George Schaus put 50,000 to 70,000 miles on his car every year. He was a salesman based in the Pittsburgh area for a company that sold gaskets and packaging for machinery, driving western Pennsylvania's hilly terrain to meet with customers.
So he would come back to his Chevrolet dealer to trade in his old car and buy a new one -- every year, for 50 years.
A dealership only earns that kind of loyalty by taking care of its customers and their cars. Colussy Chevrolet Inc., founded on Aug. 1, 1918, has always made servicing vehicles a top priority.
"There's always been a very strong service operation," says Skip Colussy, one of the dealership's owners. "We took care of cars from stem to stern. It's been a godsend for our business to keep it going during slow times."
Indeed, servicing cars is deeply embedded in Colussy Chevrolet's DNA.
The store's founder, Albert Colussy, was just 12 when he was assigned the task of maintaining a 11/2-ton Republic truck that his father bought for the family's building contracting business in 1913. He also was the truck's driver.
Albert's mechanical talents led him to want to set up his own shop. When he was 16, his father, Italian immigrant Louis Colussy, acquired the Elgin Automobile Co. franchise for Bridgeville, on the southwest side of Pittsburgh, with the understanding that the son would run the business.
Founder Albert Colussy lived above the original showroom.
He did for three years, until 1919. But in 1918 Albert bought his first Chevrolets. Impressed by their performance, he applied for a Chevy franchise. Again, his father signed the one-page document for the underage son.
From there it became a family affair -- and a family rivalry.
After two years of running the franchise by himself, Albert, one of Louis' six sons and two daughters, began hiring his siblings. He started with his brother Gilbert, who became his business partner in 1922. At one point all six brothers worked at the Chevy store.
In the early 1930s, though, the Ford franchise in Bridgeville came open. Brothers Ernest, Alfred and Elmer acquired it, forming E&A Motor Co. For 51 years, some Colussy brothers sold Chevys and some sold Fords. "They'd argue about which was better" at every family gathering, recalls Skip. The Ford store closed in the mid-1980s when none of those brothers' heirs were interested in taking over the business.
In 1972 Albert turned over his portion of the business to Skip. Today, Skip, 83, still owns a stake, but day-to-day operations have been passed along to his two sons.
Skip insisted his sons start in the service, maintenance and detailing side of the business. Tim Colussy did so, but began selling cars between his junior and senior years of college and rose through the sales ranks. Jon Colussy joined straight out of high school and never looked back. He inherited his grandfather's mechanical gifts, and has restored a 1956 Chevy, a 1969 Chevelle and other vehicles.
Today, Jon, 46, as dealer owner, runs the service operation, including a large collision center two doors down from the main store. He also shops the used-car auctions.
Tim, 53, is the dealer principal and oversees the sales operations. The two brothers' offices are behind a crowded showroom packed with just under a dozen cars, including two Corvettes, a nod to the Steel Town Corvette Club the store has sponsored for almost 30 years. Pickups, including those for the dealership's thriving commercial-vehicle business, are all outside. The store is no Taj Mahal, but it's clean and well lit.
Tim's oldest son and daughter haven't shown any interest in the business yet, but his youngest son, Dan, 21, has been selling cars and working in the detailing shop since early this year. In late May, he joined his grandfather, father, uncle and a visitor for lunch. The soft-spoken men greeted the waitresses by name, who in turn asked about Skip's wife's health.
At lunch, the Colussys tell tales of unloading cars from boxcars at a railroad siding a few blocks from the original store. Albert and later Skip would pull the cars out with hand jacks, trying not to dent them, and then add gasoline; Chevrolet wasn't allowed to ship cars with fuel in the tanks.
In 1927, Albert, Gilbert and Arthur were at a Chevrolet dealer meeting in Pittsburgh when a fire gutted their showroom and their homes on the second floor. They immediately rebuilt.
The service department in the early days.
Surviving the Depression
During the Depression, the brothers relied on gasoline sales, a towing service and their body shop. "We're working people," Skip says bluntly. "You do what you have to do to put bread on the table."
In 1974, the dealership moved from its main street location to a site just off a major freeway, still in Bridgeville. They had just started making payments on a large new mortgage when Chevy's big Caprices clashed with the long gasoline lines of the Arab oil embargo. Again, the service department got them through.
The Colussy family doesn't regret remaining a one-store, one-brand business.
For years they didn't have much choice: General Motors barred Chevy dealers from dualing. But in 1986, Skip invested with a nonfamily partner in a Cadillac-Oldsmobile store in nearby Washington, Pa. Today he calls that "a big mistake." Olds was losing its direction, and the venture didn't work out.
With Chevrolet, says Tim, "You felt you had pretty much everything. Chevy built it; you sold it." Adds Jon: "It's always been America's brand."
They shake their heads over Chevy's brief experiment with the Geo subbrand. "We were always a little confused about what we were doing with that," says Tim. Today there's no confusion. Sell cars and trucks; then service them.
GM is pushing dealers to boost customer retention in the service business, but Colussy Chevrolet is way ahead of the pack. When GM, led by North American President Mark Reuss, began the push, its dealers on average saw 20 to 25 percent of their new-vehicle customers come back to the selling dealership for service within 12 months.
"We've always been 20 percent higher than that," says Tim. His dealership currently sees about 55 percent of its new-vehicle buyers come back for service.
"My zone manager says, 'You guys are off the charts!'" he adds. "I say, yeah, but there's another 45 percent ... "
• Where: Bridgeville, Pa., near Pittsburgh
• Founded: Aug. 1, 1918
• 2010 vehicle sales: About 1,300 new and used
• 2010 revenue: $42 million
• Owners: Skip, Tim and Jon Colussy
• Secret to longevity: Service department, including a large collision shop. Roughly 55% of new-vehicle buyers return for service within 12 months of their purchase, about 20 percentage points higher than the GM average.