Dan Sussen discusses his father's entry into the auto parts industry and his role creating Midtown Cleveland Inc. He discusses how the company survived the Great Depression, its growth and expansion, and his role as the company's salesman. Sussen describes the reasons for creating Midtown Cleveland Inc., its early years, and the growth of Midtown since the organization's founding. He also touches on the relationship between Midtown Cleveland Inc. and political leaders in Cleveland.


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Sussen, Dan (interviewee)


Souther, Mark (interviewer)


Midtown Cleveland



Document Type

Oral History


36 minutes


Mark Souther [00:00:00] So let’s get started. Today is August 8, 2007. My name is Mark Souther, and today I am re-interviewing Mr. Daniel C. Sussen, better known as Dan Sussen. And so thank you for agreeing to come back to be interviewed a second time after we had technical difficulties with the first recording.

Dan Sussen [00:00:21] Well, the price was right, so it was easy to come back. [laughs]

Mark Souther [00:00:25] I’d like to start by asking you some questions about the family business and then to move toward discussion of Midtown Cleveland Incorporated.

Dan Sussen [00:00:33] All right.

Mark Souther [00:00:34] So, I’d like to start out by asking you to recall for me how the family business was started and tell me a little about your father’s background.

Dan Sussen [00:00:41] Well, my father came to this country as, I think, a two-year-old boy in 1902, from a small village that is now part of it was part of Austria, but it was one time part of Austria-Hungary Empire. The family came to New York and immediately came to Cleveland because his father had come to Cleveland earlier and got a job in one of these, I believe it was a steel mill, but I’m not sure. So he brought his family to Cleveland, and that’s how he arrived in Cleveland. Lived in the old German area off of Fleet Avenue, I believe, when they first came to this country.

Mark Souther [00:01:25] Okay. When he came- He started when he was, I guess he was in his twenties then when he started the family business?

Dan Sussen [00:01:36] He actually started- He went to Case for a couple years, but he started the business, technically, in 1919, when he was 19 years old, out of his mother’s garage. And he called the company the Standard Automotive Machine Company. And what they did, he did, he manufactured or assembled stoplights that when cars were made, I shouldn’t say stoplights, tail lights. When cars were made, they never had a tail light. So you really had to pay attention to the car in front of you. And so he manufactured. They sold that as an aftermarket product. And he said that was a very successful business until the car manufacturers started putting them on the car and knocked him out of business. So technology, it could be a Walmart today, knocking the small person out of business. In that day, the car manufacturers started manufacturing tail lights, and he was out of business.

Mark Souther [00:02:39] Do you know if that was the- Was he the first person anywhere to do that?

Dan Sussen [00:02:42] I have no- I- And I can’t ask him. [laughs]

Mark Souther [00:02:46] It’s a little late for that, I suppose. So he turned into a tire repair shop?

Dan Sussen [00:02:52] Yeah. In 1921, he started a company called Sussen Rubber Company. And what he started to do is selling repair materials for tires in the early twenties. If you notice, in all old cars, they used to have spare tires on each fender plus the one in the trunk, because tires could not handle not only the poor roads, they just didn’t have them developed that they would last. So people had spent an awful lot of time repairing tires, so he started supplying, patching rubber cements and items like that to repair tires. So he sold- And just about every street corner and gas station had a big tire repair shop. It was one of their big businesses.

Mark Souther [00:03:46] And this was located where?

Dan Sussen [00:03:48] It started on, I believe it was East 9th and Superior, East 9th and St. Clair. And typically in those days, there were one-story buildings all along that area. And he rented a small shop there and set up his- He moved out of his mother’s garage into his first building.

Mark Souther [00:04:14] How did the company fare during the Great Depression?

