Shannon Ritzhupt, owner of Café Roma and winner of the award in 2012, made the announcement Monday during the annual Mel Bedwell Small Business Person of the Year Award luncheon at the Museum Center at Five Points.
The Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce recognized Melton for her excellence in business and community involvement at its Business Development Month kickoff. She is the 15th individual to receive the Bedwell Small Business Person of the Year award since it was renamed to honor the contributions of the late Mel Bedwell and the 20th recipient of the award since the recognition program began.
“I need some notes,” said Melton, who rarely makes impromptu speeches. She said people are supposed to be thankful to God and, “I want to praise Him for all of the small businesses represented here today. I want to thank him for my family and for my team of employees and I want Him to help me now, so I will know what to say,” she exclaimed.
Melton said it takes teamwork to do anything and she is fortunate to have “... a wonderful team. It wasn’t me. It was everybody and mostly, it was the community.”
Ritzhaupt said when auto dealers were closing during the General Motors dilemma of 2009, Cleveland's four GM brands were on the front lines of a closure battle. A 60-year-old family-owned Chevrolet dealership closed its doors, and a 28-year-old family-owned Buick-Cadillac-GMC dealership chose to fight for survival.
“With her family's business and her employees' livelihoods on the line, Debbie Melton prepared for battle,” Ritzhaupt said.
Melton said when she received the dreaded letter in May 2009 stating the dealership was targeted for closure, “I rallied my family, thinking, ‘We’ve got to get a game plan together,’ and one of the first people I turned to was the Chamber. We could be the poster child for the Chamber because when we were at the bottom, they were at the top helping us.”
She said more than 2,000 people showed their support at a community rally, wrote letters, sent emails and made YouTube videos.
Ritzhaupt described the Don Ledford Automotive Center story as one of steady growth and progress. It started in 1981 when Donald H. Ledford Sr. realized his dream of being a franchised automobile dealer with General Motor's Pontiac and Buick lines. In 2001, the dealership grew again when the family added the GMC and Cadillac franchises.
“This addition of a truck line and a luxury brand successfully took the business to a new level of service to the community,” he said. “Then, in the midst of an economic downturn in 2009, GM decided to discontinue the Pontiac line, and Melton learned that the family-owned-and-operated dealership in Cleveland was among the hundreds notified by GM that their franchise points were being closed.”
"They fell victim to a nationwide downsize effort by GM that caused many dealers to close their doors," said Karen Dyer, controller for Ledford Automotive and the one who nominated Melton for the award.
Cleveland's other GM dealer, Jack Hall Chevrolet, closed its doors after more than 60 years in the area.
Melton received her bachelor's degree from The University of Tennessee at Knoxville and worked as a mathematical analyst at Bowater before joining her family's business in 1989.
"Her past experience paid off," husband Ken Melton said, as she worked the numbers, penned a business plan and began making appearances before GM officials to make her plea to save the family dealership.
"She took control of the situation and rallied the community," Dyer added. "With unflagging tenacity, she began working with city, county, state and national legislators and began making presentations to GM officials to have her voice heard."
Her daily focus was to keep the business going, save jobs for her employees and service existing customers with her GM Certified Service Department. Without the delivery of new vehicles, she and her team focused on their pre-owned vehicle sales and their service and parts department business while she worked diligently to restore the Buick, GMC and Cadillac franchises to Cleveland.
When the announcement came that Buick, GMC and Cadillac were returning, Melton's goal was only partially complete.
"She wanted to return the full GM line to Cleveland," Dyer said, "so she applied, pursued and received the Chevrolet franchise."
In June 2012 Don Ledford Automotive Center finally had all four GM franchises on the ground. The hard-won battle to regain the family's franchises and add Chevrolet, however, did not come without some concessions.
"GM demanded specific facility image construction," Dyer explained. "Debbie worked with the architect on the design and then supervised the construction of a more than $2 million investment in the facility. Her goal? To meet GM expectations and create a WOW customer experience."
Construction of a new dual sales facility began in February 2012. The addition of the Chevrolet franchise was finalized in June 2012. The team moved into the final phase of the new facility in March 2013, and held a grand opening last Thursday.
"After four years of turmoil and disruption, we are focused on the future," Dyer said. "2013 is the time for our star to shine brightly once again."
Dyer, whose working relationship and friendship with Melton began in 1989, summarized the past four years.
"We responded to adversity and overcame the odds," she said. "We are poised once again for continued growth, and we look for that growth to be a means of further serving the needs of our community."
That growth is reflected in employment numbers. At the end of 2009, the dealership reported 29 employees. Currently, 41 full-time and four part-time team members manage the growth.
Ken Melton said that while "Don Ledford Automotive Center is a testimony to the hard work and dedication of many people, it's also a tribute to my wife Debbie's tenacity and passion for her family, her business, her employees and her customers. She would hesitate to take credit, because she attributes the achievements to the support of the community and the faithfulness of her employees and customers."
And if you ask Melton about her success, she would say she attributes it to her faith in God.
Dyer explained, "During this trying time, she kept a sign on her office wall in the old dealership building that read, 'The joy of the Lord is my strength.' And she was confident God was guiding her path during the process."
Melton said, “Life is full of choices. You can look at a glass as half empty or half full. We can choose to blame people or accept responsibility. We can choose to be proud or humble. We can choose to look at something as a challenge or an opportunity.
“In fact, this morning we talked about how we were going to create a masterpiece today. We need to make each day a masterpiece,” she said. “We talk about being the ‘place of choice’ to purchase and service your automobile. We do that with the heart of a servant; serving our God, our family, our employees and our community.”
Contributions to community service are also part of the criteria for receiving the Bedwell award. Melton has been actively involved with United Way of Bradley County, first as a campaign division chair and later as co-chair of a campaign, helping to raise more than $2 million to fund the various agencies.
She has also been actively involved in the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce, serving on the board of directors and supporting various committees. In 2014 she will become chairman of the board. She has also participated in the Chamber's Youth Leadership program for Local Economy day.
Melton is also a staunch supporter of the Salvation Army, His Hands Extended Ministries, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland, particularly supporting its Empowering Women program for young girls.
When tornadoes struck local schools, this year's recipient opened her dealership to help collect school supplies, filling several school buses with much-needed items.
Melton is also a member of the board for DiaperLove of Bradley County and collected diapers for The Caring Place, another community organization that benefits from her assistance.
Her donation of a new GMC Terrain supported the Cleveland Civitan Club in fundraising efforts for a new inclusive playground for disabled children and adults on the George R. Stuart Elementary School campus.
Melton and her family practice their faith at First United Methodist Church, where she leads the youth handbell choir and helps provide inspirational music for worship services and special events.