The last time Gus Machado set foot in his native Cuba, in January 1960, he sold two used Chevrolets he had ferried across from Florida: a 1950 and a 1951. As he was standing in a Havana post office waiting to change into cash the money orders he had received for the cars, a rumor swept through the building that revolutionary leader Fidel Castro was approaching the city and that he would change the country's currency.
Machado got his money, then hastened straight for the ferry to Key West. He has not returned. Machado, now a robust 78, laughs out loud when he thinks about whether those two ancient Chevrolets might still be running around the streets of Havana.
Though he still thinks wistfully of returning to his native country, he's not one to get lost in nostalgia. He's way too busy for that. The wiry Machado still puts in 12- to 15-hour days every day at his two Miami-area Ford dealerships.
"Gus Machado is the North American success story," says Bill Wallace, owner of the Wallace Automotive Group in Stuart, Fla., which includes a Lincoln store. "I love what Gus represents and what he's done. Everybody who knows him reveres him. He is an entrepreneur's entrepreneur."
In 1949, Machado first moved to the United States to attend Edwards Military Institute in North Carolina and Greenville College in Greenville, Ill. He then lived in Joliet, Ill., and worked for Caterpillar Tractor Co. before moving to Miami in 1956.
Even before that fateful final trip across the Florida Straits in 1960, Machado was a man in perpetual motion. Starting with a gas station in 1956, Machado owned a series of used-car dealerships until he acquired his first franchise in 1982 with a store called Gus Machado Buick.
In 1984, he sold the Buick store and bought Johnson Ford in Hialeah. Today, the dealership is Gus Machado Ford of Hialeah. And on April 1, 2009, just as the recession skies were darkening over America, Machado bought a second Ford store in the Miami area, now known as Gus Machado Ford of Kendall.
Perhaps the darkest days for Machado came in 2009, when the entire auto industry seemed to be on the verge of going under.
"In 2009, everybody was worried, worried, worried about how are we going to come out of this one," Machado says in his accented English. "And you didn't hear about anything good. Foreclosures and bankruptcy and unemployment and everything was just negative, negative, negative."
During his peak years before the recession, Gus Machado Ford of Hialeah alone sold as many as 5,000 new and used vehicles per year. Since the downturn, he has struggled to get his numbers up again. Last year, the two stores totaled 3,500 new and used sales.
"This has been a dramatic slowdown on the economy," he says. "We've got to cut down on a lot of stuff and tighten our belts."
He had nearly 140 employees at his Hialeah store before the recession. Now the number is closer to 100. Letting employees go was painful for a people person such as Machado.
He hopes for brighter days, which is one reason he bought the store in Kendall, a more affluent area than Hialeah. Both stores are run on a simple philosophy.
"Our priority in life is to remember that the customer, he might not be 100 percent of the time right, but he is 100 percent of the time our customer. No matter what you do, you have to please him. You have to remember without customers, you don't have any business," he says. "Every time you make a sale, you make a friend. That person who is buying from you is trusting that you're giving them the right product."
Machado is optimistic that better times are ahead. "I look forward for the market to turn around and for us to be doing what we did in the past," he says.
At age 78, Machado should be easing into retirement, but that's not his style.
"I'm working more now than I did 20 years ago," says Machado, who has a perpetual twinkle in his eye and whose hair and eyebrows are almost incandescent white. "I wanted to be sure both dealerships are profitable."
Machado is spry and full of vitality. He attributes his vigor to the fact he has been exercising every morning since he was about 30 years old.
"If I don't move my body, I'll get to the point I can't move. I start stretching myself. I do push-ups against the wall. I do lifting of my arms and twisting my legs and knees. I spend 30 to 35 minutes every morning," he says. "I eat very well. But I digest very, very well."
Machado has needed his fitness more than ever recently because he had to work longer hours. His longtime general manager, Victor Benitez, was ill for several months.
Now that Benitez is healthier, Machado is putting together a living trust for a succession plan that includes the children he and his wife, Lilliam, have from previous marriages.
One of his daughters, Lydia Machado, and a granddaughter, Samantha Dewhurst, work at the dealerships.
He has become a major force in the world of South Florida philanthropy. Machado's charitable activities take up a couple of single-spaced pages on the biographical sketch that appears on his dealership Web site, reflecting his having raised more than $2.5 million for local charities in the past 25 years.
A lover of golf, Machado sponsors the annual Gus Machado Golf Classic, which benefits the American Cancer Society. He also organizes Calle Ocho, a Kiwanis event in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood that celebrates local culture. The Gus Machado Family Foundation contributes to multiple charities that benefit schools and neighborhood organizations.
Last month, Ford Motor Co. honored him in its annual Salute to Dealers at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention.
During down times, Machado draws strength from a story that his grandfather, a farmer, told him long ago when Machado was a little boy on the family farm near Cienfuegos, Cuba.
His grandfather told the young boy to look at the field and the trees around the field and to think about the cycle of life on the storm-tossed island.
"He said that sometimes a hurricane comes around, and you go look at your field and you can only see one or two trees still left standing. He told me: 'Do you know why they are still standing? It's because they had good roots.'
"If you got good roots, you have a good chance to make it.