Don Birger took a long road en route to building his used-car business. Founded in Collinsville, InstaCredit Auto Mart has grown to two locations and has earned honors among used-car businesses and has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and on the BBC. A third dealership is being built in Fairview Heights, with a fourth planned next year. Birger recently talked to Will Buss about his growing car business:
Q: How is construction going?
A: "Great. We probably got delayed three or four weeks with the rain. We're scheduled to open by the end of August or by September. It's on almost a five-acre site that will have about 350 cars on lot, and it's got the same look as the other two dealerships in Collinsville and O'Fallon (Mo.)"
Q: Where exactly is it located?
A: "It's kind of confusing. It's next to Becky's (Carpet & Tile Super Store) and Cope Marine, and those are in O'Fallon. But this piece of property is from the back end and is still considered Fairview Heights and is in the city of Fairview Heights. It is really right in the middle of all of that area. So we'll probably say it's Fairview Heights and O'Fallon."
Q: Why build there?
A: "If you look at the demographics, O'Fallon and Fairview Heights are a regional shopping center base and always has been the place to shop on the Illinois side. People are going to shop at big-box stores in that area."
Q: How long have you been in business?
A: "Since 1990. We're coming up on 20 years. We bought the property in Collinsville back in 1989 for a mobile home park. We started with 30 cars there in Collinsville in 1990 and developed Woodland mobile home park behind there and expanded the car lot in 1993. We're happy we developed there. It's been going very well for us."
Q: How has the business grown since then?
A: "We've always been one of the top sellers since 1993. We built a new dealership in O'Fallon, Mo., in 2007. We also started and finished construction on a new facility in Collinsville that year. That was a milestone year, and I think the past year, 2008, we ranked No. 6 among independent retailers and No. 1 in Illinois and Missouri. We did over 3,000 vehicles per store. All of the others above us had more than two stores. We only have two stores. We started working on the Fairview Heights-O'Fallon dealership at the end of last year. We started construction in March of this year."
Q: Are you planning a fourth site?
A: "We'll be putting another one up. We haven't got a site, yet, but there will be another site next year."
Q: In the metro-east?
A: "No. It will be back in Missouri."
Q: Why there?
A: "We have a lot of our customers from south (St. Louis) county and Arnold around the (Interstate) 55 corridor. It's a pretty good haul to get to Collinsville from there. We felt that we would be getting a good market there."
Q: What drove you into the used-car business?
A: "My background is in chemical engineering. I have chemical engineering degrees from Princeton. After I graduated in 1970, I worked for Chevron out in California and then to FMC, back in New Jersey, and then worked for Estee Lauder out in Long Island, and then I came back here to the St. Louis area, where I'm from. I was planning to go to law school at Washington University, but I got back in the car business with my dad."
Q: What business was it?
A: "It was BBB Cadillac-Oldsmobile. My dad started that in 1949. When I came back in the '70s, I went there part time and liked the business and decided to get back into it. That's when we opened a new car dealership in Carlyle called Birger Chevrolet-Oldsmobile in 1986. We operated that for 15 years. Tony Jansen bought me out, and he moved out of that facility and built a new one. Then in 1990, while we were in the new-car business, we heard about the buy-here-pay-here business. We went to a seminar in Texas and came back and opened a little lot on (Illinois) 157 and Horseshoe Lake Road in 1990 (in Collinsville), and we had 12-by-56 trailers and 30 cars on the lot."
Q: Why didn't you follow through with law school?
A: "I was going to get into patent law, but to be honest with you, being out in the real world for five years, it was hard to get back into reading and studying, and law school required a lot of it. So law school just wasn't for me."
Q: What has helped drive your success?
A: "What we've got that certainly helps us out, particularly, are family members. My son, Geoff, has been working with us for 11 years. (Wife) Jeannie works here, and my brother, Bernard, stared about five years ago, and his wife, Debby, works here, too."
Q: How about the dogs?
A: "They're Shelties. That's our unique hook, so to speak. We've done all the TV commercials with the three dogs, Buckey J, Baxter K and Punkey Ray. That's how people recognize us. We're the guys with the dogs."