Later this month, Carl Gregory will turn 65.
If you measure success by how many cars he has sold, the Columbus-based automotive dealer has been successful beyond all measure. He owns 16 dealerships and has built a company that did $500 million in business last year. The 2008 financial crisis that hit the auto industry hard is in the rear view mirror.
He is grooming his oldest son, Jason, to take over Carl Gregory Enterprises. His youngest son is 7.
In his words, life is good.
Recently, he sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams to talk about cars, business and life.
Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.
Since we last talked in 2008-2009, the automobile industry in Columbus has changed a little bit, hasn't it?
You know, we're still selling cars. It's just maybe different people who are selling the brands that were here, and a few brands have left and a few brands came onboard.
You came to Columbus how long ago?
April 15, 1987.
I entered into a partnership with Jay Stelzenmuller and a fellow by the name of Gene Miller. And that started on Box Road back in the '80s, and in a couple of years -- I think Feb. 1, 1989 -- I bought out my partners and the rest is history.
What were you selling?
At that time, Chrysler, Plymouth and Saab. And when that's all you have to sell, you learn how to be good at that. Saabs weren't the hottest thing in the Southeast. They are cold weather cars, nice cars, but we became a leading Saab dealer for quite some time.
You came here 30-something years ago. This market was dominated by ...
... Bill Heard, Bill Heard and Bill Heard. It was Bill Heard and the 11 dwarfs.
If you look now, obviously Bill Heard is gone -- I mean, wiped out in 2008 by the financial crisis. How does somebody as large as Bill Heard get wiped out and somebody like you survive?
Well, look, I don't know if I have an opinion that is valid on Mr. Heard. I respect the Heards. They were here for a long time. They are fine upstanding members of the communty. I have nothing but the greatest respect for him.
You know, personally speaking, I think they were heavy into one brand and that was Chevrolet. I believe, once upon a time, they had 10 percent of the entire production went through Heard Enterprises. When times got tough, there was no diversity in their business. We on the other hand have diversity -- European to domestic, to Japanese, to Korean. I guess it's kind of like having a stock portfolio where you want some diversity rather than having all your eggs in one basket.
Where did you learn that philosophy?
Well, I don't know if I really learned it. It just makes sense; it makes business sense. You know, regardless of how you manage your personal life, you should never have all of your money in cash -- you should have some real estate, you should have some stock, you should have some cash. And that way, regardless of what happens within one of those demographics, you know you're going to be in pretty good shape.
As you started acquiring dealerships, was diversity of brand at the top of your mind?
Diversity was near the top, but I tell you, opportunity -- opportunist things -- were on the top of our mind. We were able to acquire dealerships at very, very reasonable prices. Some would call us bottom feeders. We picked up a lot of stores that were either on the verge of bankruptcy or were just not being managed properly. We went into those stores, we applied our system of doing business, and instantly those stores turned around and became successful.
So, how do you turn around a failing automobile dealership?
You know, Chuck, look, it's a people business, and regardless of what the franchise or the product is, it's all about people. We have a process or processes in place that we do the same way whether it's in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama -- whether it's Ford, or whether it's Chrysler, or whether it's Honda -- and we follow those processes to a T.
At 64, are you still hands-on?
I am. My son Jason basically runs the day-by-day operations in Columbus. He's got three of my beautiful little granddaughters ...
How many grandchildren do you have?
I have six. Just got a new one about a year ago, so we're here to stay. We love Columbus, and I'll tell you, I wish I had been here 10 years sooner. It's a wonderful place to live.
But by the end of the day, Jason kind of manages the day-by-day operations of everything in this area. I am more mobile, so I travel more to the East Coast, Tennessee, Alabama, but we do things together.
Are you always looking for another store?
I have to tell you, we're opportunistic. We're looking at a couple of potential acquisitions. We're rebuilding a store up in the Chattanooga-Fort Payne area. We've got a new one coming out of the ground in Savannah. So, you know, whatever opportunity is there.
You're a student of this business. What did you learn in 2008 as established dealerships started going under?
First of all, I've got to correct you: I'm not a student of this business. I tell you, I think 90 percent of life is luck, and quite frankly, I've been very lucky. But one thing I did figure out is the harder you work the luckier you get. So, there's a correlation there.
But going to 2008, we sensed the recession coming. Things can only stay so good for so long.
My parents raised me and I saved almost a quarter of every dollar I ever made. So, we try to have no debt, or very little debt. That obviously gives us an advantage in doing business when times get tough. We own our facilities free and clear, so I can adjust rent factors, which most dealers can't. I can't speak for others, but we are very cognizant of expense control. We are very cognizant of trying to take care of our people. So again, people are the core of this business. We've got tons of folks who have been with me 20-25 years.
