Jackson — Last fall, A.L. East III said, “I’ve been here 42 years, and I’ve always said that if it gets to where I don’t like it, I’ll get out.”
Earlier this month, East sold his Ford dealership to an Arkansas group of businessmen for an undisclosed sum. The new owners have pledged to remain in the original location, which sits on more than 20 acres, for at least two years.
“Age has a lot to do with my decision to sell now,” he said. “I’m 76 years old, I’ve had a 43-year run, and I’m tired.”
When the automobile dealership changes hands, East won’t be resting on his laurels. He vows to remain involved with the Metrocenter Area Coalition, which he helped establish in 1998 to fight crime and blight on U.S. 80.
“A.L. East has been a mainstay for South Jackson,” said Nina Holbrook, executive director of the coalition and former manager of Metrocenter Mall. “He’s been its biggest cheerleader and is one of the most honorable men I know. We’re lucky that he will be able to work even more closely with the coalition for the betterment of the area.”
From Model Ts to hybrids
East became involved in the automobile-selling business at a very young age working for his dad, who established Nelson & East Ford in the metro area of Baton Rouge, La., in 1922, not long after automakers began cranking up mass production in the U.S. After Henry Ford installed the moving assembly lines in his factory in 1913, the automaker became the world’s largest car manufacturer. By 1927, 15 million Model Ts had been manufactured, and an affiliation with Ford Motor Company was considered very prestigious.
For 48 years spanning the Great Depression, World War II and the Korean War, East’s father operated the dealership before turning over the reins to his brother, Jim East, for another 16 years. Ford Motor Company contacted East in February 1962 to consider opening a dealership in South Jackson. He jumped at the chance to become the metro area’s second Ford dealer and established East Ford at the intersection of U.S. 80 and Robinson Road on October 8, 1962.
“Getting to be a dealer was a pretty good accomplishment, particularly in a metro market like Jackson,” recalled East. “Fortunately, I had the opportunity to prove myself at my father’s dealership. I outsold Chevrolet three-to-one in my market while Chevrolet was outselling Ford up here about four or five-to-one. We’ve made a huge turnaround in Jackson.”
The family tradition continues. His son, A.L. “Bert” East IV, has owned and operated the successful East Buick-Pontiac-Mitsubishi-Honda dealership in Natchez for 14 years.
Changing political and business climate
In the past four decades, the political atmosphere has created more ripple effects in Jackson than the business climate, said East.
“For too many years, crime has riddled Jackson and law enforcement has been real lax,” he said. “If the basic laws for safety in the community aren’t enforced, you can be damn sure the criminal laws aren’t going to be enforced. And of course business suffers when crime rates increase. Crime rates aren’t just stick-ups and what-have-you. It’s internal pilferage by employees. It’s customers coming in and getting services and not paying for them. Shoplifting in Jackson is one of the major problems big chain stores have. If you do catch someone and take him in to get prosecuted, nothing happens. The criminal element has found a honey hole. The new mayor (Frank Melton) got elected based on his pledge to bring it under control and he’s making a hell of an effort.”
Jackson could have a vibrant commercial corridor along its interstates in the metro area, but city officials made a serious mistake by not requiring frontage roads for I-20 and I-220, East said.
“You can’t have commercial development without them because nobody can get to it,” he pointed out. “A few years ago, I was in Houston (Texas) and noticed how the interstate system was used to develop the city. Frontage roads followed the interstates with access and egress points at main thoroughfares. The interstate worked in conjunction with dispersing traffic throughout the city and large commercial tracts were developed on frontage roads along the interstate.”
East Ford remains one of the region’s largest independent dealerships and one of the nation’s top-selling dealerships. Loyal customers routinely drive from Alabama and Louisiana to do business with East.
Known as an industry leader, East represented Mississippi’s franchised new car dealers for six years as a board member for the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA). Several years ago, the state chapter of NADA, over which he has presided, nominated him as the Time Magazine Quality Dealer of the Year.
As a community servant, Goodwill Industries recognized him in 1994 with the Community Service Award. A former Jackson-Hinds Library board member, East actively supports St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral and School, and has chaired legislative and finance committees of the Metro Crime Commission, serving alongside Melton.
East plans to spend more time with his real estate broker wife, Ella May, their five adult children and eight grandchildren. He’ll work toward divesting his interests in commercial real estate, but he plans to keep rolling farmland located on Highway 467 between Raymond and Edwards, three miles west of the Natchez Trace Parkway.
“I may turn it into a subdivision, but I definitely don’t need to develop any more interests,” he said, with a laugh. “I seem to have a plate full. I enjoy hunting and fishing and hope to have more time for both. But I don’t plan to take up golf. It’s a little too late for that.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.