Financially, it made good sense for Andy Lewis to sell the family auto business. But for a self-described country boy who had spent his life selling and servicing Chevrolets, leaving familiar territory was a tough decision.
For almost 30 years, Lewis' family operated a Chevrolet dealership in Fairburn, Ga., about 30 minutes south of Atlanta.
He started working at the dealership when he was 9, helping out on the sales floor and filling orders in the parts department. Summers during his college days found him on the lot, where he eventually went to work full time.
In 1986, the family acquired a Jeep franchise in nearby Union City. Two years later, Lewis took over the operation when his father died. But he soon saw the market taking a direction he didn't like.
'The major dealers in Union City sold to Republic,' said Lewis, 43. 'I saw the wave of the future: megachains and consolidation. And when I saw that, I knew the time had come.'
Another problem was the dealership's less-than-ideal location. Tucked behind a mall, removed from the main road and a string of dealerships, the operation had less visibility than its competitors.
TIME FOR A DECISION
'To survive, we were going to have to relocate to a new building to be close to other car dealers,' said Lewis, whose facility included more than 20 acres and 97 employees. 'So in September 1998 I sold to Bill Heard, who was based in Columbus (Ga.).
'We'd been approached by the chain outfits, but I've known Mr. Heard for a number of years and I knew he wanted the company. It was his ninth dealership, and it fit in with his plans. He's a great operator, and I knew it would thrive under him.'
Lewis said there was more involved in the decision than money.
'I could have gotten more from a chain, but it was all tied to stock, and I wasn't interested in that,' he said. 'Mr. Heard was a cash buyer; he bought the building, the land, everything. He was fair and more than generous. It was an opportunity I thought I'd better take before the market changed in that area.'
The sale was well-timed for Lewis' partner, his mother. 'She had been my partner since my dad's death,' he said. 'But she's in her 60s and ready to travel. It ended the family business, but it was a profitable, good decision. Everybody knew it was the best thing to do; we've never looked back.'
Lewis got the same reaction from his employees, many of whom stayed on with the new ownership. 'I wasn't too worried about them,' he said, 'because I knew Mr. Heard ran some big stores and it would be a positive decision for them.
'That's why it was good to sell to an individual like him. He kept the people, made places for them. He wasn't into bringing in new people. He made the transition very easy for everyone. I remain friends with a lot of my old employees and talk to them frequently. I don't think they could blame me for selling.'
Lewis' brother-in-law, the former used-car manager in Union City, took over the family's used-car lot in Riverdale, Ga.
NEXT STOP: DODGE
Andy's sister, Teresa Lewis Henderson, is following him into a new venture. On Feb. 1 they will open a Dodge dealership in Newnan, about 25 minutes south of Union City.
The new outlet is on a 6.7-acre site. It will have one-third fewer employees than the Chevy dealership and will be easily accessible from an interchange of Interstate 85.
'Teresa controls the money; I sell the cars,' Lewis said with a laugh. 'I was tired of dealing with problems and not being on the showroom floor. I don't enjoy the paperwork and problems associated with a large store. In Newnan, all my eggs will be in one basket, with no more satellites. And I'm a country boy; I was ready to move farther south.
'I love to sell cars. I want to be hands-on, talking to customers. That will be unusual; in this age, the higher managers usually aren't on the floor. But this is a smaller, family-run place, and I'll be accessible.'
Lewis knows the personal touch is important.
'Being good to people helped us survive through two bad economies,' Lewis said. 'I just want to do things right; to meet people and be honest.'
Ten years from now, Lewis expects he'll be working 12-hour days in the Newnan showroom. 'If I hadn't sold (in Fairburn and Union City), I'd still be in this business somewhere. It's all I've known since I was nine. It's in my blood.'