Dan Sussen [00:04:17] Well, up until the 19, oh, ’21 to up till 1926, ’27, ’28, the business grew, and it grew sufficiently that he had a building built for him to expanded business, and that was at around 30th and Carnegie, right across from Central Cadillac. If you go up the ramp on the Carnegie, that building that’s right at the top, if you look very carefully up in the lefthand top, you can see an “S” that has not worn out since the 1930, I believe it was 1931. From 1931 to 1933, he was in that building.

Mark Souther [00:05:18] So during the 1930s, did he have to make any major adjustments with the business?

Dan Sussen [00:05:24] Well, between ’32 and ’33, as he related to me one time interviewing him like I’m being interviewed now, he had two things happen to him. One, he had an accountant that was a partner, and he didn’t realize it until it was too late. Second of all, the Depression put a lot of his customers out of business, and subsequently, it was a very bleak time in this history of his business. So he moved to, he had to leave the building that he was in that was built for him and moved to 65th Street between Carnegie and Euclid. It was a four-story building that he took one half of the first floor. And as he told me, he didn’t know how he was gonna be able to afford the $75 a month rent. Times have changed. So he stayed in that building from 1932 to 1954.

Mark Souther [00:06:29] And you started to work at Sussen in the 1950s as well? Right?

Dan Sussen [00:06:35] I started- I actually started in 1951. I graduated from John Carroll. Nobody else would hire me, so I went to work for my father. I worked from 1951 to 1953 as a salesman. I know I bought my first hat because in those days, you called on people with a hat, coat and tie, regardless of if they were gas stations, garages. It was his theory that you always treated any businessman, not because he can’t wear a coat and tie, but treat him with respect. So. And then I went in the Marine Corps from 1953 to 1956. The Korean War was on, and they were threatening to draft me, so I joined the Marine Corps, and I eventually got a commission. I served a little over three years as an aviation intelligence officer.

Mark Souther [00:07:35] When you returned, when you returned and you got into the business, what did you do in that early? You were a salesman-

Dan Sussen [00:07:46] I came back and we were a relatively small company. We probably had ten or twelve employees. The only job open to me was to go out back out on the road selling, which I enjoyed doing and so I went out as a salesman, and as I build a territory big enough that we could split it, we could hire another salesman and just take half the territory. And then I would go out and continue to build. And that’s how we were able to build our sales force, to keep our business growing.

Mark Souther [00:08:24] Once the business turned in- You mentioned before when we talked that the business diversified quite a bit and started moving forward, selling lots of different auto parts, can you tell me about that transformation and how it became more than something that was just in the Cleveland area?

Dan Sussen [00:08:41] Well, it’s really between that period of time when I got out of the Marine Corps. The industry was changing. We were our tire repair business, and then prior to that, we started expanding into the paint and body shop supplies, different paints, Minnesota Mining things, serving body shops. This way we could serve body shops, car dealers, tire repair shops. So we expanded from that. And we were always big in automotive equipment lifts, air compressors, spray guns. And so we felt if we were going to be able to survive in the big picture, we were gonna have to expand into being a complete auto parts store, not only having what we had, but adding auto parts to our product lines. That we built up between, you know, after. Soon after I got home. I knew that we couldn’t continue just doing what we did. And so between ’56 and, oh, really ’65 or so, ’56 to ’65, we’ve added the lines, our business grew, we added our staff, and in 1965, they made me sales manager, because just about every salesman hired or I had hired and worked with. So they, I think I earned the job. But some people might not think so.

Mark Souther [00:10:24] Once the business got to that state where it was quite diversified, you mentioned before that you became involved with or affiliated with Carquest. Could you describe that process just briefly again?

