Thirty years later, Dock Sawyer still remembers sitting in his office at the Ford dealership his grandfather founded, casually thumbing through a business magazine when he came across an article that jarred him.
A Babson College professor researched family businesses and reported that only 3-in-10 endure to the second generation and that only 1-in-10 survive to the third generation. Sawyer had returned home to Manteo only a couple of years prior and was just getting acclimated to all aspects of the family business he hoped to one day take over.
“That was motivation for me,” Sawyer says. “I wanted to be on the right side of the 1-in-10.”
By all accounts, Sawyer bucked the odds. R.D. Sawyer Motor Co., is the oldest Ford dealership in eastern North Carolina and one of only three manufacturer-affiliated car dealers in Dare County. Three generations of Sawyers endured economic downturns, hurricanes, the oil crisis of the 1970s and any number of challenges through the years.
“If you’ve been around since 1946, you must be doing something right,” says Byron Sawyer, Dock’s 81-year-old uncle who’s at the dealership six days a week. “I’d be here seven if I had to.”
The dealership began as a labor of love and one of several small businesses that founder Roland Dock Sawyer Sr., ran from his backyard on Ananias Dare Street in the 1940s. He ran a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership from 1946-54 and then switched to Ford in 1955, selling more cars in the first year alone than he did the previous eight.
Sawyer built the old dealership building following World War II, across the road from the present site and what’s now the home of Manteo Marine. The Sawyers moved into the current building in 1986 after trucking in metric tons of sand and soil to elevate the site just enough to minimize possible flooding, a decision that’s paid off in spades. Roland Jr., and Byron took over the business in the late 1970s, and Roland III, known by everyone as Dock, gradually took over day-to-day control as his father stepped away. Roland Sr., passed away in 1989, and his son died in 2016.
Sawyer Motor Co., remains a family business with a small-town vibe, albeit one that’s embracing the changes brought on by the Internet and new technology. They are third-generation dealers in many instances selling cars to third-generation customers. They are small enough that a customer can be in-and-out in 30 minutes if the paperwork is right, yet accommodating enough to work with someone for hours or even days to secure financing and to satisfy them.
“We want it to be a five-minute ordeal, not a five-hour ordeal if we can,” says Dock’s wife, Robin.
Dock, Robin and Byron are at the dealership most days and oversee a staff of 19. Though Dock’s title is general manager, he is as likely to sell a car, talk to finance people, wash and move cars around the lot, or tend to the grounds. He possesses a playful, dry sense of humor and a keen B.S. meter, as well as a quietly fierce competitive streak. He was a walk-on nose guard at the University of North Carolina in the late 1970s, and, at age 61, he competes in triathlons.
“I still get pissed off when people buy a car from somebody else without at least stopping by or talking to me,” he says.
Robin Sawyer came on board full-time in 2015, after 25 years of teaching journalism at local schools. Chatty and outgoing, her primary responsibilities are digital and internet-related outreach, though she refers to herself as a gap filler, answering questions and helping customers in a variety of ways.
The dealership figures to endure, but is unlikely to extend into a fourth generation of Sawyer. Dock and Robin’s only child, daughter Korie Sawyer Rich, is assistant director of student-athlete development in the athletic department at UNC-Chapel Hill and has little interest in the car business.
Dock and Robin know that major decisions are in their future, but they don’t sound as if they’re stepping away any time soon. They still enjoy the customers, the challenges, the competition. As for how long he’ll continue to work at the dealership, Dock used a NASCAR analogy. He views his career as a race and says he took the white flag, meaning one lap remaining. But favorable conditions and good customers are like green-white-checkered flag finishes, NASCAR’s version of overtime, that will keep him racing.
“Two more laps, two more years,” he says. “Two more years, two more years. Who knows?”
Sawyer kept a clip of that business magazine article and still refers to it regularly, to remind him of the obstacles he faced. That — and the name on the building — are all the motivation he needed.
“I never considered it my name,” Sawyer says. “It’s my granddaddy’s name, and I always wanted to do what I could to live up to him.”