By By Mary Ellen Landolfi
Community-mindedness, attention to customer service, and perseverance — these are among the key ingredients necessary to develop and sustain a three-generation, family-owned business for 80 years. Pine Belt Chevrolet has been a vibrant part of the Lakewood community since 1937, when founder Leon Sickel opened a modest dealership with just six employees in a one-car showroom in a garage on 4th Street. At just 33 years old, Leon opened his business while the nation was still emerging from the Great Depression and on the brink of World War II. Leon sold both new and used vehicles at his dealership.
Even in the early days of his business, Leon started what would be Pine Belt’s long standing tradition of running his business while promoting the community and civic-minded efforts. He began in 1939 by supporting the local Elks Club Coaster Derby. After World War II broke out, the Pine Belt dealership became involved in the war effort as a truck conservation center in the U.S. Conservation Corps. Then in August 1942, Leon would shutter his business for several years as he enlisted and served in the U.S. Army, announcing his decision in the local newspaper. In part, the ad read, “I wish to announce the discontinuance of the Pine Belt Chevrolet Agency for the duration, as I am entering the armed service shortly.”
Leon served in the U.S. Army for 3 years and was discharged in October 1945. Upon his return, he began work on a new, larger dealership location on Main Street in Lakewood. The 5,500 square foot building cost $40,000 and included a four-car showroom and six service bays. The 1950s and 1960s saw continued expansion of the Pine Belt dealership and more business growth, adding another car lot on the Laurelton Circle and then eventually building a larger location on Route 88. The grand opening of the 28,000 square foot location featured the 1967 new car line up and attracted more than 1000 visitors.
By 1970, Leon’s son, David Sickel had joined his father in running the Pine Belt dealership, after graduating from Franklin and Marshall College and serving in the U.S. Naval Reserves. Father and son saw the expansion of the business to a high-volume Chevrolet and Oldsmobile dealership. David took over the helm after Leon retired to Florida in 1975. During the 1980s, Pine Belt would add additional brands to its Lakewood dealership, including Plymouth, Chrysler, Jeep, and Suburu. He also partnered with Louis A. Trebino and expanded to Toms River and Keyport, adding Nissan and Cadillac to its brands.
David has credited the work and dedication of his staff as being significant in helping the business overcome obstacles over its 80-year history, including a 1985 fire that destroyed the entire Route 88 showroom and service area. Local published reports at the time noted that Pine Belt employees and their families worked together to build a makeshift service facility and that they were back in business literally in two days.
Pine Belt’s legacy of giving back to the community began with Leon in the 1930s and 1940s, with contributions to the Red Cross, war relief efforts and local organizations. David continued this community and civic-minded tradition, sponsoring many local youth organizations from Little League to the local DARE programs, and supporting local business organizations such as the Lakewood Chamber of Commerce. Throughout his 30-plus years of running the dealership, David expanded his community involvement to include serving on the boards of two area hospitals. (Continued)
While David remains president of Pine Belt Enterprises, his son Rob Sickel is now running the day-to-day operations of the business started by his grandfather. Pine Belt remains involved in many community and charity organizations in not only Lakewood but in neighboring communities including Brick, Toms River, Jackson and Point Pleasant.
Rob acknowledges the significance of having the kind of business that attracts lifelong and even multi-generational customers. “Customer satisfaction is paramount in our business, and when we see a family that has done business with my father or even my grandfather, we know we are doing our job.”