Dan Sussen [00:10:40] Well, that was later. That was really quite a bit later. That was in the late sixties, ’69 or ’70, ’71, ’72. I wish I would have gotten that exact date, but we grew the outgrew the store. We rented the second floor of the building on 65th Street and it wasn’t efficient. We moved to the corner of 36th and Carnegie in 1954. It was 11,000 square feet and we thought that we had moved into heaven. I mean, it was more space than we ever had. We didn’t know how we were going to fill it. But by the time it was 1968, it was time for us to move again, and we moved to 6115 Carnegie, which if you- There was the Crane Company was there. It was Erico Manufacturing. The buildings are now torn down. It’s where Allen Sugar is. If you drive up Carnegie, that basically that vacant lot was where we were from 1954 to 1968. And we moved into a 40,000-square-foot building. And we had an attached building that when we moved in, it was a great place for employees to park indoors. I mean, that was more space than we needed. But it didn’t take very long that we were able to fill that. But in that period of time is where we became affiliated with Carquest. And it started off as a marketing group just to do advertising. And it turned into be much more than that. We became, we built a business that we did our own packaging and it’s grown. That’s what was the major issue that helped us grow over the years since that day. We were able to compete with anybody in the marketplace and we had a lot of opportunities to grow. Carquest was made up of companies just like ours all over the country. And we became affiliated together. We became friends. We helped each other grow our businesses and eventually, as one of them decided to retire, sell their business, one of the other Carquest members would buy it and keep that area. And that’s how I started off in purchasing Youngstown in 1997, a company called J. A. Barber, which like us, we had the Youngstown market. In 1982, we bought distribution center in Columbus, and in 1989 we went to Buffalo, New York. So we were responsible for a good portion of territory for Carquest.

Mark Souther [00:13:39] Before we move on to Midtown Cleveland Incorporated, is there anything else that you would like to add about the family business?

Dan Sussen [00:13:48] Well, I think that, you know, the most difficult part of leaving a family business, it’s almost like a child or a grandchild. But the taxing structure, estate planning, I think I mentioned to you before, my father died in 1994 at 94 years old, but he worked up until a month before he died. I mean, it was, and we felt very important in being part of a community. It’s hard to point out that we had done business with some people, the third generation, and my father was always very proud of saying, well, we have 27 people we have done business with now three generations and so many. And it became part of a family. And they were more than just customers. They helped make us successful, and we helped, we contributed to their success. It became very difficult when you’re faced with the issue that you’re being killed by your own success. We got to the point that the financing of the business became more and more difficult as we grew. We became more profitable, but yet we became, because we’re mostly inventory and supporting accounts receivable. And as I think I mentioned to you, when we first started in business, my father said he had about 300 part numbers. When we merged our business with general parts in Raleigh, North Carolina, we had over 160,000 part numbers in inventory. And so it became- It was extremely difficult. And although it was in 1994 that we made this decision to merge, it still bothers me to this day. Did I let things pass that I should not have? But it was something we had to do. And, I mean, if I had to do it over again, I would. But it’s a shame that we have a taxing structure and estate planning that does nothing but force people out of business. The sad part for Cleveland, the Sussen family does not- Well, we do still operate a self storage business, but our foundation is still in Cleveland, but all those jobs are in Brunswick. We have a family foundation that still supports the arts and education in Cleveland, but it’s not growing like it was when we had a business that continued to support it. So the shame is that entrepreneurship is not a dirty word, but it’s one that’s not as popular as it should be. It’s not even taught in most colleges. So I don’t know if that fills you in the disappointment that I still feel.

Mark Souther [00:17:02] So your business, of course, as we discussed before, was such a fixture in the Midtown area, I wanted to segue into a discussion about Midtown Incorporated to ask you a question I asked before, which is, what was Midtown like at its peak in, say, the 1950s? Well, in the 1950s I would imagine it was still at its peak.

