W. Foster Walker III sells German luxury cars and a lot of Hondas in Louisiana’s truck country.

Premium-car business is good enough that Walker Automotive Group in Alexandria, northwest of Baton Rouge, recently opened Mercedes-Benz and BMW showrooms and a service center.

The 35,000-sq.-ft. (3,251-sq.-m) construction project totaled $6 million. It is the latest expansion for the 4-store, 7-franchise organization.

Walker, a third-generation dealer, acquired the Mercedes franchise in 1974, followed by Honda in 1975 and BMW in 1985. He says he “got lucky” after expanding to import brands to shore up his General Motors-brand representation.

“There was just this awareness I had of something new and growing, so I went after it,” Walker says of the brand additions. “We had the room to expand, and we did.”

It has turned out well for him. He notes his GMC and Buick brands also are going strong. Kia and Mitsubishi brands round out his franchise portfolio.

Following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, Walker is president of the 92-year-old dealership group bearing the family name.

“This new location and building will enable us to reach more customers with increased visibility,” he says.

For years, the dealer chain has built a reputation as a prominent Honda seller. The auto maker is the No.1 seller in the region for 23 of the past 24 years, Walker says, calling his organization central Louisiana’s largest-volume dealer group.

A regular on the WardsAuto Dealer 500, Walker Automotive ranks No. 52 on the 2011 list.

The group posted more than $131 million in revenues in 2010, with the Honda franchise accounting for $36.6 million of that. Overall sales and revenues this year are about 5% higher.

Besides the new Mercedes and BMW showrooms, Walker in the past two years has expanded the Honda service department, opened a new collision center and added 10,000 sq. ft. (929 sq. m) of GM service-department space.

Still, Walker knows about handling adversity. He’s seen plenty since joining the family business in 1970 after college and Army service.

Recent challenges include GM’s bankruptcy and this year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan, a natural disaster that crippled auto production in that nation. Walker went from selling 75 to 20 Hondas a month, due to slashed allocations.

Adapting to a crisis “takes constant effort, organizing and ability to manage change,” Walker says. 

He takes pride in not laying off employees during the GM downsizing and overall market declines. He expanded the import lineup to cover his bases, acquiring the growing Kia franchise in 2010 to replace a Saturn dealership after GM killed that brand.

He employs 176 staffers and plans to hire more service technicians.

Mike Barbera, a 26-year veteran, is group general sales manager. Walker’s son, Foster Walker IV, oversees Honda operations, including customer relations and sales, service and parts activities. Daughter Amy Walker Searcy manages marketing, non-dealership assets and market analysis. 

Sales managers Donald Ayo (Honda) and Ray Leggio (used cars) have been with the group for 24 and 20 years, respectively. Nearly 40% of employees have been with the company at least 10 years.

Future expansion is a possibility, says Lawrence Searcy, Walker’s son-in-law, who serves as operations manager and legal counsel.

“We do not have any specific parameters for opportunities, other than to say we want to make well-thought-out decisions and acquire franchises that add to the value of the corporation.” 

Walker credits much of his group’s success to exceeding customer expectations. His company repeatedly has won the Better Business Bureau Torch Award for ethical practices.

 “If I am going to err, I will do so in favor of the customer,” he says.

 

PROFILE

Company:Walker Automotive Group, Alexandria, LA

President:  Foster Walker III

Employees: 176

Market: A region of more than 350,000 residents in central Louisiana.

Elected: Chairman of the Louisiana Automobile Dealers Assn., representing 325 dealers.

Mission statement: “Walker is 100% committed to honesty, integrity, quality and excellence – ingredients that define lasting customer relationships.”

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