Originally published in Business Digest, November 1997

O'Neil's Pioneer Spirit

by Julia Lynam

One of the most-photographed attractions in Vermont stands outside Pioneer Auto Sales on U.S. 7 in Brandon. It - or she - is a 19-foot-tall, 16-ton concrete gorilla called Queen Connie. "One man stopped recently and got out of his car with a camera," says Joan Cameron O'Neil, president and founder of Pioneer. "He said, 'Of all the wonderful sights we've seen in Vermont, this is the one my wife insisted we stop and take a picture of!' " In one hand, Queen Connie holds aloft a golden Volkswagen beetle, while the other hand is gently crooked to provide a seat for young visitors and to welcome customers to this rural used car dealership.

The gorilla, commissioned by O'Neil and built in 1985 by Massachusetts sculptor T.J. Neil, is a good example of O'Neil's sense of humor -- an attribute she must have needed in her early days as a car salesperson.

[Joan Cameron O'Neil] Joan Cameron O'Neil has sold more than 13,000 cars in her almost 30 years in the business. She founded Pioneer Auto Sales of Brandon in 1969 after encountering sexism while working for other dealers. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

"I started in 1966 with Stewart A. Smith in Rutland," she explains. "I'd sold family portraits in Kentucky, and household goods in Vermont, and I thought cars would be more fun than selling door-to-door."

O'Neil, who grew up in Orwell and graduated from Brandon High School, got some early experience in selling while living in Elizabethtown, Ky., where her husband, Bill, was stationed when he was called up during the Berlin Wall crisis in 1961.

Her foray into car sales didn't begin quite as O'Neil had hoped. As a woman, she wasn't allowed floor time to sell from the dealership itself, except Sundays when the men didn't want to come in. So how did she manage to sell her first cars? "Door-to-door!" she responds.

After two years, O'Neil moved to Beckwith Motors in Middlebury, where she was finally allowed to sell from the sales floor. Even here her style was curbed by the manager, who wouldn't let her have a bright yellow demonstration car. "So I started my own dealership because I wanted to buy the color car I chose!"

O'Neil set up shop in 1969 in a building, originally the West Salisbury railroad station, that had been moved to its present three-acre site north of the town of Brandon some 20 years earlier.

"I started off on this lot with 10 cars," she recalls. "At first I felt my way around -- I didn't know much about valuation and many men dealers took advantage of me -- for a while."

Those days are long gone, and having sold more than 13,000 cars over almost 30 years, O'Neil is well aware of the potential value of each vehicle. One long-time acquaintance, Jack Dubrul, owner of The Automaster in Shelburne has done business with O'Neil for 30 years. Dubrul describes her as "Without a doubt the smartest used-car lady in New England. Joan takes the business very seriously and she drives more miles in a month than most people do in a year."

Pioneer's business is a balance of wholesale and retail auto sales. At present, O'Neil says, they are building up the retail side, hoping to make it fully half of the business. The stock is principally traded-in cars from other auto dealers, which they recondition, usually in Pioneer's own body shop, and resell wholesale at car auctions or direct to customers from the lot. "Our niche is mainly with cars that retail for $2,000 to $5,000," O'Neil says. "They're second or third cars, winter cars, cars for the kids. And because we buy at prices that allow for a profit if we sell at auction, that means we can offer really good prices from the lot."

Well over half of the used cars Pioneer sells are sold at auction to foreign dealers from the Caribbean, Russia, Mexico or Iran, according to general manager Michael Cameron, O'Neil's son. "They want very particular cars in order to avoid import tariffs, and it's the foreign cars they're looking for, not American ones. Older Toyotas, Nissans and Hondas, for instance, are very popular in the Caribbean.

"The retail market for cars is competitive," Cameron emphasizes, "but the wholesale market is 10 times more so!"

O'Neil introduces her son as "The only person in the company who can do everything -- from accounting to paintwork." It comes as something of a surprise to hear that O'Neil herself doesn't do everything -- after all, she buys and sells, takes cars to auctions, and runs the company. "I don't jump cars; I don't change tires; and I don't do body work," she says with a grin. "But Mike does!"

Did he grow up expecting to go into the family business? Definitely not, even though he has worked around the dealership since he was 10 years old. "I told him to go do something else," his mother says, and he agrees. "It was always promoted for me not to follow in any footsteps," Cameron says. "In the end I made my own decision to be in the business, because I like working for myself." With a degree in business management from Burlington's Champlain College, Mike has brought fresh ideas and expertise to the family business. Now his children, Chase, 14, Blake, 12, and nine- year-old Mikka are taking an interest.

O'Neil's daughter, Carol Wieland, works with her husband in a landscaping business, but her daughter, Chelsea, 7, sometimes joins her cousins at the dealership. O'Neil's ex-husband Bill O'Neil is a salesman at the dealership.

Pioneer is branching out into recreational vehicles, and has just become the only dealer in northern and western Vermont to offer the Max, a six-wheel-drive, amphibious, off-road vehicle manufactured by Recreatives Industries, Inc. of Buffalo, N.Y.

"We were looking for something unique," says O'Neil. "This is a vehicle that will appeal to anyone who needs to get out into the backwoods: hunters, fishers, surveyors, contractors, sugar makers, farmers, masons, ski resort personnel -- people will probably think of uses we haven't even imagined! Mike's a keen hunter and fisherman and we're both really excited about this vehicle -- and if you're excited about something, you're going to sell it well.

"This is an all-season vehicle," O'Neil continues. "You can use it on rough terrain, in mud, snow, water -- in places you couldn't even walk. We've put it through its paces here; we have permission from the surrounding landowners to demonstrate it in the swamp along the river -- it goes through reedbeds 6 feet high!"

Change is nothing new, of course. Over the past 28 years O'Neil and Cameron have had to make many changes to keep afloat in the competitive world of car sales. One of the biggest changes, O'Neil recalls, has been in the way business is conducted. "It used to be very personalized," she said. "Ten or 12 years ago you knew all the used car managers at the various dealerships personally -- they would be friends as well as business contacts." Now, instead of buying almost daily from a known contact, buyers like O'Neil have to view cars on a specific day, then submit closed bids.

"The bid system was introduced as a way of saving time for managers, and even though it means the personality has gone out of it, it certainly saves time for all of us," she says.

In her business, though, O'Neil doesn't lack the personal touch. She's known many of her customers for years. "We have people who've been coming back to us since we opened our doors -- not just themselves, but their children too."

A Carchitectural Wonder
Queen Connie, the 19-foot concrete gorilla at Pioneer Auto Sales, was hailed as the best "Carchitectural Wonder" of the world by Car and Driver magazine in 1991. To win the title she outfaced such wonders as a jeep-shaped car dealership in Saudi Arabia and a Trabant (an eastern European car) immobilized on 7-foot-high legs in Czechoslovakia. The young New Yorker who entered Queen Connie in the magazine's competition wrote: "The state of Vermont decided to build Route 7 alongside this historical site."

Joan O'Neil, Pioneer Auto Sales owner and the one who commissioned the statue, was unaware of the accolade from the magazine until Automaster owner Jack DuBrul sent her a copy of the magazine.

Car and Driver wrote: "When future carchaeologists unearth the cars revealed here ... they will provide evidence that their ancestors -- us -- were deranged about cars."

(Photo: Jeff Clarke)