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October 2000

On the Road With AAA’s
Marguerite D. Hambleton


Marguerite D. Hambleton’s life is strikingly similar to the growth of the agency she heads: From humble local origin to national prominence. The CEO of AAA Western and Central New York was born in North Buffalo, and following graduation from Lafayette High School came, via an employment agency, to what was then the Auto Club of Buffalo. She was hired as a secretary.

That was four decades ago. Today she runs the show at a AAA that has increased its membership more than tenfold and expanded from most of Western New York to all Western and Central New York locations. As a member of AAA’s national board, Mrs. Hambleton helps set policy and direction and makes sure that the original goal of championing motorists’ rights remains foremost.

Coming this far in her professional life was happenstance, to hear Mrs. Hambleton tell it. An immaculately-groomed woman who exudes an air of quiet confidence, she looks like she was born to be a CEO. In fact her early sights were set on becoming a teacher, and she says she took the job at the Auto Club with the intention of working her way through college. Instead she slowly moved up, like the club itself, assuming more responsibility and discovering, serendipitously, that she was good at something she’d grown to love.

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Marguerite (right) age 4 with sisters Johanna age 3 (left) Angela (center) age 1.

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Marguerite, husband George and pal Lucky.

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Sisters grown-up with mother and niece Marnie.

“I became a travel agent early on in my career,” she recalls. “It was a wonderful experience for a young woman to lead groups to exotic places like the Orient, Easter Island and South America. Remember, that was in an era when people saved all their entire lives to travel to those locations. I’m fortunate that AAA gave me the opportunity to see the world and I’m glad I got to share it with my clients.”

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Marguerite escorts an AAA “Bunny Hop” tour to Hawaii, 1967.

The next rung on the ladder was the management training program at the Buffalo Auto Club, one of the first in the country. With characteristic modesty, Mrs. Hambleton credits her rise to good fortune. “This office was a pioneer in promoting women and implementing a training program that allowed people to move up through the ranks,” she says. “To this day, most of our vice presidents are homegrown.”

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Photo taken during a 1973 interview with Maria Scrivani.

Within this milieu of opportunity, she flourished, proving herself, equal to new challenges, time and time again. In 1971 she was selected to manage the local club’s first branch office in Niagara County. Three years later, she was named corporate assistant secretary, in charge of all branch offices plus the travel agency, membership marketing and financial services. In 1979, she was named vice president, with added responsibilities that included the club’s much-vaunted emergency road service. By 1985, after successfully implementing the club’s management-by-objectives program for planned growth and profitability and overseeing the club’s equity and investment portfolio, she was named President and CEO. The job fit like a glove.

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AAA Niagara County Office Opening, 1971.

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Marguerite with gal pals from left: Marguerite, Janet Dimet,
Maureen Bowen, the late Honorable Dolores Denman, Pam Jacobs and Donna Irwin.

Still, somewhere in the back of her mind, Marguerite Hambleton was thinking about teaching. She continued taking classes in addition to working full time, earning a bachelor’s degree, a master’s and, eventually, a doctorate in business and economic history from the State University of New York at Buffalo. It is a measure of her determination that it took some 15 years to do so, all the while knowing that teaching may be a dream deferred until retirement, if and when that day comes.

For now, as for the past 40 years, she is fully enmeshed in AAA activities. The Buffalo club celebrated its centennial in June of this year, and Marguerite Hambleton was the star tub-thumper, telling the story of AAA success at various public functions and reiterating the commitment to membership service. “There have been so many changes in travel over the years,” she reminisces.

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Marguerite presenting luggage to the second prize winner of a contest held at the Amherst Grand Opening, 1981.

Vice Chair of the 15th Annual Channel 17 Great TV Auction, 1984.

“When I started in this business, a select group of people were traveling by steamship,” she says. It was an elite, well-heeled group who paid for exotic leisure. “Now travel of all kind has really become a mode of enjoyment for the masses, and I think that’s great.” The tremendous volume increase, especially in air travel, and the electronic revolution, from global positioning to computerized reservation services to digital dispatch of emergency road service, has transformed AAA.

Still, the more things change, the more they remain the same. The AAA mission—to provide service and value to the customer—appears carved in stone. “We’ve always had that service mission and we take it pretty seriously,” Mrs. Hambleton insists. “Some of our quality assurance programs have become the prototype for the whole country. In Western New York , one out of every two drivers is an AAA member. We provide more TripTik routings than any club per member; we sell more traveler’s checks.

This is a club that is really utilized by its members.”

The Buffalo Auto Club was founded on June 25, 1900, in this city that was, with some 17 car manufacturers in operation, a pioneering site for the fledgling industry. “Early motorists needed the camaraderie of others in the same sport (and it was essentially a sport at first, until doctors became the first professionals to use the auto in the performance of their duties),” Mrs. Hambleton relates. “There were many negatives associated with automobiles—horses were frightened, accidents occurred.

“The city imposed an eight-miles-per hour speed limit. Motorists who exceeded that were fined $500, a tremendous sum in those days. The auto club was really formed to ward off local anti-motorist legislation, and we still do that work, through our public and government relations department. We lobby for safety issues—we were very active in the seatbelt fight. We work to improve roads, also an early legacy from the days when auto clubs banded together to pave roads and plow them in winter to keep them safe, and even posted homemade road signs—before there were any official government highway departments.” A current project is championing the passage of an enhanced graduated driver licensing program in New York State for novice drivers, which the AAA sees as a crucial safety issue.

AAA’s clout in these matters comes from its strong leadership, wide membership base and vigilant attention to modern transportation issues, she says. “We have a tradition of speaking with one voice, and now we have 2.4 million members in New York State alone. We have a good name. People recognize the AAA brand as a symbol of reliability.”

That is certainly the face Marguerite Hambleton presents to the community in her role as CEO—strength, stability and a proud tradition of service. She expects those traits to carry AAA well into the new millenium, though with some changes in their distribution system. “Our RESPONSE program is working on data for in-car navigation systems and palm-held devices. We have a full data base that will soon be accessible via the internet. We expect to maintain our travel agencies and branch offices, and in that respect I see us as a `clicks and bricks’ organization.”

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The Senior Management Team members in 1980 with
hair Ed Marlette (seated center) V.C. Dr. Ray Gibbons
(seated left) and treasurer Jim Campbell.

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AAA Senior Management Team members in 1999, from left:
George & Marguerite Hambleton, Jerry & Nancy Hooven,
Valerie & Bill Warren, John & Jeannie Connors, Tony & Nancy Spade.

These days Marguerite Hambleton’s travels are more likely to be domestic, on business for the AAA national board. She and her husband George Hambleton (former owner of Brand Names, now retired) “hate to leave Buffalo in the summertime.” They enjoy their city house and a place on the Canadian lakeshore. To relax, she walks their beloved boxer Lucky, a dog whose name hints at his SPCA rescue. When she’s not perusing travel guides, she chooses histories and biographies for recreational reading.

Her position as CEO puts her in the forefront of community activities, and she views this as an opportunity to work for the betterment of Western New York. To that end, she has sat on the boards of dozens of organizations, from the Greater Buffalo Partnership to the Boy Scouts, as well as several local colleges and hospitals. Current board involvements include Western New York Public Broadcasting, Canisius College, the SPCA, HSBC Bank and The Buffalo Club.

Maria Scrivani is a freelance writer.


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