Scott Thomason didn't have any doubts about whether he wanted to sell to a dealer group. His only question was: Which one?
'I studied it for a couple of years,' says Thomason. 'I wanted to partner up with the company that had the best strategy long-term and a very solid organization.'
The result of Thomason's search was announced last May: Asbury Automotive Group in Conshohocken, Pa., would buy a 51 percent interest in Thomason Auto Group, which led the state of Oregon in dollar volume and unit sales, according to Thomason. Based in Portland, Ore., Thomason Auto had nine dealerships, handling Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Isuzu, Mazda, Nissan, Subaru, Suzuki and Toyota, along with three stand-alone used-car lots.
'We had an investment banker, Salomon Smith Barney, and we looked at our options - we had options - and this was the one we wanted to be with,' Thomason says. 'It was pretty clear who was organized and who wasn't.'
Asbury Chairman Tom Gibson was impressive, Thomason says, as were many of the company's executives. Beyond that, Thomason says he found them to be 'just nice people to work with.'
'I didn't want a confrontational relationship with someone, because it's just not worth it,' he says. 'No amount of money is worth it.'
Thomason stresses that, at 44, he wasn't looking to cash out. He holds stock in the company and has an employment contract, although he would not discuss details. Thomason is now president and CEO of Asbury Automotive Group Oregon.
'I'm too young to retire,' Thomason says. 'I wanted to stay in the business. I knew that things were going to change, but I wanted to be a part of the change and come out the other end of the change. At this point, I feel that I have.'
Thomason holds little hope that single-site or smaller dealers can remain independent.
'The industry is going to continue to consolidate,' he says. 'It's not going to stop. On the factory level, you'll see the same thing you did with Daimler and Chrysler. I think you're going to see this on the manufacturer side and on the dealer side.'
One of Thomason's main objectives is to help the process along by finding more Portland-area acquisitions for Asbury. He made his first move recently, buying Damerow Ford in Beaverton.
Thomason is familiar with expansion. After buying his father's 40-employee dealership in 1983, he built it to 900 employees and $544 million in sales by 1998. The Damerow acquisition adds about 300 employees, he says.
His role with Asbury is 'more work, I would think, but other than that it's as it was before.' However, he says, he delegates more day-to-day management of dealership operations.
'I actually have to rely on the managers in the company to operate the individual dealerships because, at this point, that is not something I can do,' he says. 'I'm really looking at this company globally, working on acquisitions and molding a culture.'
Part of that has been a strong effort to keep employees informed. On the day the sale to Asbury was announced, Thomason met with employees and answered questions before the move was made public. He stressed the continuity of dealership operations and the need to link with a larger group.
'I think employees, a lot of them, get nervous during change,' he says. 'They ask, 'Is this going to change my life? Are there going to be major changes?' And, clearly, there are not.
'I was available to them and answered any questions they had. Most of our employees can see how the industry is changing and are glad to be part of a company that is dealing with change in a positive way.'
Thomason had to explain the change to his school-age sons, telling them that 'they're still going to have opportunities. They're just going to be a little different than with a private company.'
Although Asbury is currently privately held, Gibson has said he intends to take the company public after building strong 'platform groups' in regional markets like Portland.
Thomason is very much attuned to that view of the future; asked what he expects in 10 years, he says, 'Obviously, I think we'll be public and I think we'll be a very large company. I think Asbury will have a very strong base with good dealers in the markets they choose to attack.'
That possibility outweighs any misgivings Thomason might have about selling.
'I'm excited,' he says, 'because I'm going to be a part of the change.'