Albert Kleeman, founder of Chesapeake Ford Truck Sales, who often did business on the basis of a handshake, died in his sleep July 20 at his Pikesville home. He was 93.
"I've known Al for more than 50 years. He was always very proud of his ethics and honesty and was always very forthright," said Jerry C. Turnauer, who established Bayshore Ford Truck Sales Inc. in New Castle, Del., in the 1960s.
"His reputation preceded him wherever he went. Most dealers are pretty outspoken, but Al was always ahead of the charge," Mr. Turnauer said.
The son of Sam Kleeman, a scrap dealer, and Sara Kleeman, a homemaker, Albert Kleeman was born and raised in Philadelphia, where he graduated from John Bartram High School.
He began working as a 10-year-old with his father in the scrap business located in southwest Philadelphia.
"People would bring in automobiles for scrap and my father would fix them up, get them running, and sell them," said a son, David H. Kleeman of Owings Mills, who is president of Norris Chesapeake Truck Sales LLC, part of the Norris Automotive Group.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Mr. Kleeman's father suggested that he enlist in the Navy at age 17, rather than wait to be drafted.
Trained as a radioman, Mr. Kleeman served aboard small seaplanes — so small that he called them "tuna cans" — in searching for Japanese aircraft and ships off Hawaii.
He was aboard a ship anchored in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945, family members said.
After being discharged in 1946 as an aviation radioman second class, he returned to Philadelphia and, under the G.I. Bill, enrolled at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
He left Wharton and took a job working in administration for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Later, tiring of railroad work, he rejoined his father in the scrap business in the late 1940s.
Mr. Kleeman left that business in the early 1950s when he purchased a Dodge dealership in Philadelphia that sold both cars and trucks.
He sold that dealership and decided to focus on selling trucks, so he went to work for Rice & Holman in Maple Shade, N.J., one of the largest Ford dealerships in the state that sold trucks.
In 1967, the Ford Motor Co. called Mr. Kleeman and inquired if he was interested in establishing a Ford truck dealership in Baltimore.
He and his wife, the former June Goldenberg, whom he married in 1960, moved to a small home in Mount Washington and in 1967 established Chesapeake Ford Truck Sales on Pulaski Highway in eastern Baltimore County. The business specialized in selling dump, moving and trailer trucks.
"He was a workaholic and worked seven days a week, rarely taking vacation," wrote granddaughter Erica Kleeman, of Owings Mills, in a biographical profile of her grandfather. "He, along with my grandmother, built up a small business into one of the largest truck dealerships on the East Coast."
"Al loved selling used trucks. That was his real forte," recalled Mr. Turnauer, who got acquainted with Mr. Kleeman when he worked as a "factory guy" for Ford Motor Co. "If I could sell Al I new truck, then I knew we were doing something right. He was very persuasive and we respected him."
"He had such a bond with customers and a close association with them," said his son, who went to work in the business nearly 30 years ago and was joined by his brother, Steven L. Kleeman of Pikesville.
"He was so honest that he did business with just a handshake," he said. "He taught us to take care of the customers and employees. Our employees are a unique family, and some are second-generation."
"His customers couldn't help but love him," Mr. Turnauer said. "He looked at it as a relationship business — which meant he had many repeat customers."
As an active member of Ford's National Dealer Council, the American Truck Dealers Association and the National Automobile Dealers Association, Mr. Kleeman had a wide following.
"Dealers were always calling him for advice and looked up to him because he really understood the business and was trusted," his son said.
"Al was vocal and blunt at these meetings," said Mr. Turnauer,who recalled one of Mr. Kleeman's appearances before Ford's vice president of worldwide truck sales regarding profit margins.
"Al rose from his seat, and as he approached the vice president, his voice rose, and he ended up poking his fingers into the man's chest," he said. "We were all spellbound."
"He was always very proud of Ford," his son said.
Giving his larger-than-life personality, Mr. Kleeman exuded success. Mr. Turnauer recalled one time that he and several other dealers were sitting in an airport lounge after attending a dealer's meeting.
"A woman heard Al talking. She stopped, walked over, and said, 'I can tell you're a very successful businessman,' " he said.
Even though he retired more than 15 years ago, Mr. Kleeman continued working part-time for five years, his son said.
Mr. Kleeman lived in Randallstown from 1970 to 1990, then moved to Pikesville.
His wife died in 2001.
He enjoyed traveling and reading about World War II, biographies and history.
He was a member of Beth El Congregation.
Funeral services were held Sunday at Sol Levinson & Bros. in Pikesville.
In addition to his two sons and granddaughter, he is survived by another son; Adam B. Kleeman of Reisterstown; and five other grandchildren.