Reneé Birman is right where she wants to beReneé Birman – former car sales and finance guru – is sold on Cloquet. In fact, sometimes it seems like Reneé and her husband Al got Cloquet Ford Chrysler – they purchased the business in late 2008 after working there since May 2006 – and Cloquet got Reneé in return.
Reneé Birman – former car sales and finance guru – is sold on Cloquet.
In fact, sometimes it seems like Reneé and her husband Al got Cloquet Ford Chrysler – they purchased the business in late 2008 after working there since May 2006 – and Cloquet got Reneé in return.
The former finance director’s role has changed enormously since she and her husband, Al, along with partner Mike Larson bought the business. As the auto dealership has grown (despite the economy, despite Chrysler declaring bankruptcy), so has Reneé’s involvement in the
“I don’t know what I am [in the business],” she mused. “I guess I am more in leadership in the community, but … my dream is giving back. We’ve been so blessed. We wanted to open up our own car dealership and God’s given us three. [Birmans also purchased smaller dealerships in Moose Lake and Scanlon.] What’s ahead is even bigger, I know it.”
While a listing of everything she’s involved in is certainly in order, it would in no way describe Reneé herself.
As a child, she dreamed of being an opera star. As a young adult, however, she realized that studying opera took all the fun out of singing. So she still sings – in various groups, at weddings and funerals, ballgames, church, whatever – for the pure joy of it.
She is beautiful, but talks openly of being a really “big” girl and having weight loss surgery.
She and her husband just bought one of Cloquet’s oldest and finest homes – the Weyerhauser home at 1 Park Place – but both of them grew up without a lot of money.
She brings God into conversation frequently, but not in a preachy way. In fact, Reneé isn’t actually a confirmed member of any religion, despite being baptized Catholic and being the cantor at Cathedral Catholic Church in Superior. She’s into the spirituality of Christianity, but wants no part of the rules or judging of others that too frequently pass for
And the story of her romance with husband Al Birman, well, it simply has to be heard.
They met when Reneé was struggling to find a full-time teaching job and struggling to make ends meet. Al’s girlfriend actually introduced them, and he proceeded to tell Reneé that she should go into the car business.
“I thought he was nuts,” she said. “But, I did. And I cried almost every day; I thought it was horrible. [She laughed.] Customers can be mean. I was so thin-skinned back then, but I was good at it. I like people.”
That was April 1997. Shortly after hiring Reneé, Al moved to a different dealership, but the pair – who were each dating other people – kept in touch. Al would have boxing parties, Reneé would go sometimes, her family members actually went more often. Then, on Halloween, Reneé and her boyfriend split up. In early November, Al’s girlfriend left him.
“We had become the best of friends, but I wasn’t interested in him,” Reneé said, enjoying the retelling of the tale. “He was 10 years older than me, divorced, he had two kids, you know? Also, he had left Northstar Ford right after he hired me, so we didn’t even work together. He was doing finance up at Eggebrecht’s; I was wanting to get into finance and we were just friends.
“Anyway, he told me as a friend that a customer had asked him out on a date and I got super jealous. That’s when I knew I was in love with him,” she said, dropping her voice to almost a whisper. “… I just thought it was sick, just like kissing your brother. [Again, she laughed.]
“I called my sister. ‘Jessica,’ I said, ‘I’m in love with Al.’
“‘Shut up,’ she said.
“I said, ‘I know, I’m gonna have to sell my house, I’m gonna have to move, this is so awful.’”
She went on a little more about the tremendous inner turmoil this discovery of deeper feelings prompted. Quickly fate – and Al – intervened.
“A finance lender had a little get together at Grandma’s and Al invited me, telling me it was a good way to start meeting other finance people and start getting into the business. So I went.
“When he picked me up, he told me, ‘I got you a card.’ I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, he got me a card. It was THE FRIEND card. ‘You’ve been such a good friend, up the hill and down the hill, blah, blah, blah.’ I’m just like, oh great. Then he said, ‘I got you something else.’ Well, after his girlfriend had taken everything, we’d gone shopping at Pier 1. I love horses. I collect them, used to show horses, love ’em, love ’em, love ’em. There was this cute little $29 horse at Pier 1 and I couldn’t afford it. I was so broke. Well, he reached behind the seat of the car and said ‘Here, I got you this.’ He got me the horse. Well, now I’m just like done. We got to this bankers’ meeting and I’m just beside
She made it through the evening, however, and then, when he was driving her back to her car at work, Al grabbed her hand and held it to his chest.
