Richard “Dick” Mullen Jr., who grew his family business one customer at a time, dies at 86

In 1927, Richard Mullen Sr. opened a repair shop on Main Road in Southold, where the Blue Duck Bakery sits today. Mr. Mullen’s father worked in a brickyard, and the son, who liked repairing things rather than making bricks, opened his shop.

“He was doing horse-drawn carriages then and working on wagon wheels,” said Bill Mullen, the grandson of that Mullen. “In 1932, he moved across the street to where Mullen Motors is today and he started a Chrysler dealership.”

Many small towns across America have family-run businesses that have carried on generation after generation. Because of their longevity, many of them achieve iconic status. With nearly century-old roots in Southold, Mullen Motors is one of those places.

The man who ran the business for decades, “Dick” Mullen — Richard Mullen Jr., the son of the founder — died at his home in Southold on March 3. He was 86. Many of the thousands of customers over the decades recall buying a car and, after signing the papers and picking up the keys, finding Mr. Mullen standing by the side door to shake their hands and thank them for their business.

But that was not all. “He would give out his home number and say, ‘If you need anything, please call,’ ” said his son, Rich, who along with his brother Bill runs the business today. “And we still do that. We are the same business.”

On Monday, Rich and Bill, as they prefer to be called, sat in Rich’s office in the remodeled dealership and talked about what they learned from their father. They spoke glowingly of his work ethic and said they have continued to run the business the way he did.

“Our father had a single philosophy for the business: Take care of the customer,” Rich Mullen said. “The customer is always first.”

“He believed if you did that right, everything else would fall into place,” Bill Mullen said.

“Dick” Mullen started working at the dealership in 1955, his sons said. His father, Richard Mullen Sr., who began his work life repairing carriages, came to the dealership well into the 1980s. He died in 1993 at the age of 90.

“We always tell people our grandfather started this, but our dad brought Mullen to what it is today,” Rich Mullen said. “Bill and I try hard not to mess it up.

“He really believed, as we do today, that you take care of people, you look after people,” Rich Mullen said. “Our father would come in every morning and with his coffee would go to everyone sitting there waiting on service and he would have a conversation with them. He would stop and talk to everyone.

“He sold cars as well for years,” he added. “But he was a mechanic at heart. He’d rather have his head under the hood of a car. When we were kids, he’d come home for dinner at 6, and then go back and work in the shop until 10. That was who he was.”

Rich Mullen began working at the dealership in 1984; Bill followed in 1992. Both could have gone on to other careers but chose to join their father. 

“He never forced us to come here,” Bill Mullen said. “He always said ‘do what you want, but it’s here if you want it.’ ”

“We were not the typical dealer kids,” Rich Mullen said. “We’d come at 8 in the morning six days a week. We started from the bottom up to really learn the business.”

The sons say they learned a lot from their father, who, knowing he was a businessman in a small town, took extra care of customers so that the business could grow by word of mouth. 

“Our father said you have to go over and above to take care of people,” Rich Mullen said. “A small town is about word of mouth. He was big on that — do the right thing.”

Since their father’s death, they have heard many compliments about him as a person but also the businessman that he was. “When he was home and could no longer work,” Rich Mullen said, “he would say two things: He never lied to anyone and he never ripped anyone off. He said that was the way he lived his life.”

After Dick Mullen passed, Bill Mullen had a conversation with a man who told him a story. He said a customer years ago brought in his car for servicing. “When he came in to pick it up, he saw four new tires had been put on,” Bill Mullen said. “The man said, ‘I can’t afford to pay for that.’ Our father told him, ‘You have four kids, you need good tires.’ He said don’t worry about the bill, pay when you can.”

Seated at his desk in a sunny corner of the dealership on Monday, John Hofer said he began working as a salesman at Mullen Motors in 2000. “Mr. Mullen was the best person I could work for,” he said. “He did everything right. Everything was done with honesty. Everyone was treated with respect.”

Ninety-seven years after Richard Mullen Sr. started on Main Road in Southold repairing buggies and wagon wheels, the business remains in family hands. In fact, it will continue in the family. Recently, Bill’s son, Liam, began working at the dealership.

“We keep going,” Rich Mullen said.

The family will receive visitors Wednesday, March 8, from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 P.M. at DeFriest-Grattan Funeral Home in Southold. The Liturgy of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Thursday, March 9, at St. Patrick’s R.C. Church in Southold, with Father Peter Garry officiating. Interment will follow at St. Patrick’s R.C. Cemetery in Southold.

Memorial donations may be made to East End Hospice or Southold Fire Department.