Victor
Potamkin


The late VICTOR POTAMKIN is best known locally as the owner of Potamkin Chevrolet on South Broad Street in Philadelphia, and nationally as the founder of multi-state chain of automobile dealerships spanning six states. He set sales records after taking over a failing Cadillac Agency in New York, with both he and his wife Luba appearing in television advertisements. 

Less well known is the fact that prior to going into the automobile business, Victor Potamkin was in the poultry and fish business in Camden. He and his brothers had operated Potamkin Brothers, a poultry and fish business located at 527 Kaighn Avenue in South Camden, on the corner of Kaighn Avenue and Marion Street during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Future heavyweight boxing champion Jersey Joe Walcott was a Potamkin employee for a time.

The Potamkin Brothers had left 527 Kaighn Avenue by 1947. The building was then occupied by Lee's Poultry, whose proprietor was Ellis Lee.


New York Daily News - June 7, 1995

CADILLAC BIG VICTOR POTAMKIN DIES AT 83

BY DICK SHERIDAN

Victor Potamkin, who built the world's largest Cadillac auto dealership, has died at age 83.

Potamkin died Monday at Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami after a brief illness, his family said yesterday. His sons Robert and Alan were at his bedside.

Born in 1911 in Philadelphia, Potamkin attended the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He launched his business career during the Depression, selling chicken parts under the slogan "Be Smart, Buy a Part" long before the advent of such high-profile poultry marketers as Frank Perdue.

Always an enterprising and wide-ranging businessman, Potamkin then took on the management of one of his company's delivery drivers, Jersey Joe Walcott, who went on to become world heavyweight boxing champion.

Potamkin also discovered and managed the singing career of Sergio Franchi, and for a time was owner of the Eden Roc Hotel in Miami Beach. He was also a one-time partner in Checker Motors.

In 1947 Potamkin bought a Lincoln-Mercury dealership in Philadelphia, then added a Chevrolet franchise there. In 1972 he moved into the Manhattan market, taking over two Cadillac dealerships at General Motors' behest. He and his family gained local fame through the '70s by promoting Cadillac in a series of popular TV ads.

Potamkin Cadillac gave way to Penske Auto Center in 1987, but returned in 1991 when Penske went under.

The Potamkin family operates a retailing empire, extending from New York to Miami, that includes 54 dealerships representing a variety of domestic and import automobile makes.

Potamkin's wife, Luba, died of complications from Alzheimer's disease in April 1994. In addition to his sons, he is survived by brothers Pat and Nat and by grandchildren Andi, Melissa and Jamin.


New York Times - June 7, 1995

Victor Potamkin, 83;
Turned Ailing Cadillac Agency Into $1 Billion Empire

Victor Potamkin, the supercharged car salesman who used a combination of deep discounting and extensive advertising to turn an ailing Manhattan Cadillac agency into the flagship of a $1 billion-a-year automotive empire, died on Monday at Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami. He was 83 and lived at the Regency Hotel in New York.

At his death, Mr. Potamkin and his sons, Robert and Alan, controlled more than 50 franchises at 20 locations from New York to Florida.

Whether he was racing up and down the stairs at his 11th Avenue showroom, glad-handing his way through the celebrity lunch crowd at "21" or incessantly preaching low prices in newspaper ads and television commercials, Mr. Potamkin seemed to be the consummate New Yorker.

He was, and never mind that he had spent the first 60 years of his life in his native Philadelphia.

As he explained in 1985, after spending $60 million on advertising in New York over a dozen years, "People think I'm here a million years."

In fact, Mr. Potamkin had been an established Chevrolet dealer, with franchises in Philadelphia, Miami and Newark, when General Motors persuaded him to take over the company-owned Cadillac store in Manhattan in 1972.

Like other car makers who had discovered that huge real estate costs made it virtually impossible for independent car dealers to survive there, General Motors had been spending $2 million a year for the prestige of maintaining a retail presence in Manhattan.

The move was an immediate success, although Mr. Potamkin's aggressive approach was hardly in keeping with the corporate Cadillac image.

For all the corporate advertising portraying Cadillac buyers as bluebloods too rich and too well-bred to be concerned with an unsavory detail like price, Mr. Potamkin knew that those moving up to Cadillac had not gotten there by passing up bargains.

By cutting his own prices, Mr. Potamkin attracted buyers from far beyond Manhattan and built the volume needed to spread those high Manhattan real estate costs over enough units to make a profit.

Under the Potamkin hammer, annual sales grew from fewer than 2,000 cars to more than 6,000, making Potamkin the world's largest Cadillac dealer.

The Manhattan success led to a vast expansion of the Potamkin empire. His son Robert, who runs the Philadelphia operations, said yesterday that the family controlled 54 dealerships in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Florida, representing virtually every American model and many imports, and, with a vast leasing operation, accounting for $1.2 billion in sales last year.

As Mr. Potamkin had once proclaimed, "Not bad for a fish seller from Philadelphia."

Mr. Potamkin, whose father was a fish dealer there, sold fish himself and -- after being forced to drop out of the Wharton School of Business and Finance at the University of Pennsylvania during the Depression -- chickens as well.

In what was a forecast of the Potamkin ingenuity, when he found stiff competition from other chicken salesmen, Mr. Potamkin began selling them by the piece, with the slogan, "Be Smart, Buy a Part."

His special sense of salesmanship was also evident in his first automotive venture, when he started a Lincoln-Mercury dealership in northeast Philadelphia in 1947 and discovered that the area's large Jewish population shunned the Ford company cars because of the anti-Semitism then associated with Henry Ford.

Mr. Potamkin countered that by persuading Israel's first president, Chaim Weizman, to accept a Lincoln at a well-publicized photo opportunity outside the Waldorf-Astoria during a visit to New York in 1948.

Mr. Potamkin broke with Ford a few years later, much to the later chagrin of his friend Lee A. Iacocca, a Ford executive who worked hard to woo Mr. Potamkin back, at least until Mr. Iacocca took over Chrysler.

It is a measure of Mr. Potamkin's persuasiveness that in 1987 he talked Mr. Iacocca into considering a bid to take over General Motors.

Mr. Potamkin sold the Cadillac dealership in 1987 to Roger Penske, the former race car driver, who sought to restore a more subdued, genteel tone to the franchise.

Sales immediately plummeted -- partly because of the stock market crash that October -- and both General Motors and Mr. Penske were relieved when Mr. Potamkin agreed to reacquire the franchise in 1991.

Since then, Robert Potamkin said yesterday, the dealership had become profitable again but had not yet achieved the sales volumes of its glory days in the 1970's and early 1980's.

When his wife, Luba, who had appeared in Potamkin commercials, developed Alzheimer's disease, Mr. Potamkin became a major benefactor of Alzheimer's research. She died a year ago.

In addition to his sons Robert, of Philadelphia, and Alan, of Miami, Mr. Potamkin is survived by two brothers, Nathan, of Miami, and Pat, of Philadelphia, and three grandchildren.


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