Who hasn’t heard of Potamkin Dealers? The name is almost synonymous with selling cars at a discount rate. But how much do you know about how he took a failing Cadillac dealership to the world’s largest Cadillac dealer in the world? And even more importantly, how Alzheimer’s disease effected his life, and his generous support of research into the treatment and eventual cure of this debilitating and frightening disease?
Victor Potamkin was born in Philadelphia in 1911. His father sold chicken and fish, and wanted to see his son, Victor go on to bigger and better things, so he began studying at the famed Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the world economic crisis of the Great Depression forced Victor to leave school and join his father selling chicken. Victor’s business acumen emerged quickly when he realized he could attract more customers by selling chickens by the piece. Using the slogan “Be Smart, Buy a Part,” he turned his one store into 17 by the time he reached his early twenties.
Potamkin entered the car business in 1947 when he and a partner opened a Lincoln-Mercury dealership. Sales were tepid until Potamkin discovered that the Jews were staying away in droves due to Henry Ford’s reputation as being a rampant anti-Semite. In a brilliant move, Potamkin convinced then Israel President Chaim Weizman to accept a Lincoln as a gift during a visit to New York City. A well-publicized publicity photo of Israel’s President accepting a Ford-built car from Potamkin caused sales to explode. His Philadelphia dealership became the largest Lincoln-Mercury dealer in the US.
In 1972 General Motors convinced him to take over the failing Cadillac dealership in Manhattan, where excessive rent took a giant bite out of profits. Potamkin’s solution, which was counter to the Cadillac brand’s self-image being a product which appealed to people not concerned with price, was to offer his Cadillac’s at deeply discounted prices. People flocked from far and near to purchase his cars, and his volume expanded from 2,000 cars/month to 6,000, as he attracted the newly rich who still believed in the value of a dollar.
Potamkin was not just the paradigmatic brilliant salesman, but also a loving husband and father. His wife of 52 years, Luba, became ill with Alzheimer’s in the late 1970s, and eventually died of it in 1994. The family created the Potamkin Prize for Alzheimer’s Research in 1987, which awards $100,000 each year to the person who has done the most to find a better treatment or cure for Alzheimer’s. They also sponsored many fund raisers and donated large sums in the fight against Alzheimer’s.