Car mogul Herb Chambers, well known to highway drivers for his cheeky billboard advertising campaign — including one that reads “Don’t like car dealers? Great. Neither do I.” — is going strong at 74. He sold 54,000 vehicles last year and is on track to sell slightly more this year. The Dorchester native and former Navy aviation electrician spoke about his business background and his billionaire status.
1. Chambers started out in the copier business. After he got out of the Navy at the age of 21, he landed a job fixing copiers in Cambridge. Before long, he had his own company, which he eventually sold for about $80 million before setting his sights on cars.
“There’s only two businesses I’ve really been involved in. One is copiers, the other is cars, and they’re very similar, in that you have a sales organization that you run, you have a service organization. The technicians need parts, so you have to have a parts department. Then you’ve got the negotiation of selling copy machines — you discount them, you finance them, you lease them, you rent them, you take trade-ins. It’s the same thing as the automobile business.”
2. He pioneered the now-widespread practice of cleaning cars when they come in for service.
“When I would bring my car to a car wash, when it came out of the car wash I liked the car more. It was shiny, it was clean. The car even drove better when it was clean. So I said, maybe we can’t fix these cars better than somebody else can, but if we wash the cars and we clean the windows in them, when the people come to pick them up, they will believe that we did a better job.”
3. He made the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans for the first time this year, coming in at No. 392 with an estimated worth of $1.7 billion.
“I won’t be there next year, believe me, because the list keeps growing faster than I’m going to grow. I’m going to be a one-hit wonder. Between us girls, I hope I am on it, but I probably won’t be.”
4. He is a fan of luxurious forms of travel. He commutes to work every Monday morning by helicopter from his home in Old Lyme, Conn., visiting dealerships along the way, before landing on the helipad at his Somerville Mercedes-Benz dealership. (During the week he lives at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Boston.) He also owns a yacht, and he sells them too — about 12 in all over the years.
“I go to a shipyard, I have them build me a yacht, and I charter it out or lease it, and then I try to sell it and hopefully make a profit. And then I build another one.”
5. He grew up in his grandmother’s house in Dorchester, the son of a homemaker and a commercial artist, and knows he is fortunate to be where he is.
“There are people that I see when I drive in to work in the morning who are working out in the street. They’re digging holes, or putting up steel, or driving trucks and that’s their vocation, that’s what they have to do. And I look at what I do, and I’m from Dorchester. I should be driving the truck. I should be putting up the steel. But somehow or another I wound up here, and I have to pinch myself every day.”Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.