Glenville

Founder’s grandchildren, great-grandchildren carry Mohawk Honda into 101st year

Haraden family and its presence in the auto market are growing
From left, Karly, Jeff, Steve and Lindsey Haraden are shown at Mohawk Honda.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
From left, Karly, Jeff, Steve and Lindsey Haraden are shown at Mohawk Honda.

Categories: Business

GLENVILLE — In 1919, as America ratcheted down from a wartime footing and returned to peacetime pursuits, an engineer at General Electric’s Schenectady plant decided to become part of the ever-growing automobile business.

A century later, the auto dealership Joseph Haraden founded in Schenectady is still in business, though it now sells Hondas instead of Chevrolets and has moved a few miles north to Glenville. His two grandsons own and operate it now, and two of his great-granddaughters are the first of the fourth generation of Haradens to be part of the family business.

Mohawk hit rough times in the late 1970s, when Joseph Haraden II gave up his foundering Chevrolet franchise. But it later rebounded and grew its sales total more than 400 percent after moving out of its cramped quarters in Schenectady. 

It is now the busiest Honda dealership of the 105 in the automaker’s New England/upstate New York region. And the company came full circle in its 100th anniversary year, when its president and general manager bought Northstar Chevrolet in late 2019 and renamed it Mohawk Chevrolet.

MARC SCHULTZ/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Mohawk Honda service entrance.MARC SCHULTZ/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Mohawk Honda service entrance.

There’s not a lot of mystery to the longevity or the turnaround, said Mohawk Honda President Jeff Haraden and Vice President Steve Haraden, grandsons of Joseph and present-day owners of Mohawk Honda.

“Hard work. Also, the Schenectady location wasn’t the greatest thing, either,” said Jeff.

“It was definitely a lot of hard work and really good [employees],” added Steve. “People are always the key. Even to this day, you can have a nice dealership like we have here, but if the people aren’t good and the service isn’t good?”

He doesn’t answer his own question. He doesn’t need to. 

In the era of internet comparison shopping, consumers can easily tell what a particular car will cost at the six nearest dealers that sell it. Without competitive prices and a winning sales/service experience, an auto dealer has a major problem.

THE FIRST GENERATION

The Haradens’ forebears long ago emigrated from England to America. Joseph was born in 1881 and grew up on the Maine coast in the Gouldsboro area. His early life paralleled that of the automobile — he was born when the technology and industry were in their infancy, and reached his young manhood as the technology and industry began to mature. 

Joseph left home on a schooner for Boston, where he earned an engineering degree and made some fateful connections at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“He was hired by Thomas Edison, was an engineer at GE, saw the horseless carriage come to town, and being an engineer was very interested in getting involved in that,” Jeff said. 

MARC SCHULTZ/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Mohawk Honda founder, Joseph Haraden seen in Mohawk Chevrolet on State St. in Schenectady.MARC SCHULTZ/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Mohawk Honda founder, Joseph Haraden seen in Mohawk Chevrolet on State St. in Schenectady.

“He had other friends that were involved with Chevrolet out of MIT. He wanted to be on the dealer side, be involved in the horseless carriage, which is like us with driverless cars now. We’re looking at the future.”

In 1919, there were already 6.7 million cars registered in America. Some of the vehicles were primitive and many of the roads they drove on were terrible. But Americans were hooked: The number of cars on the road would nearly quadruple before the Great Depression began a decade later.

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There were scores of American automakers in those early days. Nearly all would be gone within a few decades, some becoming the stuff of legend, others soon forgotten. Joseph sold some of those short-lived brands in the early years of Mohawk Auto Sales, including Moon, Scripps Booth and Wills Sainte Claire, all of which were out of business by 1930. But he also signed on with General Motors, which had already emerged as one of the Big Three market leaders.

A 1921 photo shows Joseph smiling in his showroom, standing next to one of those now-classic cars with an oil puddle under the front end.

