The Need to Succeed - What keeps 80-year-old salesperson Jerry Melton going? ‘I’ve got this deal. I’ve got to win.’

by Dan Miller
Nov/Dec 2014
Retirement? Jerry Melton, who just completed his 50th year in automotive retail sales, doesn’t know the meaning of the word.

“It never crossed my mind,” said Melton, a fixture at Performance Toyota in Memphis, Tenn., the past 16 years. “I probably won’t retire, not as long as I feel good and I’m doing what I want to do. I want to keep selling as long as I can.”

For the record, the octogenarian has backed off on the accelerator. A bit. In his prime, Melton was a self-described workaholic. He’d arrive at the dealership at 7:30 a.m. and be the last to leave, selling an average of 50 units per month for 18 years straight years. His only vacations were the Toyota Master Sales Society trips, an annual occurrence. That remarkable run ended when Nita, his wife of 43 hears, passed away six years ago. Then, Melton had some health hurdles of his own to clear.

About three years ago, though, he met and married Carol (“the angels sent her to me”) and resumed a regular though less rigorous daily routine: he starts selling around 9:30 a.m., takes a two-hour break for nine holes of golf, then returns to the dealership until 7 p.m.

“I come home straight after that,” says Melton. “Carol doesn’t mind. I put in about 30-40 hours per week and sell 25-30 cars per month.”

Second Place is No Good’
What keeps Melton going? He approaches car sales as if it’s a game. And, as with all games, he always plays to win.

That need to succeed took root soon after Melton’s family moved from the tiny town of Finger, Tenn., to the big city of Memphis when he was six years old. He loved sports, trying them all and excelling at basketball and golf. In 1991, he was inducted into the Memphis Amateur Sports Hall of Fame.

“I’ve got this deal. I’ve got to win. Second place is no good,” says Melton. “I never lost a match in high school golf. I was 28-0. I could play as well as the guys on the tour, but pro golf back then didn’t pay much.”

After a couple of years at the University of Memphis, Melton put in 10 years with the Memphis police force. Then, when a partnership in an advertising firm fizzled, he decided to try his hand at selling cars. Fortuitously, a brother-in-law’s brother was the general manager at a Ford dealership.

The Credit Union King
So in 1964, Melton set off on what would become a 50-year journey. Then as now, he owes his success to the power of relationships.

“The police department sent me a lot of business,” he says. “I had a lot of contacts in Memphis sports, so that helped, too. And then I got my foot in the door at several credit unions—City of Memphis, Kimberly Clark, Sears and more. Back then, I was known as the credit union king. They’d have someone who was looking to finance a car and they’d refer them to me.”

In the 1970s, Melton was featured in Time magazine as one of Ford’s top 10 U.S. salespeople. He made the leap to Toyota in 1980 and he hasn’t looked back since.

There are No Shortcuts’
All told, Melton calculates he’s sold close to 20,000 vehicles. The primary reason why: a base of several thousand customers with whom he follows up with on a regular basis.

“I do some by phone, by most by mail,” he says, emphasizing that he’s referring to the paper not electronic variety. “Most salespeople are afraid of rejection, so they don’t call. But I’ve never feared anything. You have to let people know you’re still here and you’re thinking about them. There are no shortcuts.”

Melton is also a big believer in the power of conversation, rather than negotiation, on the road to a sale.

“Go right for the deal and you’ll blow most of your profit right then and there,” he says. “Instead, I just talk with them for 5-10 minutes. I try to be myself and treat them the way I’d want to be treated.

“That’s how it was when I started. It’s exactly the same today. Nothing’s changed.”
And neither has Melton, 50 years and counting.
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