How many employees do you have?
It changes, but I suspect somewhere in the 600 to 700 (range). I don't know the exact number today.
So, as 2008 hit, as the slide started, you were in a cash position that you were able to just ride it out, right?
Yeah. I remember someone came to see me when the bankruptcy took place and asked me what I thought.
When the GM and Chrysler bankruptcy took place. I think someone asked me the question, "Should the government bail out Chrysler?" and I thought, well, nobody has ever bailed me out, and I really personally don't think they should have been bailed out. It would have obviously hurt me, but look, I had other operations and I'm in the used car business, so we would have survived that as well.
So, you don't think the government should have bailed out Chrysler?
You know, I think that if there's a bad model in place, it's got to be changed. Now has it been changed? Absolutely. Has it been changed to the better? Certainly. Could the government have allowed them to fail? Probably not, because I understand that about a third of all jobs are somehow related to the automobile industry, whether it's steel, tires or manufacturing.
So, you've got to think beyond that. But you know, companies have to be responsible for their actions. And I don't know about Chuck Williams, but if Chuck Williams makes some bad personal decisions, I don't know where you can go and somebody's going to say, "Hey look, that's OK, we're going to give you the money and restart you." That's not the nature of business in and of itself.
So, business is accountability?
Absolutely. I have to be accountable every day for all of my actions. And I think everyone should be held to the same level of accountability.
You're talking individual and corporate?
Your thoughts on the Chrysler stuff is very interesting. So, you don't think something can be too big to fail.
Look, nations rise and fall. Governments rise and fall. Businesses rise and fall. But usually, I guess -- it's almost like a when a tornado or hurricane comes -- maybe it's God's way of urban renewal, because whatever gets torn down, something better, bigger and stronger gets erected in its place.
That's interesting. Obviously the Heard Enterprises failed. Rob Doll's dealership here failed. So, there were the losses, but you and Jay Stelzenmuller survived it.
Well, you know, I'm not privy to Heard insight and the financial situation, nor am I to the Doll situation.
Does it surprise you that it was you and Jay that got through it?
Look, I respect everyone that's in Columbus today and everyone that was here in the past. Am I surprised? Look, these days nothing should surprise you if you read the paper or watch your television news -- I'm shocked and surprised by many things, but I guess as you get older you're a little more shocked.
Two years ago, I guess, Jay sold all of his dealerships. That's not something you would ever do, right?
I wouldn't say that at all. Look, at the end of the day we have options that we are always looking at whether it's acquiring, whether it's divesting some. As a businessman, I have to consider all of the options that are available to me, so I would never say no to anything. That's how deals are made. You never know. If there's a sense of consolidation that's going on, if the deal was right, we would look at it.
We get a lot of calls from people wanting to sell us stores. On the other hand, we get lots of calls from big companies wanting to buy us. And that's been going on for years and years, and I think that's the nature of the business. What I'm telling you, Chuck, is this: We will look at all opportunities that arise.
So, you're the quintessential businessman.
I don't know about that. I'll let you make that decision. Actually, I think my customers speak to that. You know, they come back and we take good care of them and we appreciate the business of everybody that comes in here. That's why we've survived for 28 years.
When you ended up in Columbus, had you ever heard of Columbus-Phenix City before?
I'll tell you what: My family and I were driving from Kansas City down here, and back in the old days when 85 and 185 met, as you turned south, there was a big sign "No Services for 67 Miles." And I thought to myself, "Oh Lord, where am I going?" And you know what? That's the best trip I ever made.
I'll tell you, I love the city. I love the people. And obviously, Columbus has been incredibly good to me.
Do you miss Kansas?
No. But you know, look, I'm a military brat. My dad was a sergeant in the Air Force so we were used to moving about. I've lived in New Mexico, Kansas, Texas, Europe, and on and on.
Where do you call home?
Do you live in Columbus or Phenix City?
Well, let me tell you this: My dock is in Georgia and in the Eastern Time Zone, and my house is in Alabama in the Central Time Zone. So, I'll let you decide where I live. I live on the Phenix City side of Lake Oliver.
This area offers a lot as far as quality of life, doesn't it?
I think so. Look, I've got a lake in my backyard. We can hunt, we can fish, we're close to the beach. There's just so many things to do. And if you want to go to Atlanta, you can see a Broadway show, restaurants -- this, that and whatever else.
