‘Miller Time’ in Rockdale for 50 years
July, 1963. The post office introduced the zip code, the “red phone” hot line went into operation between Washington and Moscow. “Please, Please Me,” an album by a virtually unknown group called The Beatles, went on sale in the U.S.
In Rockdale, an ex-Canadian World War II military pilot named Ernie Miller brought his family to town and purchased the Louis G. Gest Chevrolet Buick dealership.
Miller died in 2005, but a half-century after his arrival, the dealership still carries the Miller name and is run by his son and son-in-law. It’s been Miller, Miller Caffey and Miller Starnes. This week the dealership, which is getting ready for a major upgrade of its building, observes its “golden anniversary” of ownership by the Miller family.
‘ODYSSEY’—Allan Miller became principal owner, replacing his father, in 1991. Brotherin law Kerry Starnes joined the dealership in 1981 and is essentially a partner in the family business.
Starnes is married to Miller’s life of an automobile dealership is seven years. “We are so humbled that because of this community we have managed to survive and prosper for 50 years,” he said.
Ernie Mi l ler’s odyssey to Rockdale took him halfway across the United States and would have brought him all the way across if his plans had worked out.
A native of the Canadian province of Manitoba, Ernie Miller was shot down in Europe during World War II, survived and came back home.
“He had always been interested in cars,” Allan Miller said. “A friend of his told him about Florida, it was one of those ‘you’ve got to go to Florida, everything’s much better there’ speeches and that’s where he was headed.”
The elder Miller went to California, worked for Sears, then came to Texas, still headed toward Florida.
BIG RED—By now he was working for GMAC (General Motors Acceptance Corporation),” Allan Miller said. “He worked in Houston, then they sent him to Galveston.”
And on the island city everything changed. Ernie Miller met— and within three months married— Loray Sitton. They would be together until Mrs. Miller’s death almost 47 years later in 1998.
“He always wanted a dealership,” Allan Miller recalled. “He worked in several Texas cities and then quit GMAC because he didn’t think they were ever going to help him find a dealership to buy.”
Ernie Miller went to work for Universal Underwriters and eventually moved his family—Ernie, Loray, Allan and Denise—to San Antonio.
“I was seven years old, but I remember we’d go out on the weekends and look at auto dealerships while my dad was trying to buy one,” Allan Miller said.
“I couldn’t tell you what town it was in, but there was one I remember so well. It was a Ford dealership and it was next to a Big Red bottling company,” he said. “Denise and I were sitting out there on the curb, drinking our Big Reds, hoping our dad would buy this one. We thought that would be pretty neat.”
‘TRUCKIN’—He didn’t. But in 1963 the Millers came to Rockdale. It turned out to be destiny.
The landmark Gest dealership was for sale and Ernie Miller bought it.
“What I remember most about coming to Rockdale was how easily we made friends here,” Denise Starnes said, and her brother agreed.
The family became a big part of Rockdale life. For seven years the business became known as Miller- Caffey Chevrolet-Buick as Miller partnered with former NFL All-Pro Lee Roy Caffey.
Starnes joined the firm on April 1, 1981.
“Yes, that was April Fool’s Day,” Starnes laughed. “That’s an easy one to remember.”
There have been a lot of changes. “You know, way back there it used to be such a big thing about September every year when the new models came out,” Miller recalled. “There was always a lot of excitement about that time.”
It was a family business. Denise Starnes remembers washing cars and Loray Miller kept books.
“But she always did that from home,” Allan Miller said.
Tastes in vehicles have changed somewhat but in the heart of Texas, demand for one type has never wavered.
“Pickups,” Miller said. “Decades ago the company would send you vehicles and dealers in lots of the country didn’t want the pickups, because they couldn’t sell many of them. Not us. We’d always say ‘send us as many as you can’.”
While pickups have always been hot sellers, other types have come and gone.
“Several years ago everyone wanted an SUV,” Kerry Starnes recalled. “We still sell SUVs but in the past few years those crossover vehicles, kind of a cross between a car and SUV, have been the hot sellers.”
INTERNET—The high tech age has brought some opportunities and challenges.
The biggest challenge was in 2009 when General Motors, in a financial crisis, shut down 30 percent of its dealers nationwide.
Miller-Starnes not only survived, it flourished.
“They said our business would show an increase because some dealers in nearby towns were closed, and it has,” Starnes said.
And today? “Internet sales are about 30 percent of our business,” Starnes said. “We’ve sold vehicles to people in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico. Not long ago we delivered one to a customer in California.”
The dealership is embarking on its most extensive remodeling, re-building project ever.
“ This is going to look like a brand new building,” Miller said. “Up until now it’s looked pretty much the same since Mr. Gest built it in 1952.”
PHILOSOPHY—What’s been the secret to the Miller family’s success for 50 years in a very competitive business?
“I know the phrase has whiskers down to its knees, but we believe our very best advertisement is a satisfied customer,” Miller said. “And enthusiastic innovative employees have, and will always be, our most important asset.”
“And those are the same two things my dad believed in 1963,” he added.
“You know, this community has embraced the Miller family and we are thankful beyond words for the love and support you have shown us,” Miller added.
HOME COOKIN’—Over the years, a small town dealership can provide some extra service that you might not get in a Dallas or Houston.
“For quite a while, we’d make and keep an extra set of keys when we’d sell a car to our younger drivers,” Starnes recalled.
“Some would lock their keys in and, rather than damaging the vehicles by going in with tools, they could just call us and say ‘I did it again; can you come unlock my car?’ and we would,” he said.
Rarely has the dealership closed for emergencies but there was one memorable, and unique, day a number of years ago.
ATTRACTION—“There was a photographer who shot photos of old cars and we told him he could come down from the Austin area and do a shoot here with a bunch of cars,” Miller said. “Well, he did. But he brought a model in a bikini with him. Now, nobody here knew he was going to do that.”
What happened? “I think we just about had to close for the day,” Miller said. “It drew a big crowd. I think we had people outside looking in the big glass windows.”
And Starnes earned some major points with at least part of his family that day.
“I called my sons,” he laughed. “I said, ‘you’ve got to get down here and see this’!”