Jay Schmitt, 34
President, Jeff Schmitt Auto Group
Even during his own admitted “hard-headed teen-ager years,” Jay Schmitt respected and admired the hard work and sacrifices his father, Jeff, made for the family while he ran a car dealership in Springfield, Ohio.
In September 2016, the younger Schmitt returned the favor with a sacrifice of his own.
His dad’s health had been in steady decline for about seven years. Suffering from diabetes, he underwent dialysis multiple times every week while waiting for a kidney transplant that wasn’t coming.
“All the years of stress and the car salesman’s diet,” Jay Schmitt said. “So it was this slow degradation of his quality of life. It was terrible, especially when you have such a proud man. It was rough to watch him go through it.”
On his deathbed, Jeff finally acquiesced to Jay’s pleas to allow him to donate a kidney himself. Within two weeks, Jay was back at work, running the eight dealerships that his dad had assembled under Jeff Schmitt Auto Group over the previous two decades. Within about six months, his dad returned to his former self.
“He was like a kid again,” Jay said. “It was like the clock was rewound for 15 years. And for the next two years, I worked alongside him every day, when he was truly himself. What he was able to teach me and lead me to, and what we accomplished together, was nothing short of amazing.”
For the elder Schmitt, it was the culmination of a car-industry career that started in Fairborn, Ohio, where a neighbor who had an old DeSoto told a teenage Jeff it was his if he could get it running. He did.
He bought into his first store in the late 1990s. Fifteen years later, he owned eight dealerships which today employ 470 people.
“The biggest thing he taught me was that we’re successful because of our people,” Jay Schmitt said.
In October 2018, three of those employees were injured in a fire in the service department at one of their dealerships, and both father and son visited them in the hospital. They stopped for lunch on the way home, and Jeff Schmitt fell ill. At first, they thought it was a blood sugar imbalance, then Jeff passed out. He suffered a massive heart attack and collapsed in his son’s arms. He died four days later at age 64.
“On the way to lunch, he had told me how proud he was of me, and that it had been an honor to work alongside each other, and I responded with my love for him and thanked him for the opportunities he had afforded us along the way,” Jay said. “That was 20 minutes before he passed. So I couldn’t be any more at peace.”
Jay says that the dealerships have put together some of their best months recently, including sales records in March and April. He attributes the success to a group of employees who “put their boots back on and pulled through this thing.”
Perhaps it could equally be attributed to a son who’s working to honor his father’s legacy each and every day.
— Pete Bigelow