That was the state of the art then — the old-time gas station attendants gave cars the once-over at each fill-up for good reason. 

But things got better.

THE SECOND GENERATION

Joseph and his dealership did well enough that he could step back a bit by 1950 and devote more time to his golf game. (At one point he was president of Mohawk Golf Club in Niskayuna, pure coincidence on the name.)

His only child, Joseph II — known to one and all as Buzz — was just 20 years old in 1950, not ready to take over because of his age, not available because of his college studies and his military service during the Korean War. 

An in-law oversaw day-to-day operations at Mohawk until the second generation was ready.

Under the leadership of Buzz, two major changes took place at Mohawk in the 1970s: The arrival of Honda in its showroom and the departure of Chevy.

Buzz saw the rise of Japanese cars in America in 1970 and told a sales manager to keep an eye out for an option to buy a dealership franchise, Steve said. 

MARC SCHULTZ/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Joseph "Buzz" Haraden, center, with Mohawk Chevrolet salesmen on State St. in Schenectady.MARC SCHULTZ/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Joseph “Buzz” Haraden, center, with Mohawk Chevrolet salesmen on State St. in Schenectady.

But it could have been any imported brand, Jeff said. “It was the Volkswagen Bug. His buddy Kevin Langan was doing so well with Volkswagen.”

Steve said: “It was a random Tuesday afternoon. A guy walked into the showroom and said, ‘We’re offering the Honda franchise, would you be interested?’ ”

It wasn’t quite happenstance — the stranger with the briefcase was a former Chevrolet representative and was targeting Chevy dealers with his Honda pitch — but his timing was right. Buzz said yes.

Those first tiny Hondas were the polar opposite of the high-powered gas guzzlers Chevy offered in those final years before stricter emission controls and higher gas prices. 

“It was a little 600 with a motorcycle engine like we have out in the showroom,” Steve said, referring to the 1971 Honda N600 on display at the dealership, one of the first copies his father sold almost a half-century ago. “It was definitely taking a chance — Honda was known for motorcycles, not for cars. But then the following year they came out with the Civic, and the Civic was definitely a winner and a world car. It was great on gas.”

Jeff added: “The Chevys were not exactly gas-friendly.”


Meanwhile, the national economy was stagnating and the Schenectady economy was imploding.

“Pretty much the whole town revolved around GE back in the ’60s and ’70s,” Jeff said. With a series of strikes and big workforce cuts at General Electric, Mohawk’s main customer base wasn’t buying new cars. For a period, Mohawk sold only used cars. The Chevrolet franchise became untenable.

“Buzz shut it down,” Jeff said. “It was flailing.”

Mohawk’s creditors let the dealership stay in business in hopes it could pay its debts with Honda sales. And it did. 

THE THIRD GENERATION

In 1980, with the Chevrolet franchise gone and facing some health problems, Buzz turned Mohawk over to his children Lindy, Jeff, Melissa and Steve. Steve, by far the youngest of the four, came into the family business much later, but his three siblings had been working at Mohawk since the 1970s.

Like their father before them, Jeff and Steve have made momentous changes of their own, buying out their sisters’ ownership share and moving Mohawk away from its longtime home at 756 State St.

The move was a long time coming, prompted by crime and decay in the Hamilton Hill and Vale neighborhoods. After a lengthy search for a new site in the suburbs, Jeff and Steve in 1999 announced they’d changed their mind and would stay in Schenectady, based on their company’s long history in town and their optimism about the downtown revitalization effort then in its very earliest stages.

Twenty years later, that revitalization has succeeded brilliantly in the core of downtown, but its spread to surrounding neighborhoods has been slow and spotty.

The Haradens got tired of waiting for revitalization to come up the hill to them, and were wary of the high cost of building the dealership they wanted on State Street. 

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Mohawk Honda service waiting area.MARC SCHULTZ/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Mohawk Honda service waiting area.

