only 37 other dealers, going back to 1847, have ever received this award. To put this in context, consider that there are 17,500 franchised auto dealers in the country today.