Dan Sussen [00:17:24] Well, it changed like many core cities over a period of time. If you trace back to when I was a salesman, my territory ran from 55th Street, from the Shoreway to Cedar Avenue, up through the Heights, Mayfield Heights, and, you know, along Mayfield Road, it was a different city. There are car agencies all along Euclid Avenue and Carnegie. This is before you were born. But there was a Pontiac dealer at 6000 Euclid Avenue. The major Chrysler in those days, the car manufacturers had distributors. We had central Cadillac. That was at 70th Street. We had all along Euclid Avenue, where there were car dealers. Every brand we had. Where the Cleveland Clinic, the Packard Motor Car Company had a dealer there. So it was a completely different city. We had homes where we were on 65th street. We had a four-story building, but all on both side of the street, there were apartment houses, 3 and 4 story apartment houses. People lived there, and they ran the streetcars up and down Euclid Avenue. And it was a different city. It was a different feel. And of course, that’s obviously changed. When I got out of the service, the changes really took place. But when Midtown started 25 years ago, the whole Midtown area was in disarray. And I can remember a meeting, and I don’t know if it was the first meeting or the second meeting or the third or fourth meeting with Mort Mandel and Tom Ralston, Frank Porter and myself, and I could dig out some other names, wanted to do something about changing the neighborhood. We all had a particular financial investment in Midtown. Our businesses were there. Our employees worked there. Safety was an issue. We had to do something to get rid of the image of it being a very dangerous place to be. And in some cases, it was. So we felt that if we got together as a group. We were always self-supporting. Our core organization of Midtown was always self supporting. We raised money among ourselves to support our staff and so on. So we felt it was very important to, first of all, rid, as much as we could, crime from the area. And I think over the years, that’s been very successful. Prostitutes along Prospect Avenue is, you know, day and night was one of the only growth businesses in the Midtown area. I always kid things that we got rid of the prostitutes, and at lunchtime, I had to drive 25 minutes to find a prostitute. So we were killed by our own success. Don’t print that, but- So it was a group of men and women getting together and trying to make a difference in the community. And I think, really, the rest is history. It still operated the same way it was. Our staff is a little larger. Our headquarters is a little bit, not elaborate, but more efficient. I think we’ve. Statistics will show that the crime in this area is one of the lowest in the city or in the surrounding areas. And we haven’t been able to convince everybody of that. But it’s true. You just get the police reports. Now you can see the growth that’s gone along, just especially west of 55th Street. I mean, the buildings, of course, Cleveland State and Playhouse Square, all these things contributed to it. But I don’t think that this area could have been saved unless people like that started Midtown are dedicated to it. And really to this day, there’s many people whose businesses are no longer in Midtown or they’re retired, still are very active in Midtown, not only financially, but with their time. I use myself, for example. I live in Lake County. I’m still on the board. I’m still on the executive committee. I’ve been the past chairman. I come to two or three meetings a month at 7:30 in the morning because I feel it’s important for not only Midtown but the surrounding areas and the city itself.

Mark Souther [00:22:11] Let me back up and ask a question about, a couple of questions about the early founding, the early years of Midtown. Just the name Midtown makes me wonder why that name, something that was created 25 years ago with Midtown Cleveland Incorporated, or was it a name that we always called or long called Midtown?

Dan Sussen [00:22:33] Well, it was logical why it’s Midtown because it was Midtown. It was mid between Playhouse, I mean, Playhouse Square and University Circle. Mid. It was mid between those two focal points. It used to be called the Midtown Corridor because it was a very narrow corridor. I think it was bordered by the north side of Cedar. And I don’t know if it was Payne or one of the streets. So it just ran from not much further than 70th Street to probably 22nd, not even 22nd. So it was a corridor. So it was Midtown Corridor. Call it anything.

Mark Souther [00:23:15] That was the name of it before it was Midtown Cleveland Incorporated.

Dan Sussen [00:23:17] That’s right. We- I don’t know why it was changed. It was. I think the main reason was because the corridor kind of got fat. You know, it broadened out because neighboring communities, we started working with them, you know. They said, well, geez, I like to become part of this to get the results that you people have been able to obtain. So we kind of just expanded, but still always keeping in mind that we couldn’t get too big because we couldn’t handle it.

