Once known primarily as a General Motors-brand dealer, Ray Skillman has built his dealership group to become one of Indiana’s largest.

Ray Skillman Automotive has 17 franchises in 13 locations. Brands it represents include Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, Ford, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda and Mitsubishi, all in metro Indianapolis.

Skillman also operates Classic Cars, a collector-car sales and service group in Greenwood, IN.

Ray Skillman’s business decisions always have been strategic, says son-in-law Cory Delp, a partner in the GM stores. “Ray is conservative in his approach. And he has always said controlling expenses is the key.”

Skillman actually hails from Owensboro, KY, where he started in used-car sales and enjoyed remodeling old cars and classics. At 16, he bought his first car, a 1950 Ford Businessman Coupe. Ironically, he dropped a Chevrolet V-8 engine into the Ford.

After graduating from high school, Skillman opened his first used-car lot in Owensboro. He ran Skillman Auto Sales from 1960 to 1979. He acquired a Fiat franchise in 1971 after the Italian automaker first began importing models such as the Fiat Spider to the U.S. He bought a Mazda franchise in 1974, well before imports caught on in Kentucky.

In 1979, an Indiana deal beckoned and he became a partner in Stuart-Skillman Oldsmobile. He soon added GMC and Mitsubishi franchises. In 1988, Skillman bought out the Stuart family when Charlie Stuart retired.

Son Bill Skillman joined the ranks as Skillman’s growth began to take off. The group is still on the fast track 33 years later.

During the global economic crisis of 2008-2009, the Skillmans managed to grow their dealership base. “We didn’t fare as badly as many dealers in the country did,” Delp says. “Those dealers who got into trouble were often overleveraged.”

In the rough year of 2008, Skillman added a Chevrolet dealership, managed by Mike Blaettner.

Skillman liberally shares his philosophy with his 900 employees. His company mission is to provide a world-class customer experience in sales and service.

“All of our efforts are directed toward our goal of earning customers for life,” Skillman says.

Delp adds, “Ray’s customer philosophy is well-known. It permeates throughout the group. We know it’s the No.1 key to our success. Ray is visible in our showrooms every day.”

The group holds the No.64 spot on the WardsAuto Megadealer 100 with revenue of $606.7 million and new- and used-vehicle sales of more than 25,000 units in 2012.

Skillman Buick-GMC ranks No.69 on the WardsAuto Dealer 500. The store took in $140.2 million and delivered more than 5,000 new and used vehicles.

The Ford store ranks No.70 with $140.1 million in revenue and vehicle sales topping 5,000 units.

A new Ray Skillman Used Car Super Center opened this month to serve Indiana’s strong pre-owned car and truck market.

Partners in the Skillman group project $660 million in group revenues for 2013.

Dave Oldham is general manager and a partner in the group’s GM enterprise. He has managed GMC, Buick and former Oldsmobile stores for Skillman. Oldham predicts continued double-digit growth in 2014 at the Buick-GMC facility, citing GM’s new products and overall recovery.

“We are the largest local advertiser in the Indianapolis market, investing more than $13 million annually in lead-generation, digital marketing, social media and television,” Oldham says.

Skillman is known for a TV ad slogan, “Stack ’em deep and sell ’em cheap,” touting large inventories and bargain prices.

Despite success and strong sales projections, challenges remain. Among them are the capital costs of facility-upgrade construction projects required by some manufacturers, Delp says.

The Skillman group invested more than $10 million in dealership renovations for all of its franchised brands in recent years, regardless of upgrades urged by certain automakers.

“Growth and expansion are continuing goals here,” Ray Skillman says.

Company Profile:

What: Skillman Automotive Group.

Where: Based in Indianapolis with dealerships throughout Indiana.

Who: Founded by Ray Skillman.

Who Else: Also active in the business are son Bill Skillman, partner-owner; Cory Delp, son-in-law; grandson Drew Skillman; and granddaughter Ashley Halton.

Rank: No.64 on the WardsAuto Megadealer 100 with 13 stores and total revenue of $606.7 million in 2012.

Distinctions: GMC Dealer of the Year (3 awards) GMC, Buick and Chevrolet Mark of Excellence, Ford President’s Award, No.1 Roush dealer in the world and Mazda Gold Cup award.

Contributions: More than $3 million in the past five years to charities, schools, youth athletics, parks, food banks and veteran groups.

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