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Published: Mon, September 4, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



A wall of photos turned out to be a good marketing tool.

By ALLIE SHAH

MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS

MINNEAPOLIS -- Walk into Ike Labayki's used-car dealership in Burnsville, Minn., and you might think you're looking at a poster for the United Nations.

There, in the main lobby, are hundreds of Polaroid photos of customers from all parts of the globe, posing with their cars. Names such as Manuel, Ahmed and Nasir appear on some. On others, subtler clues hint at a person's ethnic roots: Head scarves, long skirts, high cheekbones and tall, slender body types suggest customers originally from Somalia.

Ask Labayki or manager Matt Dunn, and they'll tell you not only the country of origin of their customers but also the story behind the sale. There's the woman from Iceland who was in the fish business. The doctor from Brazil who needed a car for two years while he was in a local college program. And the young woman who has been buying Jeeps from him every couple of years since she was a teenager.

"I don't throw [away] any picture. Every picture has some kind of memory, some kind of experience," said Labayki, a native of Iran. He began snapping photos of his customers with their cars in the 1980s when he first started selling cars. He joined Dunn in 1999 and opened Cisco Enterprises Inc., which is named after his son, Sohail, whose nickname is Cisco.

Most customers hear about the dealership by word of mouth. "If you take care of one, it snowballs," said Dunn, who traces his own roots to 10 European countries. "They'll come in with their uncle or aunt or brother or friend."

Reaction to photos

The photo wall is a draw, too, said Labayki, because they come in and see someone they know and feel more comfortable.

"The first car I sold, I told the person, 'I'll take a picture of you so I remember you,'" he said. "We put the date we sold this car. Then a couple more I put on the wall. It just started like that. I realized everybody liked that idea."

So he kept taking pictures. Today, there are more than 600 hanging in neat rows along one big wall and taped on a wooden screen in the lobby.

"When I look at them, I remember, 'Oh, these people came.' Like this Russian lady -- she just came to this country. I tried to help her. Now she has a big insurance company," he said.

The photos also offer a glimpse into lives changing -- sometimes dramatically. Labayki pauses in front of one photo of a man and a woman and their infant son.

"This is a sad story. This guy -- he's from Guyana. He went back to Guyana and died in a car accident," Labayki says. "His wife and son stayed here."

He points to photos taken in later years, showing the same woman with different cars. "The boy is now growing up and when she comes here, she shows him the photo and says, 'That's your dad,'" Labayki says.

Minou Hussain bought his first car from Labayki six or seven years ago. In all, he's bought about six cars from him. A businessman himself, Hussain, who is the chief executive officer of Pioneer Plastics Inc., said the photos are a good marketing tool.

"All the customers know each other. I go over there and say, 'Oh, I know this guy.' Now they feel comfortable," he said. Originally from Pakistan, Hussain grew up in India and has lived in the United States for nearly 30 years.

He works exclusively with Dunn, and over the years, the two have become friends.

Links to the world

Inside the dealership, signs of a wider world extend beyond the wall of photos. World maps and globes decorate the office. Beneath the glass on Labayki's glass-top desk lies foreign currency -- a euro note, shillings from Somalia and a bill from Nicaragua.

Satellite programs from 48 international channels play on a large-screen TV in the waiting area. More than a dozen flags from various countries hang from the rafters.

Labayki and Dunn save the most prominent spot by the front door for the American flag. Labayki's voice becomes quiet, almost reverent, when he explains why he's put that one out front.

"We live in the United States, and we should have respect for the country," he said.

Ken Bauer and his "car family" have been buying cars from Cisco Enterprises for several years. "My daughter is 22. We started going there when she was 16," he said. "We've gotten eight from him."

He stops in from time to time to look at the latest cars -- and the pictures. "It's kind of a neat idea. I've seen cars that I've traded in to him and the ones that we've bought. I wish I would've kept all the pictures," he said. He also notices how his kids have grown in the pictures. His daughter is now a newlywed with a family of her own.

"My first car I bought from him was a Toyota Celica that I bought for my daughter when she was 16. It was a nice little car," Bauer said. "It turned out to be what [Labayki] told me it was, so I was happy.

"I've always been one to drive one for a year or so and then sell it or trade it. I ended up trading more cars there than I thought."

In addition to the Celica, there was the Jeep Wrangler, the black Jeep Cherokee and another Jeep Wrangler -- this one for his son, who had also started driving.

Later, Bauer bought two more cars on the same day from Labayki -- including one for that same daughter. "With that one, he bought my daughter personalized plates. She still has them," he said. "It was a nice little gift."

Another memory for the wall.




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