Special Report

Ward’s
MegaDealer 100

HARPER WOODS, MI – A relatively small but noteworthy member of the Ward’s Megadealer 100 is the Stewart Management Group.

The group is based in this northeast Detroit suburb, but sells a lot of cars in three southern states where all but one of its outlets are located. It consists of four Chevrolet stores and a Toyota dealership.

The group totaled sales of 8,254 new and used vehicles in 2009, owing largely to pre-owned volume that was triple that of new units.

“That trend is continuing in 2010, with used cars hot,” says CEO Gordon Stewart, who foresees a good year for both new and used deliveries.

“We’re targeting for at least a 25% jump in sales above 2009 levels,” he says. “Signs are that the market is back like it was before the 2008-2009 recession, with leasing available across the board and incentives making deals very affordable.”

Stewart, 65, began as a Chevrolet dealer in Augusta, GA.

The Chevy store in Augusta is being replaced by an all-new structure under the brand's “IMAGE” modernization program, with a similar project planned for Gordon Chevrolet in Garden City, MI.

A 17,000-sq.-ft. (1,579-sq.-m) used-car building has been built at the Toyota store in Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham, AL. The Stewart Toyota-Scion store is managed by son Gordon Stewart, Jr., 40.

“Southern customers are a different breed than those in Michigan,” the senior Stewart says.

Susan Ianni, a 26-year employee is general manager of the Garden City dealership. “Susan is symbolic of the growing role of women in the dealership world as principals, managers and owners,” says her boss.

The Stewart dealerships’ 450 employees consistently vote their employer as the best in their communities, citing benefits and working conditions.

Stewart suspects “lawyers will try to make hay out of the Toyota (sudden-acceleration) situation. But Chevrolet over the years has gone through dozens of recalls and we’re used to handling them and keeping our CSI (customer satisfaction index ratings) up, to boot.”

A thoughtful and occasionally outspoken dealer who is respected by his peers, Stewart cites General Motors Co.’s mistakes over the past 20 years as the Saturn introduction, “overdealering” of Chevrolet in metro markets and reducing dealer margins, such as 3.5% for the Chevrolet Camaro.

It made no sense to create Saturn “and cut into Chevrolet dealers and the investments,” says Stewart. “Nor for GM to wait so long to pare down the Chevy dealership totals, as they’re trying to do now.

“My Toyota store in Birmingham has just two Toyota competitors. The Detroit Chevy dealership total has been cut, finally, from 46 to 31.”

Stewart is a fan of Internet selling, finding that up to 80% of shoppers go online to check Chevrolet and Toyota list prices and options.

His ad budgets are apportioned differently across his group's markets. He does 100% radio for the metro Detroit store. It’s all TV advertising in Birmingham; Augusta; Orange Park, FL, near Jacksonville; and Tampa, FL.

“Would I consider another franchise or new Chevy location?” Stewart asks. “Only if there were strong dealers in the mix and not a lot of losers.

“But we run optimistic at Stewart. We average 500,000 hits a month on our five stores’ Internet sites. That kept us busy and profitable through the first quarter of 2010 and GM's reorganization.