Dean Christenson has a perspective that few have in this company: he once sat across a table from Dick Garber and sold him a dealership.
“Garber Chevrolet here in Highland used to be called Christenson Chevrolet; it was my family’s store,” Dean said. “When the time came for my family to sell it, I helped to shop around and found a dealer we’d be honored to sell the store to, which was Garber.”
Let’s back up.
Between 1951 and 2019, Dean’s grandfather owned Christenson Chevrolet in Highland, Indiana. When the family decided to sell the store, Dean said they knew it was clear who the next owner should be.
As the Parts Manager at what is now Garber Chevrolet in Highland, he straddles his family’s legacy of the past 50+ years while moving forward with Garber, a company that holds its own robust history in the automotive industry.
In a roundabout way, Dean helped pick who he was going to work for.
Dean’s past, present, and future are all right here: in this same store, under ownership that he believes in – and has chosen – as a businessman, as an employee, as a person.
Finding the Right Fit
Dean was born and raised in the automotive industry. He saw the dealership world from every angle.
“I started working at my family’s dealership in high school in 1995 as a part-time porter,” he said. “Then I went into detail. My grandfather and father thought I should learn every job from the bottom up. You learn to be appreciative of everyone in the dealership. It was a huge benefit because I learned a lot.”
Dean moved into the parts department and stayed for 12 years. But an unexpected diagnosis changed his trajectory.
“My father got sick with cancer, so we had to switch roles really quick,” Dean said. “My grandfather was in his 90s and wasn’t operating much. I became the GM of the store.”
Dean’s father got better, returning to his role as GM. Dean moved back to parts. All was well.
Then the illness came back.
“We ended up losing my dad,” Dean explained. “I jumped back into GM. My grandfather passed away a year later.”
It was a difficult time for the family. A lot of stress. A lot of emotion. After much discussion, Dean and his family made the choice to sell the dealership.
While the decision to sell wasn’t easy, finding the right owner proved to be less challenging.
“We interviewed four or five different dealers, and Dick Garber was one of them,” Dean said. “Garber was one of the last stores we talked to. After the first interview with Dick Garber and Pat Hengesbach, we — my mother, my sister and I — just knew right then and there who we would sell to. There was no doubt about it: this would be a Garber store. We went ahead and moved forward with the sale.”
Dean said the decision tipped in Garber’s favor because of one thing in particular. Hint: it wasn’t money.
“Mr. Garber wanted to take care of the employees,” Dean said. “He never once tried to take advantage of anyone. You knew you could tell he cares and does the right thing. It was meaningful. Our family walked away from meeting him and we looked at each other and said, ‘He’s going to get the store.’ Even if I never stepped foot in this store again, I would still say the same thing: Mr. Garber is a great guy and runs a great organization.”
So what would Dean’s grandfather – the original owner of the dealership – think of the store’s new owners?
“My grandfather really loved stores that were long term and had a lot of history,” Dean said. “He would be honored to know that if his store had to be sold, it would be to Garber. Considering the history Garber has — dating back 110+ years — that’s just amazing to start out at the beginning of the automotive industry and still be here and growing. My grandfather would be extremely honored that Garber has their name on this store, and my father would feel the same way.”
After selling the store, Dean could have walked away after the shaking of hands: a symbolic ending to an era.
Instead, he stayed on to start a new chapter of his own. This time, it would be with Garber.
“Dick Garber asked me what my plans were, and I said, ‘Honestly, I can’t retire yet. I would love to continue working for you,’” he said. “So when Garber bought the store on December 9, 2019, that’s when I jumped in as parts manager. I’ve been here since they’ve owned the store.”
As the previous GM of the dealership, he was curious and concerned how the new GM under Garber’s ownership would handle the transition.
But his concern melted away quickly.
“My biggest fear was getting a new GM in the store, especially with me being the previous GM, and thinking they’d try to push me out the door,” Dean said. “Craig Blacklidge [GM at Garber Chevrolet in Highland] is nothing like that. He appreciates what I can help him with, and he will call me in and ask for my opinion. We get along so well. It’s his store to run, and I’m happy to help where I can.”
The Garber culture quickly infiltrated the dealership. Dean said there’s many things he appreciates about how Garber runs their stores and treats team members.
“I like the way Garber makes every employee feel like they’re somebody,” Dean said. “Everyone’s voice is heard. It doesn’t matter if you are a porter or GM, if you have an idea, they’ll take it into consideration. The way they operate, it’s a great company”
As he reflects on the store’s past and its present, Dean said he notices how Garber has improved things that he didn’t even realize needed improvement. He’s also grown as a person and employee.
“I’ve learned a lot since working at Garber,” Dean said. “We opened up in 1951, and my family treated employees well. Going from a family store, learning from my father and grandfather who have never been in any other stores, a lot of stuff we thought we were doing great could be fine-tuned. I never saw it until I got into this auto group and had this experience around me. There’s a four-digit extension to call HR, IT, directors. I really appreciate all the help and support of people who give advice.”
Beyond a solid support system and network, Dean said there are no eggshells to walk on at Garber.
“You won’t ever have to walk in here and be scared,” he said. “When Saginaw management comes, we look forward to it, whether it’s Pat Hengesbach or Dick Garber or the directors, we look forward to seeing them because they treat us well. You want to work somewhere where people treat you well. They treat you like family here. Do you need time off? They allow you to take time off. It’s amazing how well Garber treats you every single day you come to work.”
Must be Santa
As we sit smack dab in the middle of the holiday season, we turn towards the traditions that define this special time.
One such tradition – started by Dean’s family at the Highland dealership – is now continuing with Garber.
“Every year, we had a 20-foot giant Santa Claus made of fiberglass that we put out at the dealership,” Dean said. “You have to use a forklift to put it up. The community loves it. We would always put it up around Thanksgiving. People would want their family picture in front of it and use it for their holiday cards.”
Under Craig Blacklidge’s leadership, Santa is back at the dealership.
“When Garber came along and Craig came in, he said, ‘We will keep Santa Claus going,’” Dean said. “When we got Santa back and put him up, our Facebook page was blowing up. Garber is keeping the tradition going, and it’s awesome. It’s been a fun couple of years with Garber so far.”
First concert? Kid Rock.
First car? 1978 Trans Am. Gold.
Favorite meal? Tacos. Authentic tacos.
Three words your friends or family would use to describe your personality? Adventurous, outgoing, fun
Item on your bucket list? Get to see my two kids be happy, get married, and be successful.