Mark Souther [00:23:53] I guess my question, though, was whether any locals ever referred to the general area where Midtown is now located. Did anyone ever use the name Midtown prior to that time, or were there any other names or not really?

Dan Sussen [00:24:08] No. It was always Midtown Corridor. It started with Midtown Corridor. We’ve been fortunate to have strong continuity of an executive director.

Mark Souther [00:24:20] Let me back up one more time and clarify. I mean before the organization was created. I’m talking about the 1950s and-

Dan Sussen [00:24:27] No, I don’t believe it was ever. People didn’t say, I’m located in Midtown. They’d say, I’m located on Carnegie Avenue, or I’m Carnegie. No, I could be wrong, but very seldom I am. But I don’t recall it ever being referred to as anything other than when we put the group together.

Mark Souther [00:24:46] I’m imagining then that one of the discussions was the branding of the creating sort of a brand identity for this area. Was that something that was discussed in the early meetings, the need to come up with a name that really said, this is what this area is? It is Midtown. We should be called Midtown.

Dan Sussen [00:25:07] No, I think it was just our own way of describing what our core was and is it’s Midtown. And it was always between- We were- I don’t know if it ever came up that we might have been the spoke of the two wheels. I don’t know if that was ever a factor. But if you just picture it, that’s what it. We just had to improve the image between University Circle and Playhouse Square. And this was even prior to Playhouse Square taking off.

Mark Souther [00:25:42] You mentioned also that crime was really a problem. Prostitution in particular. How did Midtown instigate change?

Dan Sussen [00:25:50] Well, the first thing we did, we really worked with the Cleveland police department and a great deal of cooperation. We got to know them and they got to know us. They were always very anxious to give us suggestions. We pool ideas on security. We felt if we had better lighting, better fencing, cleaning up the neighborhoods, all of that would contribute to a safer environment, if not, in fact, cutting crime, but cutting the perception of crime. And then that’s the next step will get us into the cutting of the crime. We’ve been located in Midtown, as I explained to you, since the 1930s to this day, we’ve never been out of Midtown. From 30th and Carnegie to 65th to 6000 Carnegie to- That’s all- That’s been our neighborhood. I’ve driven up and down Carnegie and up Cedar Hill more times than you’ve had breaths. So, I mean, it was our home. And we also had great opportunities to relate to our council people. Lonnie Burton is a name that’s well-known in the area. And Lonnie was all of a sudden realized it wasn’t a black and white situation. We were all interested in the neighborhood, and we were interested in not only the businesses but the people that lived in the neighborhood. So it was a relationship that just kind of got built up, person to person, rather than just a group. And the most important part of it, we got to know our neighbors. And the friends that I’ve met in Midtown are my friends today. And we have respect for each other. It’s hard to believe the work that the people in Midtown have put to this organization. You couldn’t buy it. So it’s been- You always get more out of an organization than you’ve ever given, if you believe in it. Anybody that gets into something because they think they’re going to get more out of it, they’re disappointed. It’s just, it’s unbelievable what it’s been to me and to all the people in Midtown.

Mark Souther [00:28:28] Is Midtown Cleveland- I know that a lot of the focus is on bringing, supporting businesses that are here and bringing new businesses to the neighborhood. Is there a focus in particular on trying to entice the residential development, or does that fall beyond the purview of Midtown?

Dan Sussen [00:28:48] I think it’s somewhat beyond, but we encourage it, because if you look at the master plan of Midtown has developed, housing is an integral part of it. And it’s because people, if people can have jobs and they have jobs close to them, they have a tendency to live closer to their jobs. Whether it’s a primary concern, it’s hard for me to say. I think the major thing is if we can develop businesses and jobs, that’s our first priority. And then with that will come housing. And you can see a lot of new housing being built in this area and surrounding areas of Midtown.

