John Bearce

Entrepreneur and Adventurer

You may know him from his 80 appearances on television every week across two decades. You might be aware of his racing career and land speed records, or remember his 20-year stint as chairman of the Easter Seals Telethon. And you probably bought a car from him at one time or another.

Indeed, John Bearce has led a fascinating life, but it might not have turned out that way. Several of his childhood friends ended up in prison, but Bearce credits his mother and the Marines for helping him escape that life by instilling in him the difference between right and wrong.

Beginning as a salesperson in 1953 at Peoria Motors, Bearce enjoyed 59 years in the automobile business, turning around underperforming dealerships, and buying and selling 12 franchises over the years. He’s been a Dale Carnegie instructor and a mentor to many other dealers; a husband to his beloved wife, Nancy; and a loving father to their three children. He received the Ford’s Chairman’s Award for customer satisfaction an unprecedented seven years in a row, and has been proud to serve many community organizations, including Children’s Hospital of Illinois, Boy Scouts of America, Eureka College, the Creve Coeur Club and the OSF Saint Francis Community Advisory Board.

Tell me about your childhood and early years.
I was brought to Creve Coeur by my mother, who was divorced when I was three years old. She was from the Lewistown/Canton area… I went through eight years of school and two years of high school. Four of my close buddies did federal time.

I could have been in a bunch of trouble. I had a pattern in front of me that wasn’t the best, but my mom instilled in me the difference between right and wrong.

I ran around with a tough bunch of guys, guys older than me. One of them decided to join the Navy, and I decided I wanted to be a Marine… so I went in and talked to them. They said they didn’t have anything but a four-year enlistment… but there’s a reserve outfit in East Peoria. This was 1949; the beginning of the Korean War was 1950. So I went home and told my mother I was going to join the Marine Corps if she would sign for me, but I’ll be stationed in East Peoria. Well, six months later, we shipped out. I spent 10 years in the Marines and the Reserves—one of the best things that happened to me. It got me out of that environment and taught me discipline.

I went through every training they had—boot camp; amphibious training at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base in Norfolk, Virginia; combat training at Camp Pendleton—and then got into the security outfit. I became buck sergeant and went to college in the Marine Corps [at] the United States Armed Force Institute… When I got out, I had two and a half years of college credit.

I came back and visited Bradley [University], but decided that college wasn’t for me, so I became a lineman for the telephone company. I enjoyed it, but didn’t know if I wanted to do it for the rest of my life. So I went to a friend of mine and asked if he knew anywhere I could go to work. He had a friend with the new Ford dealership, Peoria Motors. I went over to talk to him and he hired me that day: April 1, 1953. He sent me to 1314 South Jefferson, right on the corner of MacArthur and Jefferson on the used car lot. I worked my way up, became manager, and then decided I wanted to be a dealer.

What was it like to be a salesperson at that time?
I had a system… If I could find out your buying motive, I was going to sell you something. I was taught value by the Marine Corps and by my mother—if there’s value in what you’ve got, you can sell it.

Then I went through this Dale Carnegie course and the instructor kept [asking] me to [write down] my goal in life. I’m 19 years old, driving a new convertible, playing poker two or three nights a week—life was good! Why do I need a goal in life? But he kept at it. Finally, I sat down with him and said I’d like to be a dealer. I wrote my goal down on a three-by-five card and rolled it up with my money, and every time I opened up my money, there’s that darn card!

The owner felt as though I had ability and offered to help me get a dealership. He sent me to Henry Ford’s school for sons and daughters of dealers; I wasn’t a son or daughter, but he sent me [anyway]… He said he’d give me a year to look [for a dealership]… so I started looking around. Ford finally called and said they had a guy in Milwaukee who’s going to open up a new dealership. He’d been a dealer for 40 years, but needed a young guy with him, and they’d sell me 49 percent of it. I’ll never forget this as long as I live: $264,527.64. That’s what it was in 1964.

We sat down in this big, oak-paneled office—Arthur Andersen in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—and started talking about the assets of the company. And he said, “How are you going to handle this—do you have family money or financing?” I said I had $15,000. The manager from Ford says, “Can I see you for a minute?” We walk outside and he says, “What the hell are you doing?” I said, “I want to buy this thing!” He says, “But you’ve got no money!” But I never thought about the money. I was so obsessed with this goal—I knew it was going to happen. Long story short, they called me three days later, loaned me the money and I got 49 percent; I had to pay him back out of profits.

About that time, I started to race cars; I got my license in 1965. I raced formula cars… and got to be good friends with Ike Uihlein and Augie Pabst. I raced Augie’s former car for quite a few years. Ike was tragically killed when he was 21, on the way to my house for his birthday party. He was going to help me buy my partner out. So Nancy and I asked, but my partner said, no, we’ll buy you out… because he had 51 percent. I [realized] I was going to be there forever and never get control, so I decided to leave. And I came to Washington in 1969. When we bought the Washington franchise, they were selling 30 cars a month. In six months, we took it to 120.