I think it's great. I don't want to fight the traffic every day. Sometimes I cross that bridge at 5 o'clock or 6 o'clock -- although that's not my normal going-home time -- and I think, "My goodness, what's going on? We're living in the city because there's traffic stacked up"
Do you ever look at that traffic to see how many of those cars you sold?
I do. As you notice, on the back of those cars is my name tag. And if I see one of my competitors that sells the same brand, I wonder how I missed that one.
When you made that trip from Kansas City to Columbus and you were first looking at this place, could you have anticipated the business and financial success you've had?
Not in my wildest imagination. Chuck, I wake up every morning and, I'm telling you, I pinch myself twice. How can I be so fortunate? I mean, this is beyond my wildest dreams and imagination. The first month I was in business my company made $5,000, and I worked 16-hour days, six-seven days a week. The second month it made about $5,000 -- same thing. The third month, in March, I made a five-digit number and I thought, "Oh my goodness, can't nobody else have any money! I've got it all." And it was off to the races from there.
Has your business ever lost money in a single month?
Over 30 years and you've never had a loss?
Over 30 years times a number of stores that we have, we've never had a losing month.
How do you do that?
I guess we're lucky. Look, the key to success is really simple: Do what you say you're going to do, have people that care about other people, and treat people the way you want to be treated -- kindness, respect. Technically, yes, I'm selling you a car, but technically we're here to help you buy a car -- and that's the approach we like to take.
Now, let me tell you, we don't satisfy 100 percent of all of our customers 100 percent of the time, but I tell you, if you get with the manufacturer, we're real close to the top.
Your industry has a bad reputation.
I think in the past it has, and we're still paying for the old white-shoes guys and throwing keys on the roof and doing whatever else -- that's pretty much come and gone. You know, now we have bigger stores, part of chains. It's now more professional than it was 20-30 years ago.
Has the Internet changed that?
Because you have a more informed consumer, right?
Absolutely. You know, today we have to be trained because our customer, our consumer, is probably as knowledgeable as we are about the product, and even pricing.
But, the Internet can make them far more informed.
An automobile is the second largest investment most people make. So, for goodness sakes, why wouldn't you want to educate yourself just as much as you can when you're spending that kind of money? I think today's average transaction cost on a vehicle is about $40,000. That's a lot of money.
What was it 30 years ago?
... When I first started, I would tell the customer, "Chuck, you're going to pay me maybe $200 more, and I'm telling you, you could probably go to Atlanta. But here's my number, you call me, day or night." And the easy part is selling you that car. The hard part is being sure that I take care of you, and I'm here for you.
And people would come out of the woodwork, but we would do what we told them we would do -- we created that expectation and then we met and exceeded those expectations. But that's when we were really small. Now, we're the 110th largest company in the United States.
110th largest automobile company?
Maybe 108 or 111, it's one of those.
That's a long way in 30 years.
We sell a half a billion dollars' worth of cars. Let me pinch myself.
You talk about being a military brat. What did your parents teach you that you still use today?
First of all, my mom is German and she's about 4 feet, 10 inches tall -- maybe now 4'9", she shrunk a little bit. Her 87th birthday was two days ago. She taught us the value of a dollar. She taught us that we don't borrow for toys. If you earn the money, you save your money, then you buy something.
My first car as a 15-16 year old, I had to work and I got a 1956 Chevy Bel Air. I'll never forget it. It cost 450 bucks and my dad helped with $200 and I had to pay him back the next summer. Education was a big thing in the family. My brother is a New York Wall Street lawyer. So, she insisted on education and that we manage our money and we do the right things. She also taught me about integrity and she taught me about how you work hard. If you work hard enough and you stick with it long enough, good things will happen. My dad retired from the Air Force in the late '60s and had a second career in Orlando with the Sentinel.
What did he do?
He was in the maintenance area. He spent another 20 years there.
Did you move your parents here?
My sister is up here and my brother-in-law, which is in the organization. And as they grew older we moved them up here. I didn't want them traveling back and forth, so they've been here 20 years.
How important is family to you?
It's everything. What else is there other than family? And look, who else would put up with me other than family? All I do is work. I don't have any hobbies. My family is my hobby.
You're not a gofer?
No. Listen, I threw those things in the pond.
So, you don't fish?
I have a couple of ponds and I've stocked them and I take the kids over and I watch them. I could care less if I catch one. My kind of fishing is sitting in an easy chair, maybe having a beer, and throwing it out there, and if I catch one, that's great, and if I don't ...
So, your hobby is your family and work.
Yeah. I mean, what else is there? I love both of them.
As you have grown and matured, how have you changed over the years?
Are you talking about growing and maturing around my midsection?
