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Key to success no secret at all, say dealership’s owners
When Mike and Cathy Horrobin moved to Oak Harbor in 1979, the city had four car dealerships and seven furniture stores.
Now the Horrobins own the only remaining car dealership in the city — the only dealership in Island County.
Oak Harbor Motors sits alive and well at the busy intersection of State Highway 20 and Pioneer Way, but yet just across the highway looms the empty lot that was once Frontier Ford.
The large, empty building that once housed the Whidbey Furniture Store sits across Pioneer Way; only one furniture store remains in the city limits.
Oak Harbor Motors has survived and grown while other businesses have come and gone.
They are celebrating their 35th year this August.
The key to their success, the Horrobins say, is pretty straightforward.
“We try to treat people like we want to be treated,” Mike Horrobin said, “and we’ve tried to instill that in our employees.”
“It’s the people you have working for you,” Cathy added. “That’s the secret. We’ve been fortunate to have great employees.”
The Horrobins said they believe that the Oak Harbor community is at a crossroads and they see reason for optimism.
Mike Horrobin said the city’s plans for a sewage treatment plant on Pioneer Way is a great opportunity, if done right. He sees a lot of potential for the adjacent Windjammer Park.
City officials and many members of the community want to see something special incorporated into the project, whether it’s extending Bayshore Drive or building such amenities as an amphitheater or small-scale retail space.
In addition, the city purchased the former Whidbey Island Bank building on the site, which people have talked about converting into a City Hall or a library.
“It would bring some life back to the area and we need that,” Mike Horrobin said.
“We need the area upgraded. The park is a tremendous spot.”
The Horrobins have seen a lot of change during their years in business. They both grew up in the Tri-Cities. While Cathy was raised on a dairy farm, Mike cut his teeth at his father’s Ford dealership. They were both relatively young and had just started a family when they purchased Oak Harbor Garage, which was then known as the Dodge Garage.
Cathy said they were lucky to have Elsie Balda to help them run the business for so many years.
In fact, many of the employees had a habit of staying around for a long time, which helped make the business a success.
“It’s been good to us. The store, the community,” Cathy said.
They’ve also been good to the community. Cathy served on the school board for years. They currently have 28 employees and generate about $1 million a month in sales.
“I still feel we are a good generator of money for the community,” Mike said.
When the Horrobins first arrived, the city was bustling with family-owned businesses. But that has changed as many mom-and-pop stores — and even corporate giants like Kmart — fell by the wayside.
They said they even miss their car-business competitors.
“A lot of the people were friends,” Mike Horrobin said. “They are not enemies.”
Mike Horrobin points out that small cities and towns were struggling all over the nation, even before the recession struck.
Oak Harbor is not immune to the problems. Census Bureau statistics show that median household incomes have fallen in Oak Harbor when adjusted for inflation.
The median household income in 2012 was $48,809; it was $36,641 in 1999, which is $50,495 in 2012 dollars, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator.
A recent economic profile created by Ethan Spoo, economic development coordinator, points out that the city’s economic weaknesses include high unemployment; slowing population growth; a lower-than-average proportion of people with college degrees; and a dearth of housing that matches local incomes.
But still, Spoo recognized the city’s strengths as economic growth in construction, transportation and warehousing; average tax rates; and higher-than-average per capita sales tax collection.
Of course, the biggest economic driver of all is Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, which is healthy and growing.
As the Horrobins look to the city’s future with hope, they plan on continuing business as usual, though that may mean more trips to the golf course than Mike could manage in younger years.