“He says ‘Reneé, you’re my best friend and I’ve fallen in love with you and I don’t know what to do about it because I’m afraid it’s going to ruin everything,’” she related.
“I’m just like, ‘Me too,’ and we just sat in the car and we planned the rest of our lives. So that was it.”
It was a week before Thanksgiving.
“We dated nine days,” Reneé said. “He went and asked my mom and dad. He and my sister went and picked out my wedding ring – it’s called Aria, I’m a singer you know, so it’s kind of special and very beautiful – and he proposed the night before Thanksgiving and we got married on Feb. 28.”
Call it faith or intuition – or a combination of the two, more likely – when Reneé listens to what her gut tells her, things seem to work out.
Both Al and Reneé had never thought about moving to Cloquet to start a business, but when Pete Nelson was looking for a new general manager and called Al to see if he’d interview for the position, it was a move that felt right.
Of course, it’s the details of the story that make their move to Cloquet truly interesting. It was May of 2006 and Reneé was having Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery in the Twin Cities.
“At that time, I used to be very overweight,” she said. “I lost over 130 pounds. I talk about it openly because – you know what – it changed my life and it really helped me. I was a big girl. Anyway, that’s when Pete had called Al. I was down in the Cities, so Al brought me down for my surgery and then would drive home for the interview with Pete, drive back down and then come back and interview … this went on for a week.”
At that time, Reneé had a very successful career. She was making good money working for the Luther Group and liked it.
“When Al came back to see me after his interviews with Pete, he says, ‘You know, Reneé, I think this is a dealership we could own someday. Pete is in his 60s, he’s gonna want to retire sometime and I really think this is a place we could own.’”
By the end of the week, Al had accepted the position and told Pete he wanted him to meet Reneé and have her work there as well. Pete, “being the old-school pistol he was,” Reneé said, “he’s like, ‘I’m not hiring a husband and wife and I’m not hiring another woman in finance.’”
But he agreed to meet her the following week. Reneé said she still can’t believe how that first meeting went down, because she didn’t go in with a plan.
“I walked in and walked up to him and said, ‘Pete Nelson, Renee Birman. The only reason I’m here today is I want to own your store someday. If that scares you, then I guess this meeting is over.’”
“Those words came from God, because I cannot believe to this day that I said that,” she said. “But I knew that if I came to work for Pete I wouldn’t be making as much money, but I had a goal. I knew what the prize would be to work for. … I had good feelings and I knew God was leading me down this road and it felt right. So after lots of praying, planning and faith, I was there.”
In January 2008, much sooner than either of them had anticipated, Nelson told them he was ready to retire and wanted to give them first shot at buying the business.
“My jaw just about hit the ground,” Reneé said. “I thought it would take 10 years, realistically.”
She called her high school friend, Mike Larson, who had told them when they started at Cloquet Ford Chrysler that he would like to be a part of any purchase they made.
“I asked him, ‘You in or you out?’” she said. “He says, ‘You and Al eat, sleep and breath the car business; I’m in.’ So we established a partnership. Mike lives up in Culver; he’s our third partner, our silent partner.
“What normally takes about a year to do took us about nine months because Pete was relentless,” she commented.
When they bought the business, they had 29 employees. Now they have 54, counting Al and Reneé. Not only is that business doing well, so are two other businesses the Birmans have purchased since then.
And now they’re expecting their first baby in March. (Al and his first wife, Connie Morris, have two children, which he and Reneé helped raise. His daughter, Amanda, is 22 now, while son Cody is 16 and attends Hermantown High School.)
Again, it seemed that God had a hand to play.
“We tried for two years, did the whole fertility thing, wasn’t getting anywhere,” Reneé said. “I’d seen a medical show saying that fertility medication doubles your chance of having a child with autism, plus my sister had just had a baby and she was struggling because the kid never slept. So I just threw my hands up in the air and had a little chat with the guy upstairs and said ‘I’m done. You’re in control, why am I trying to make this happen, it’s all up to you anyway. If you want me to be a mom, I will be and I’ll be grateful. And if I’m not meant to be a mom, I’m OK. Either way, I’m good.”
Two months later, off her fertility medication, Reneé got
And there’s no place she’d rather raise that baby than in the heart of Cloquet, with her best friend/husband by her side.
“I’m so excited to have my baby grow up in this community and be part of it,” Reneé said. “It is a small, warm community. I love it.”