When he started out as a young sales consultant in his father’s Phoenix dealership in the mid-1990s, Scott Gruwell hit his first big sales target. “I guess we got lucky, Dad,” he told his father, William Gruwell.

William Gruwell, owner of the single-brand, family-run Courtesy Chevrolet stores replied, “There’s no such thing as luck, son. The harder you work, the luckier you get.”

When economic hard times devastated the country in the crash of 2008-2009, Phoenix was especially hard hit as the commercial market soured and the housing industry crashed.

“There was no tougher place than Phoenix when the recession took hold,” Scott Gruwell says. “I call it the Great Recession,” he says, recalling his grandfather’s stories of the Great Depression. But he and brother Mark, co-owners of their father’s stores, realized it was again hard work, not luck, that pulled them through. 

Those dark days are far behind. But the lessons live on.

“We got lean and mean quickly,” Mark Gruwell says. “During the General Motors crash, my brother and I had a very tough time as we had to lay off some good, long-tenure employees. We were really watching every dollar, every day.” 

The local housing recession meant their contractor business virtually disappeared. Looking back, he says, “The experience made us stronger, better.”

Courtesy Chevrolet is one of two stores owned and operated by Arizona-born William Gruwell, who joined San Francisco native Ed Fitzgerald, his father-in-law, as partner in the Phoenix location in 1981.

These days, the elder Gruwell leaves much of the day-to-day business to his sons, Mark joining the operation in 1994 and Scott in 1996, after both completed college. The store was founded in 1955 by Fitzgerald and then business partner Mitch McClure.  

The Gruwells and Fitzgeralds took over San Diego’s Courtesy Chevrolet in the early 1980s. It now is overseen by Mark Gruwell as dealer-operator.

The group’s flagship store in Phoenix is the No.1-selling Chevrolet store in the western region and the No.17 Chevrolet dealer in the country. It employs 255 people, down from a pre-recession count of about 450. The 18-acre (7-ha) facility is in Phoenix’s Camelback area. The San Diego campus is on six acres (2.5 ha) and has 122 employees, down from 250 at its height.

Courtesy ranks No.38 this year’s WardsAuto Dealer 500, with total revenue of $171 million. It sold 3,872 vehicles in 2012.

Mark Gruwell is predicting double-digit growth this year as auto sales increase.

“We’re ultra-competitive and driven to strive for excellence by realizing the customer is the most important asset we have,” says Scott Gruwell, crediting his father for that. “We have an absolute focus on the consumer.”

Having two central locations, strong parts and service operations and one of the country’s top commercial-fleet departments also helps.

Scott Gruwell says customers tell him they like dealing with “real owners.” He thinks family-owned dealerships have an advantage over corporate-owned stores. Courtesy builds advertising messages around its community and civic support.

Still, local competition is big especially among what Mark Gruwell calls the big six: General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda and Nissan. Other brands are trying to catch up. Many of Chevrolet’s top-volume stores are in the Phoenix market.

Tough competitors include megadealers such as the Van Tyl group and AutoNation, the country’s top dealership chain.

The Gruwell brothers’ brother-in-law, Jason Church, is sales director and oversees Courtesy’s Internet operations.

“The competition is fierce and maintaining a strong presence online is crucial,” Church says. “Of the top Chevy dealerships in the western region, the majority are based in Phoenix.

Courtesy remains No.1, “but it’s a daily battle to keep ahead, and on the digital landscape the competition is fierce.”

Africa-born Churchhad worked for a large global company in the U.K. and South Africa. He joined the family dealership “just in time to see the world turn upside down in 2008, so it was a real baptism of fire,” he says.

Internet marketing helps drive overall success, Church says. “If our Internet team has a good day, the store has a good day in sales.” The 12-person Internet department works leads, schedules appointments and “gets customers into the store,” Church says.  

Courtesy uses sophisticated online tools, he says.“We look at everything to see if it’s a good tool. We continually push our vendors to help us do more to win online and focus relentlessly on our online reputation. That’s vital to being No.1.”

The family believes in changing with the times. When GM called on dealers to upgrade their facilities as part of image-enhancement projects, the Gruwell brothers were ahead of the curve.

Phoenix store renovations began in 2007 before the current image program was launched. San Diego upgrades were completed in June. “Customers are so delighted with the changes; it’s improved our business overall,” Mark Gruwell says.

Both Phoenix andSan Diego are on the comeback trail. “The market is definitely getting stronger, and we’re seeing double-digit growth as demand for Chevy products gets stronger,” Mark Gruwell says. “New, used, fleet and service are all strong.”

He also points to better product of late. In a recent J.D. Power and Associates quality rating, GM nailed eight awards, including five for Chevrolet. Consumer Reports named the Impala the best vehicle in the midsize segment.

“GM is seeing the fruits of their labor in R&D (research and development,” Scott Gruwell says. “The new Silverado (pickup) is beautiful, and (several) vehicles are getting high accolades for quality. The leadership of GM is going in the right direction. There’s no reason Chevrolet can’t be a dominant global brand.”  

The ’14 Chevy Cruze clean diesel gets great fuel economy and the upcoming electric-vehicle version of the Chevy Spark subcompact represents “a complete culture change,” Scott Gruwell says.

Are there expansion plans in their future?

“Our plans are to grow the portfolio,” Mark Gruwell says. “You’ve got to be entrepreneurial and you’ve got to adapt to the times. We’ve done a great job of marketing our brand and company. It has helped us succeed in difficult times.”

His brother agrees. “The desire is there to expand what we do here in the future, and with other manufacturers.”

Sponsored by Ally