Two years ago, many people regarded Chrysler as a dying duck in the water. Now, Kentucky’s largest dealership group regards the auto maker’s franchises as hot prospects.

Sam Swope Auto Group, based in Louisville, expanded its Chrysler portfolio in that city by acquiring a Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram facility in August.

“Strategically, this store made sense because it’s located on the same car-shopping strip on the southwest side of town as our several other stores,” dealership group CEO Dick Swope says. “So we can take advantage of marketing synergies.”

Chrysler products have gained momentum in the marketplace “with new designs that are exciting and fuel-efficient,” he says. “We see it as a growth franchise.”

Sam Swope Auto Group has 19 franchises stretching from Louisville to Elizabethtown, Radcliff, Richmond and Lexington, KY; and to Clarksville, IN.

A new Fiat 500 showroom will push the total to 20 soon. And that’s after losing two Saturn and three Pontiac stores following General Motors’ restructuring in 2009.

Swope Fiat opens by year’s end in the original Pontiac Louisville location.

“Given the advance interest we’ve been able to gauge, we expect the Fiat 500 to be an immediate hit in the market,” Dick Swope says.

“The challenges with this new dealership will be the same as with any startup, but we believe this is the right car at the right time.”

“Sam’s influence still is felt in a big way,” Dick Swope says of his uncle. “When he is in town, he attends management meetings and actively participates.

All of our managers look up to him as having the vision that built this company to where we are today.”

Sam Swope and his brother Bill, Dick’s father, started with a single Dodge and Plymouth store in 1952 in Elizabethtown. The GM business began with Pontiac in 1961.

Swope expanded to import brands in 1967 by adding Toyota points in Louisville and Elizabethtown. Honda followed in 1972 and BMW in 1977. Nissan and others came later.

The group represents Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge-Ram; Buick-GMC and Cadillac; Toyota-Scion and Lexus; Honda and Acura; BMW; Ford; Volvo; Suzuki; Mitsubishi; and Nissan-Infiniti.

Swope Auto ranks No.38 in the Ward’s Megadealer 100 and its Honda operations notched No.91 on the Ward’s Dealer 500.

Total 2010 group revenue (including affiliates) was $583 million, compared with $527 million in 2009, a dark year for the auto industry. “We are anticipating about a 6% increase in 2011 vs. 2010,” says Swope.

Swope management helps staffers understand complex business issues while promoting a “fun” culture, Dick Swope says.

“There just are not enough hours in the day, but we try to be present in the dealerships whenever possible,” he says.

“We rely on highly skilled general managers in each store, who understand our philosophy of customer and associate treatment.”

The dealership group employs more than 1,000 staffers. Training and customer satisfaction are priorities. Employees earn “extra-mile awards” based on customer satisfaction measurements and going beyond the call of duty.

Dick Swope is responsible for day-to-day operations. All dealership managers report to him. He worked for Ford after college and joined the family business in 1977 as a sales associate, then became a Cadillac dealer.

  • “Even though we deal in products that are many thousands of dollars, the fact is we are in a nickels-and-dimes business, which relates to our small profit margins and the need to control costs.”
  • “We are happy to have all of our new-car franchises, but we can’t be successful unless we act like used-car dealers who happen to have a new-car franchise.” (The Swope organization is the region’s largest used-car seller.)
  • “When you’re green, you grow. When you’re ripe, you rot.”

Patti Swope, Sam’s daughter, has been with the family business since 1985. As executive vice president, her diverse duties include facility-planning management and community outreach.

She is on various boards, such as the local Humane Society. Her website and tweets cover everything from football games to industry news.

The Swope group supports Boy Scouts of America as well as various schools and colleges.

Dick’s brothers, Carl and Bob Swope, operate the Elizabethtown stores, including multiple domestic and import franchises.

Many people in the organization cite Sam Swope’s sayings. Among them:

  • “Even though we deal in products that are many thousands of dollars, the fact is we are in a nickels-and-dimes business, which relates to our small profit margins and the need to control costs.”
  • “We are happy to have all of our new-car franchises, but we can’t be successful unless we act like used-car dealers who happen to have a new-car franchise.” (The Swope organization is the region’s largest used-car seller.)
  • “When you’re green, you grow. When you’re ripe, you rot.”

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