When GM went bankrupt in 2008, it ordered the closure of Salisbury Chevrolet in Glenville. After owner Ann Gerrity determined there was no chance to reopen, she got on the phone to Jeff.

“I was like, ‘How much do you want for a deposit? I’ll be over right now,’ ” Jeff recalled.

“And I think we were — about 30 minutes later we were in her office,” Steve added. He said he and Jeff had been looking at every piece of open land on Freemans Bridge Road and finding owners unwilling to sell or asking too much. “And then this fell into our laps.”

The Haradens cut the ribbon on the new Mohawk Honda in 2011 and haven’t been disappointed.

Jeff explained: “We brought the best people in town out of the worst spot over to the best location, and it went up from there.”

Mohawk Honda was selling about 1,500 cars a year in its last years in Schenectady. In 2019, it sold 6,340 in Glenville, almost exactly an even split between new and late-model used vehicles.

Jeff and Steve still use the 756 State St. site for Mohawk Auto Center — a dealership for older used cars that Mohawk Honda takes in trade — as well as J & S Auto Credit, a financing operation for car buyers who’ve been denied credit elsewhere. 

Both were founded in 1991 in Joseph’s original building at 740 State St. as a way to build customer loyalty by helping them rebuild their credit rating and putting them in older-model cars they could afford.

More recently, they created the Haraden Family Foundation to support area nonprofits and community initiatives. Its goal was to raise and donate $100,000 in its 100th anniversary year. The final tally was $222,403 — plus 10,000 hours of community service donated by Mohawk employees, who get the two days before Christmas off as a reward.

THE FOURTH GENERATION

Jeff and Steve are both now older than their father was when he stepped back from running Mohawk Honda. Steve is only 53 but Jeff is 63, and well aware that he’ll have to make the handoff at some point. He has already turned over much of the day-to-day work to his general manager and two of his five children.

Daughter Lindsey is Mohawk’s operations manager, and daughter Karly is director of community involvement and manager of the family foundation. Two of his three sons, all still in high school or college at this point, want to join the family business as well.

Steve’s two sons, also college students, work at Mohawk during the summers and want to go full time after graduation.

Jeff put a second dealership under the Mohawk name in November, when he and Mohawk Honda General Manager Andy Guelcher bought Northstar from longtime owner Bill Cass. Like Mohawk Honda’s former location on State Street, Mohawk Chevrolet’s current site at Northway Exit 9 is cramped for space and limited in what upgrades it can make to attract customers or conform to the corporate template for showrooms.

So Jeff Haraden and Guelcher plan to build a large new dealership at Exit 12 in Malta.

“I’ve known Bill a long time, and I looked at it a couple of years ago and decided it was too much for myself to handle,” Jeff said. “My partner Andy Guelcher came to me and said, ‘Would you want to partner with me on the Chevy thing?’ With him being 30-something years old, I’m like, why not? I could definitely see doing it that way.”

There’s some strategic benefit, too: Much of Chevrolet’s sales volume comes from full-size pickup trucks and large sport utility vehicles that have no direct equivalent in Honda’s lineup. Chevy, meanwhile, lacks a minivan like the Honda Odyssey. And the high-horsepower sports cars made by the two companies are worlds apart.

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So while Mohawk Chevrolet might compete with Mohawk Honda for sales of sedans and smaller SUVs, a significant percentage of its new-vehicle sales will be in market segments Mohawk Honda doesn’t occupy. 

The second Mohawk dealership provides another benefit: Opportunity for young Haradens.

“Steve and I are partners with [Mohawk] Honda,” Jeff said. “We have other family members who are lining up. It’s probably going to be interesting to see how it plays out with so many people interested. We may need to buy some more stores for the amount of kids we have who are interested.”

Beyond that, time will tell: Guelcher has three young sons of his own. And Joseph Haraden’s first great-great-grandchild has arrived, a potential fifth generation at the dealership. 

Before she could walk, young Madison had already modeled a Mohawk Honda T-shirt for a dealership family portrait.

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