Tell us more about your racing career.
I read an article about the Bonneville Salt Flats and decided to go out there and set a world land speed record. It took me 10 years, but I did it—I set five of them. I raced at Bonneville for 10 years. I wanted to set a record with a car like the ones I sold, so I did a Mustang, a Maverick, and ultimately an Escort… We went 153 miles an hour with a four-cylinder car on pump gas. This was in 1982.

Then in 1988, Gregg Stoner, a doctor in town, came to me and asked if I’d ever want to build a Bronco for off-wheel racing. He said it’s [for] the world’s most dangerous race; they’re going to race from Cartagena, Columbia to Buenos Aires—9,800 miles, all the way down the continent. I got the specs and built two Broncos. And I went with him… 130 cars started; only 33 finished and we finished 13th. The people who organized the race ran off with all the money. That was an unbelievable experience.

My co-driver was critically injured… and I was in a Chilean jail for seven hours. I was going to be charged with involuntary manslaughter because I’d hit a sergeant in the Chilean army and his wife… I had a doctor who bargained for me and got me out after seven hours. He put me in his Jeep, took me into Peru and dropped me off. He said… they will not extradite you; you’re going to be okay.

You see, that’s five countries all controlled by the military—they made the rules. I was in the right of way when I hit that sergeant and his family. The roads were closed, but he went through a checkpoint and… I was going 60 miles an hour on the inside of the mountain because there were no cars on the road. Fortunately, they lived.

How did you meet your wife, Nancy?
We met in 1954. She was an assistant to the cashier for Equitable Life Insurance Company. She could have done just about anything, but decided to be a mom. We were married three years before we had any children, and then we had three girls: Jodi, Amy and Suzie.

She was very bright and understood me completely. She knew exactly my strengths and weaknesses—she taught me my strengths and weaknesses. She was a major part of our success… and taught me one of the most prolific business lessons of my life. People don’t realize, but [when you purchase a franchise], they ask your wife to sign all the papers. And she would say, “You’ve got somebody to run this thing? And I’d say yes, and we’d talk about that person. Then she says, “What is our back door?” I said, “What do you mean? When I buy these things, I don’t buy them to lose money.” And she says, “What if that doesn’t happen? Are we going to lose $100,000? $500,000? And when are we going to turn the key and say this is enough?” From then on, I had an exit strategy on every business I bought. It was the smartest thing I ever did.

How did you expand after purchasing the Washington dealership?
I never bought [a dealership] that wasn’t underperforming. I bought the Nissan store—it was underperforming. I bought the Jeep store—it was underperforming. I took on Yugo—nobody else wanted it. Jaguar did not want to come to Peoria… I convinced them and made more money with that franchise than any other because I didn’t have any money invested in it; all I had was a sign and parts.

Gary Uftring, owner of the Uftring Auto Group, worked at the Ford store when I bought it in 1969. He worked his way through the chairs and became our general manager. We then bought the Chevrolet store in Washington and the rest is history. Gary is a great dealer and a wonderful guy.

Another area dealer, Mike Murphy—I hired him right out of St. Ambrose College. He has become a very successful dealer and a really good guy. Both of those guys really give back to the community.

When we were really hitting it big in Washington, we were selling 200 cars a month, and we did it month after month after month. The average salesman was selling 9.8 cars a month; our average was 16, and if you didn’t sell 13, you were automatically discharged. That was the pride we had in that place.

We ultimately went on to buy and sell 12 automobile franchises.

What about some of the promotions you ran over the years?
We had all kinds of extravaganzas. I walked on the wing of an airplane… if we sold 125 cars in three days, they’d make me walk on the wing—I did it twice. I have films of that. I got a camper franchise, the kind you put in the back of a truck. I took one 60 feet in the air on a crane and wouldn’t come down until we sold 125 cars. And we did it in three days!

I took a brand-new Chevrolet, cleared my used car lot off, and took it 500 feet in the air with a helicopter and dropped it. “We dropped our prices.” I had a guy on top of the building with a camera and we counted: 3,300 people watched it.

We had a great ad guy: Bob Moss, owner of Moss Advertising. We were on television approximately 80 times a week for 20 years! Who wouldn’t remember me and Gary and Car Wars?

How did you get involved with Dale Carnegie training?
I had a salesman who averaged 22 cars a month, great guy. He had a brother-in-law who sold Fuller Brush and Wearever pots and pans door-to-door. He made about 30 grand a year; we were making about 10. And he talked my guy into going to this Dale Carnegie course. Well, I had to go too, because he was going to hire him. My guy sells 22 cars a month and the average is 10—this guy’s a franchise; I don’t want to lose him! So I said, I gotta go.

I sat right in the front row. For six weeks, they never told me one thing I hadn’t heard before. But in the seventh week, I started hearing things I’d never heard before and thought there’s something to this thing. There’s something to “dominant buying motive”; there’s something to “Today is the greatest day of my life—tomorrow might be even better.” The ultimate goal is the Sales Talk Championship… and guess who the two people were? Me and the Fuller Brush guy. And I beat him! Then I became an instructor and taught the class for 10 years, all over Illinois.

