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Through good times & bad -- Norseman Motors celebrates 40 years

Norseman Motors, Inc. began 40 years ago after George Sauvageau left a stable job in order to take a shot at his own business, which he knew would keep him off the road and home with his wife and seven children.1 / 2
The Sauvageau brothers Dan (left) and John now work together, running the business their father started in 1971. Dan is Norseman Motors president and John is general sales manager.2 / 2

Norseman Motors is celebrating its 40th anniversary in business this year, but like it often is in the auto industry, the ride has had its share of bumps in the road.

Brothers Dan and John Sauvageau own the dealership together, but they were just kids when the company was born.

It all began with their father, a man named George Sauvageau, a Chrysler-Dodge-Plymouth representative out of Fargo and a father of seven.

"My dad had to travel a lot because back in those days they didn't have e-mail, so he'd go around to different dealerships around the area and see what they needed," explained current Norseman Motors President Dan Sauvageau, adding, "He only made it home on the weekends."

Traveling got old to George, so when the opportunity came to buy 50 percent of an existing dealership in Detroit Lakes, he jumped on it.

"He borrowed money from brother-in-laws and cousins and everything else trying to put the thing together," said Sauvageau.

Not much later, the other owner wanted out, and George bought the remaining stock.

It happened to have been a big year for the Minnesota Vikings in 1971 (they won the NFC title that season), so George originally wanted to name it "Viking Motors."

"I guess that name was already taken though," said Sauvageau. "So, we all sat around the table, and my sister said, 'Hey, what about Norseman Motors? They're Vikings.' I guess my dad liked that."

"I was in the fourth grade, and I remember looking around the empty building, which used to be a beer warehouse," said younger brother and Norseman Sales Manager John Sauvageau, "and in the back there were all these Bud-man stickers.

"So we papered the place with them," he chuckled, adding, "Mom wouldn't let us do too many though."

The dealership was actually split into two ... a Plymouth dealership stood where the current fire station is now, and a Dodge dealership acted as the repair shop and main building right behind where Central Market is now.

George Sauvageau decided to close the Plymouth location and begin a "satellite" in the current Norseman Motors building, which eventually became his one and only spot.

From the very beginning, George had his 13-year old son, Dan, cleaning vehicles, which Dan thought had some big perks.

"I got to drive the cars - only to back them out or move them, but that was really something to a young teenage boy."

Eventually John would experience the same humble beginnings, helping out around the shop.

"Whatever needed to be done, he'd pull us over there and we'd do it," said John Sauvageau.

The boys knew little about how tough the auto industry was in the 70s because Dan Sauvageau says his father always came home and told them it was good, even when it wasn't. It was only later when he realized how rough the start was.

"The economy was erratic; Chrysler was pretty shaky; it seemed like it was feast or famine."

But George and his crew made it through the 1970s, only to be hit even harder by the recession in 1981, just when Dan Sauvageau was out of college and ready to join the business.

"Gas prices were high again, interest rates were over 20 percent and there was nothing happening."

The picture was bleak, but Dan still wanted in.

"You don't get many opportunities to work with your dad," said Dan Sauvageau. "That was my draw; He could have been selling shoes on the sidewalk and I would have done it with him."

Dan Sauvageau now laughs about how his dad wouldn't even pay him for his first three months working at Norseman's.

"He said I wasn't worth anything until I learned to do something productive. He let me live at home; he said that was my paycheck."

The young Sauvageau began earning his pay when he started up the company's first finance department.

"It used to be people who wanted to buy a car would have to go find their own money, so when we started this up it really helped."

The two Sauvageau men rode out the storm, and when the mid-eighties came, so did better times and another brother, fresh out of college.

"I started off in the service writing desk and moved into the finance and insurance office," said John Sauvageau.

"But Dan and I didn't start off as anything significant, in fact, whenever we did something really good, my Dad would tell us, 'Good job, you get to keep your job another day, prove yourself again tomorrow.'"

All three Sauvageau men worked together for the next two years, at times the sons nudging their father to be a little harder.

"He was very nice, too nice sometimes," recalls Dan Sauvageau.

"Ya, he was the easiest guy in the world, and we'd have to tell him, 'George, you gotta toughen up a little bit on this one dad'," laughed John Sauvageau.

Then one day in 1987, George decided he was ready for retirement.

"He just kind of said, 'well, I'm not well enough to do this anymore, so here ya go!'" said John Sauvageau.

The Sauvageau sons, at the ages of 27 and 30, bought the stock from their family and began the next era of Norsman's.

"Our dad would still pop his head in to look at the books and help out where he could, though," explains John Sauvageau.

The sons saw some good times in the 1990s, and technology made life easier.

"In the old days, you'd have to go through books to try to figure out how much a car is worth," explains John Sauvageau.

"Now, I can go on the computer and find out how much 10 of them sold for yesterday, so it takes the guess work out of it."

The turn of the century brought its own challenges for Norseman's with the Highway 10 construction project right in front of the building, GMAC discontinuing its leasing program, the financial collapse, and the General Motors bankruptcy two years ago, causing them to lose Pontiac.

"But one thing we had learned from our dad was to diversify and never depend on one thing, so we weren't effected too bad," said Dan Sauvageau.

The hard economy now is taking a toll on new car sales for Norseman's, but that just has them shifting their focus elsewhere.

"We're doing more with used vehicles and our service unit," said Dan Sauvageau, adding that although they will still keep a good stock of SUVs and bigger pickups, they will be responding to rising gas prices by stocking more small cars.

Eventually, Dan Sauvageau says, they'd like to expand and get more shop space, but the unstable economy has them holding tight until another upswing.

Until then, the Sauvageau brothers are staying the course and playing it safe.

"We don't owe anybody anything ... no mortgage or rent or anything, so our break-even point is real low, and that means our employees are about as safe as they can be."

The Sauvageau brothers say they still use so much of what their father taught them every single day, and know George, who died in 1998, would have been proud of this 40th milestone.

"Yeah," Dan Sauvageau sat momentarily in thought,

"He'd have thought it was pretty cool that we're still here and growing."