It was the middle of March in 1998, about 5:30 in the afternoon at my Garland, Texas Ford dealership. As was my ritual, I headed toward the front door of the dealership, briefcase in hand, calling it a day. Before I left daily, I dropped by the large office where the sales managers sat, looking at the sales log to see how many vehicles were sold that day, what was sold, and who sold it. I always told everyone goodnight and went to my car.
On a day that will be burned into my memory forever, I looked out at the customer parking area, and unloading out of two large passenger vans was a group of people of foreign descent, all wearing white robes. Most had on some sort of hat or headwear, a few wore cowboy hats, and all wore sandals.
You have to understand that "experienced" sales people believed that people of Asian descent were hard to deal with. There were many myths about certain groups of people who were stereotyped, and that was passed from generation to generation in the car business. When all those people started piling out of the vans, all the "experienced" sales people suddenly got busy, headed the other direction, needed to go to the restroom. They all scattered.
Luckily, we had a rookie salesperson, whose name I cannot recall, who didn't know all the stereotypes. The kid walked out and started talking to the group. Well, I am not going anywhere until I know what this is all about.
In about 15 minutes, the salesperson came into the sales office and he looked like he'd seen a ghost. I asked him what was going on and he said this group just left the Chevy dealership around the corner because nobody came out to greet them. He said that they wanted to buy 25 new cars.
After the lottery winner I told you about, this was plausible. They wanted 23 new Ford Contours and Escorts (both really slow sellers for us at the time) and they needed two Tauruses for the leader and his prodigy. The kicker: they all had to be white because white was pure. I handed the salesperson a legal pad and a pen and told him to get out there and bring back a list of stock numbers. I also told him to tell the leader I would do the pricing myself. This is when you call the wife and say "I'm going to be late for dinner."
The salesperson went back to the group, still assembled in the parking lot, they had a conference and suddenly the group started loading back into the two vans. I start saying "whoa, whoa, whoa" getting louder each time, and I head to the parking lot. When I get to the group, I asked to speak to the leader and Hon-Ming Chen bowed to me when I tried to shake his hand.
After welcoming him to my dealership and using the presumptive close method of selling, I thanked him for his business. I then asked why the group was leaving. Hon-Ming, who spoke pretty good English, explained that per their religion, they had to worship at sunset every day, and since that was only 15 minutes away, they had to head home.
Pulling back the curtain of the car business, I'll tell you that if you want to panic a car dealer, let him watch a 25-car deal drive out the gates. There is always a chance you'll never see them again no matter if they are buying just one vehicle or multiples.
My dealership was built less than a year before this event. In front of the showroom was a large, beautifully manicured rye lawn. It looked like a golf course. A light went off in my head and I said "why don't you and your family worship with us? I have a beautiful area right here, with a great view of the sunset." He thought for a moment and accepted my invitation.
Imagine if you can, 25 people in white robes in front of the biggest Ford dealership in Texas, chanting in a foreign language, each sitting Indian-style, raising both arms toward the sky, then bringing them back to the ground. The ceremony went on for about 15-20 minutes as a large crowd of customers in the showroom gawked and stared.
Once the service was over, it's back to business. The salesperson, Hon-Ming, and a couple of his flock began to choose cars as the rest of the group sat on the grass, still Indian-style. After about a half hour, the salesperson came back to me and said "we have a problem. We're 8 short on white Escorts and Contours with automatics, but we do have the two Taurus models."
I asked where Hon-Ming was, and he was outside with the group. I went outside and asked Mr. Chen if they all had to absolutely be white? He confirmed they did, again, because white is pure. In a stroke of genius, I said "Mr. Chen, there is nothing more pure than silver. I'm sure you've heard the term pure silver, what if we fill the balance of the cars with silver ones?" He pondered that for a minute and gave his approval. WHEW! We're set.
Hon-Ming came inside and pulled his checkbook out. I added the cars' prices together, added tax, title, and license, took off the rebates, and came up with a total amount. I don't recall the amount exactly, but it was over $300,000. Now at this point, I'm not 100% sure this is a real deal but wasn't willing to take a chance of blowing it. He filled out the check and then I took a bit of a gamble. I said "Mr. Chen, I'll need certified funds since you are new to the area, so I'll hold onto this check, and tomorrow go to your bank while we prep your cars, and we'll exchange checks". I figured I'd get some pushback on this, but he said that was reasonable. We parted ways with plans to meet the following day at high noon.
Getting 25 cars cleaned and filled by noon the following day was going to be a challenge. I bribed my prep crew, offering them an additional $100 per person to get the cars ready and lined up in front of the dealership by noon the next day. My people worked well into the morning, came in early on the day of delivery, and had them all ready the next day before noon.
As if on cue, the two vans pulled up at noon, we did the paperwork, and everybody drove off with their new white and silver Fords, smiling and waving as they left procession style.
By now, you must be wondering what all this was about? Before the group left, I asked Hon-Ming Chen how he ended up in Garland, TX? Here's is the story:
Mr. Chen and his followers all moved from Taiwan to Garland, Texas because Garland sounded the most like God Land. He believed he had fathered Jesus Christ over 2000 years earlier. He was convinced God was returning to earth in a flying saucer and the world would end at midnight on March 31, 1998.
He said a week earlier, on March 24th, God would speak non-stop to people on channel 18 all over America. To prepare for the flying saucer arrival, the group built a landing pad in their backyard. It was made of tires, plywood, and some lampposts. This panicked many of the group's neighbors, who called the police, but there was nothing they could do, no laws were broken.
How The Story Ends
As we now know, God did not return, and the world did not end. Mr. Chen had offered to sacrifice himself if he was wrong, but none of his followers took him up on that offer.
The burning question I never got the answer to was if he was so convinced the world was ending, why buy all the cars?
About a week after the missed deadline of March 31st, Mr. Chen came back to the dealership and sold us back 20 of the 25 cars. They were headed to New York, the next place he thought God would land in his flying saucer.
I'm just thankful my neighbor the Chevy dealer didn't have anyone to approach this group.
FYI - if you think I must have made this story up, the group's activities in my town were well documented on CNN, in the New York Times, and in 2011, a movie was made about the group, titled "God's Land". Check out these links:
In addition, the Associated Press did a compilation of some of the news stories that ran. TV stations from around the world covered the event at midnight on March 31, 1998.