I’ve made speeches all over the United States for NADA [National Automobile Dealers Association]. They couldn’t imagine how we could sell 3,000 cars a year in a town of 9,000 people! That’s a testament to the outstanding people we had in sales parts and service. We won the Ford Chairmans Award [for customer satisfaction] seven years in a row. It’s hard to do because when a customer sends in a complaint, it goes straight to Ford Motor Company; I don’t even know about it. So we’ve got to walk the talk every day.

Would you say that technology has been the biggest change in the auto industry over the years?
I believe technology has built us a much better car. I don’t think anyone is building a bad car today. You can sell a car by putting it on the Internet, but most cars today are still sold salesperson-to-buyer at a dealership. The reason? Over 85 percent of the people who buy a car have a trade-in. If you want to do it over the Internet with a trade-in, how do you expect the dealer to guess? High? Or low? To get the best deal, the dealer should look at your car. You then develop a relationship that leads to good service for the customer and a place to buy your next car.

If you’re face to face and you’re honest, that business still exists, and I think service still exists. “Take care of them, be there, call me day or night.” If you have that kind of culture, you’ll be alright.

What do you think about the self-driving cars from Google?
It’s going to happen. I have a car right now that slows down if I come close to another car. A red bar comes up… tells me if there’s a car on my right or left. My mirror tells me if there’s a car when I’m going to pull in. It’s the greatest thing in the world—the technology going into the cars. But I will say: the stuff I can do in my car is very distracting. We’ve got to watch that. Ray LaHood saying, “no texting”—that is absolutely right.

If you get anything out of this article… listen to me, don’t do it. Don’t text and drive. I stopped. I was on the phone once and pulled out right in front of a car going about 60 miles an hour. If it hadn’t been four lanes, I’d have been killed because he missed me by going in the other lane. Every time I got in my car, my telephone would come out. Stupid—I don’t do that anymore.

Tell us about some of the causes and organizations you’ve supported over the years.
Years ago when I was racing, we won some money and decided to give it to Easter Seals. I got interested because I found out how well it was run; about 93, 94 cents of every dollar you gave stayed right here in Peoria. And they asked me if I’d care to be on the board.

The first two or three meetings I went to, a guy came and talked about a telethon—they were going to have a national telethon. Well, the board voted it down! And I said, “Wait a minute, we’ve got to talk about this… If you could go on television, tell people what you do and break even, wouldn’t that be worthwhile?” Well, they started thinking, and everybody said, “Okay, if we’re going to do this, why don’t you be the chairman?” So for 20 years, I was the telethon chairman—that’s how I got started with Easter Seals.

In 1978, I went through a Cursillo, which is a short walk in Christ... It really helped my wife and me. We went to six federal penitentiaries and learned a lot from that experience. Pete Vonachen introduced me to OSF Children’s Hospital and I saw what those nuns do—these are people with undeniable faith. They don’t question God; they just believe. I’m getting there. I do think that if you believe, you can achieve anything. I really do. I think He’ll give you about anything you want, if you believe it.

The Salvation Army is another organization [where] I think you get the best bang for your buck. The South Side Mission is great, the Boys & Girls Club, The Center for Prevention of Abuse—all those groups I am totally behind.

By the way, in all the fundraising that I’ve been involved with, the Peoria area always comes back number one in per-capita giving. We’re the best. We live in a very giving community.

What was your experience with last year’s tornado?
I was in church… I walked outside and saw it, and said, “I’m out of here.” Because Jodi lives [in Washington], I got in my car and took off. When I got to the nursing home next to Five Points, I went another block and it was just debris—there were no streets. So I abandoned the car. People were coming out of their basements… the gas and electric lines were flopping around. I could see the dealership was gone, but her house sits on a hill and I couldn’t see it.

I became disoriented because there were no streets—I couldn’t figure out where I was! I saw a house that was white brick, and I knew it had to be close to hers, so I kept going. [Jodi] was coming out of the basement. She was just fine but that darn thing ripped through about 600 yards from my dealership, tore it to pieces, came right into her yard and turned right. It missed her, but did $30,000 damage to her house. That was divine providence.

Anything else you’d like to add?
This is the greatest country in the world, and there isn’t really much you can’t do. I’d like to someday write a speech and title it, “I want my country back.” I would take this to civic clubs and talk about the things we can do… I’d like to instill the thought that we can still do all these things… You can do anything you want to, if you have some of these values. I’d like for people not to hate each other because you’re a Republican or Democrat or Independent. We can sit down, talk it out and make something that’s better for the people. There’s no reason why—if Tip O’Neill and Bob Michel got along, why can’t we? We can do it.

I think it takes three things to be successful. First, some kind of a faith, it doesn’t matter what… as long as there is something bigger than you. For me, it’s God. Two, you’ve got to take care of yourself. I don’t care how smart you are or what work ethic you have; if you’re sick, you can’t perform. So you can’t eat too much, drink too much, work too much—all those things have to be done in moderation. And three, you’ve got to have somebody. I never saw a successful loner. I never saw a successful “I”… It’s a thread. If I have those three things, I think there’s not anything in the world I can’t do. iBi

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