Mark Souther [00:29:42] In fact, I’ve noticed apartments, well, the Montana apartments, for one, across from the old Tavern Club- [crosstalk]

Dan Sussen [00:29:50] Yeah, that’s- And the most important opportunity, it’s bringing people of all economic positions. It’s not public housing, it’s housing that, neighborhood housing, which is important.

Mark Souther [00:30:13] Are there any other aspects of Midtown Cleveland that you’d like to talk about today?

Dan Sussen [00:30:22] No, it’s, I would say the most- I think I’ve touched on all the important things of what we’ve been able to accomplish. I think because we’ve been so successful and we haven’t, I think we’ve been bypassed on support of some civic and elected officials. And I don’t even know if I can explain it. It’s just a feeling I have. I think we have some people, both elected and the private and the public, really do not understand the sincerity of the Midtown organization that they’re- This is not a group that’s self-serving. It’s a group that’s trying to serve. Yes, there’s some self-serving in it because their businesses are there. They own real estate. But that has never been an issue. And I’ve never worked with a group of people, and I’ve been involved in a lot of things over my career that have really care about public health, about Cleveland, Midtown, and I’m not sure that a lot of elected officials either believe that or pay much attention to it. If there were more Midtown organizations in the city of Cleveland, Cleveland would be a better place. And what we’ve been able to do in changing the area and being involved in such things as the Innerbelt programs, encouraging businesses to come in, Applied Industrial would never have been there if it wasn’t for Midtown. I served with the committee that we had to go to property owners, that we had to get to sell that, to make that piece of property. Meeting after meeting after meeting to get them to do it within the framework of civic responsibility, cleaning up crime. It would have never been accomplished without Midtown, and I’m very proud of what they’ve done and what they’re gonna be doing in the future.

Mark Souther [00:32:54] What are your thoughts, just to close, on the Euclid Corridor Project and what it means for Cleveland?

Dan Sussen [00:33:01] I think it’s obvious there’s always doom and gloom. It’s a problem now with the traffic, but it’s a very inexpensive venture compared to other cities. I travel a lot, I’m involved in a lot of things, I get into a lot of cities. And what we’re spending here is a tenth of the money that’s being spent anyplace else. And I think it’s just going to open up the whole avenue. And I think Crain’s just recently had an article about the good parts about the Euclid Corridor. I think when it’s all said and done, when the baby is born and has a chance to grow, it’s gonna make it very viable. It’s just going to extend University Circle to Playhouse Square and hopefully to Public Square. It’s an excitement- If we had Byrd from West Virginia as our senator, and if we had some very active politicians, that thing would have been funded the way it was originally done as a rapid [transit]. But we just don’t have that leadership. All you have to do is drive into West Virginia. Once you get over the Ohio River and you get into West Virginia, the roads are beautiful, and we just don’t have political leadership to get things done. I think you’ve heard me say that before, and I just-

Mark Souther [00:34:42] So we’re lucky to have Euclid Corridor?

Dan Sussen [00:34:45] Yeah. And it’s just like worrying about the Innerbelt, the cost. Yes, it’s a big item, but up in Boston, they didn’t have any problem digging that tunnel that was in the billions. I mean, it’s just that we don’t have the vision. We don’t have the leadership and the balls to get, to move this city ahead. We have water, we have workforce, we have housing, we have a great community, and we just don’t capitalize on it. It’s discouraging. But maybe it’ll get better. The sun will come out tomorrow.

Mark Souther [00:35:34] Well, I wanted to thank you again for coming down to be interviewed a second time. I really do appreciate it.

Dan Sussen [00:35:41] Well, I just- Sometimes I get too excited about things. And I just hope that you can help us sell not only Midtown, but Cleveland is a great place to live. But the sad part, we’re not getting young people like you into Cleveland and staying in Cleveland. And the only way we can do that is with jobs and opportunities. The only way we can have jobs and opportunity is having foresight of people that will get the job done. And unfortunately, at this stage today, we don’t have those people.

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