END OF AN EMPIRE: Jay Stelzenmuller reflects on selling his six dealerships

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 14, 2013 

On Monday morning, Columbus car dealer Jay Stelzenmuller was hours away from closing his biggest sale when he noticed workers on his massive Whittlesey Road removing the Jay signs.

He saw three decades and a lifetime of work being taken down letter by letter.

"I told them they might be putting those things back up if the sale didn't go through," Stelzenmuller joked.

They should have just replaced the signs with a big one that said: "Gone Fishing."

Last week, Stelzenmuller sold his six automobile dealerships and the nearly 25 acres of prime commercial real estate to Houston-based Group 1 Automotive for an undisclosed but substantial amount.

Stelzenmuller, at 67 years old, is an avid fisherman with a 46-foot boat docked at a Florida marina he partly owns on the Gulf of Mexico.

Asked what he was going to be fishing for in retirement, Stelzenmuller took the bait.

"Anything that is biting," he said.

Stelzenmuller can't discuss terms of the deal, but did say it was a "mutually satisfactory amount."

The deal was done in multiple parts with real estate being sold separately from the dealerships, then each dealership was sold independently. The real estate transaction, which was filed in the Superior Court clerk's office, was close to $25 million.

Over the years, Stelzenmuller has entertained offers to sell, but never could pull the trigger. The longer he held onto the dealerships, the more attractive they became.

"Many times over the years I had offers," he said. "For whatever reason fortune smiled on me and it didn't happen until now."

For Stelzenmuller, the sale was the culmination of a nearly half-century-long business career that saw him systematically grow a business dealership by dealership. By the time he sold, he owned the Toyota, Mazda, Buick-GMC, Subaru, Scion and Volvo brands, as well as a collision center. The dealerships will be carry the name Rivertown rather than Jay.

Stelzenmuller had a substantial corner of the Columbus automotive market, with Group 1 saying that the Jay dealerships should produce about $150 million a year in sales.

"What Jay has amassed in most markets is unprecedented," said Emanuel Jones, who bought the defunct Bill Heard Columbus Chevrolet and Cadillac dealership out of bankruptcy in 2008. "It is not just one mega store, it is a mega mall. It speaks directly to his knowledge of the car industry and his ability to manage a big business."

Building a business

Stelzenmuller spent the first 18 years of his working life preparing to own automobile dealerships.

First, he spent a dozen years, starting in 1966, working for CIT Corp., a company that financed vehicles and vehicle inventory. Then he spent a half-dozen years working for Avco Corp., in the commercial leasing business.

By 1983, he was ready to strike out on his own.

Stelzenmuller and his father, Jay Stelzenmuller Jr., acquired the Columbus Pontiac dealership out of bankruptcy in November of that year. Along with General Manager Gene Miller, they opened the store on Jan. 17, 1984.

Eight months later, Stelzenmuller's father died of a heart attack at age 64.

He was on his own.

Over the next decade he added about 10 new brands to his growing stable of dealerships and had stores scattered all over Columbus from Victory Drive to Box Road and from downtown to Midtown.

"It was an evolutionary process," he said.

The piece of the dealership puzzle Stelzenmuller was putting together fell in place in 1990 when he bought the Toyota franchise from Southeast Toyota.

He now had a signature brand.

By the mid-1990s, he began looking for something that made more business sense than dealerships flung far and wide.

"We came up with the concept of an auto mall," he said.

So he went searching for a model to replicate.

"I went all over the country," he said. "I went to California, South Florida, the East Coast and Detroit looking to find something that fulfilled my needs and desires."

He never found it, so he improvised, using one of the business buzzwords of the time.

"We were looking for a synergy," he said. "We wanted to combine the administrative functions, have one big body shop and a wholesale parts operation."

He found the property at Bradley Park and built the new-car dealerships in a horseshoe with the used-car sales in the middle.

Opening in 1998 at a cost of about $12 million, it evolved into the Jay Auto Mall on 24.5 acres of prime north Columbus real estate.

Finding success

Stelzenmuller stops short of calling what he built in Bradley Park an empire, but it reached about 300 employees at its height and had almost 275 employees when it sold.

"I don't know that it's a empire," he said, "but at one time -- and I haven't looked recently -- we were the 117th largest business in the state of Georgia."

What Stelzenmuller built has impressed even those who compete against him in the Columbus market.

Carl Gregory, the largest local automotive company with 15 dealerships in five Southern states, got his start as a general manager for one of Jay's stores in 1987.

"To this day, I appreciate him giving me the opportunity," Gregory said on Friday. "I am glad he is able to retire and I wish him the very best in the future. He has been a formidable competitor and a very good businessman."

Stelzenmuller survived the Great Recession that started in 2008 by tightening his operation.

"We made adjustments when we saw what was happening," he said. "And it came upon us very fast. But we made the adjustments. I took a 50 percent pay cut. I asked all of my senior managers to take a 25 percent pay cut. And they did."

Saturn and Pontiac disappeared in 2009 after General Motors eliminated them both during bankruptcy. Stelzenmuller added Volvo and Subaru in a purchase from Columbus Motor Co.

The fact that Group 1 Automotive out of Houston purchased the Jay Automotive Group also speaks volumes, Jones said. Group 1 is a public company that has been in full acquisition mode.

"They only go after the best-run and best-managed stores in the country," said Jones, who has been approached multiple times to sell his Columbus dealership.

"They look for stores with a strong reputation in the market. I am assuming he was paid quite well."

Going out the door, Stelzenmuller gave his employees a bonus. He would not disclose the amount, but it was based on employment longevity.

Asked why he had been successful, he pointed to the employees who have worked for him through the years. Group 1 retained almost all of Stelzenmuller's staff.

"I have attracted a tremendous group of talented people who have done an absolutely fantastic job of treating my customers in a superior way," he said.

As for Stelzenmuller, he is looking to spend more time at the Gulf. He is also real estate shopping.

"I have some capital gains I have to reinvest," he said.

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