You're a big boy.
Yeah. 6'3", 300. Look, I still got my boots, still got my old jeans. I could probably afford a newer pair of jeans, but I just like these old ones. I don't think I've changed. I think if you ask my employees, I think if you ask some of my friends, I'm still the same old Carl I was when I got here. And I go by Carl -- there's no Mr. Gregory.
Is part of your success the informal atmosphere you've created?
You know, I don't know that, but that's me. I'm not comfortable at black-tie events, or this or that. That's just not me.
A lot of people that come in and buy your cars are dressed pretty much like you are now.
Works for me.
Does it get harder and harder for people to buy a new car?
I don't think so. I think it's probably getting easier simply due to the fact that there's so much information and so much knowledge and procedures and whatever else is out there. Also, the government, rightfully so, has created new laws and new entities that the industry as a whole is much more controlled today than it was. And it needed to be.
Competition is healthy.
Absolutely. You know, in Columbus the pie is only going to be so big. It's just the matter of who's getting it. And that competition is a good deal for our customers, because, look, if I'm competing against a Toyota deal with my Honda store, I'm going to do whatever I can to get it. Or a domestic truck against a Chevrolet or whatever else.
I have a Ford store in Auburn so I can work that out. Competition is healthy. It makes me step up to the plate and it makes us do a better job, and at the end of the day the customer is the winner.
Were you surprised when Jay sold out to a major dealer?
Not at all. We have succession plans, whether it's my son -- a lot of things are on the table. And as business people we have to examine all of those issues. We have to have plans. I might fall over tomorrow.
I suspect Jay is about 67-68 now. He's worked hard all of his life and he has created something. I don't know what his situation is. Maybe he didn't have a successor.
How are you training Jason to take over this business?
The poor fellow. He sits right there for years.
His desk is attached to yours in the same office?
His desk is attached. We're sitting back to back and he's got to listen to me every day. Can you imagine that?
He didn't get his own office?
Trial by fire. No, this is his office. He just shares with me. We are on the same page, and you know, it's a transition of knowledge, as well as tasks.
So, now I'm learning from him as much as he is learning from me, because he at his age -- and he's an Auburn grad and has an MBA from Mercer -- he brings so much new stuff to the table. He can talk to me legibly about the Internet and about younger demographics, which those are some of my weaknesses because that's not where I come from.
And some of his weaknesses is the experience you've learned over the years.
The art of the deal?
Yeah, the gray hair. We get that for a reason.
Because I think it's a sign of experience -- I know that's not true, but that's what we all say.
When you made this arrangement, where literally your son and your successor's desk is attached to yours, was there any pushback from him?
No. Listen, we're best friends, too. Hey, what you see is what you get.
In a lot of places that wouldn't work.
You know, quite frankly I'll tell you, my biggest concern about this arrangement is he's got three wonderful little girls -- one less than a year, one two-ish and the other one five-ish, and I don't want him to work six days a week from 8 in the morning to 8, 9, 10 at night. I want him to have a life.
But you did that?
I know, but listen: That time can be expensive; there's a cost involved. It's very difficult to be a great father, a great lover, a great husband, a great businessman all at the same time, because the only thing we all have in common is 24 hours in a day. So, you allocate that time to what you think is best at the moment. I wanted to create something for me and my family, and maybe even my grandchildren.
Can you stand here now and say you have created it?
Yeah, but again, the cost was high.
When you say cost, you're not talking about dollars and cents.
No -- no, not at all. Look, I missed too many dance recitals, I missed too many football games, I missed too many baseball games, I went through a divorce, the personal aspects of those things. Who knows what could have, should have or would have, but if you are so committed to what you're doing -- which we are, to this day both of us -- I don't know if I want him to go through that.
And that's why we look at all of the options, every option, whether we may acquire more deals, and if we do we may create another level of management company, we might divest some of them to make it smaller. We're nimble.
Cash gives you the ability to do that, doesn't it?
Life's good. My stress level is probably lower in that I've never had to worry about paying the bills. The money is there to pay my bills, and I know 95 percent of the population struggles with just making ends meet just on the normal daily life. So, I'm incredibly fortunate and I thank the Lord every day for those kinds of things.
Where did your inner drive come from?
I don't know, from my mom. I think when I first got here and first got into business, I always had the desire to succeed, but I had a larger fear of failure. So, both of those things kind of go hand in hand. A fear of failure -- you know, now what? You've got kids, you've got this, you've got that, you have obligations, so a fear of failure is a tremendous motivator. On the other hand -- I don't know if it's ego or if you just want to succeed -- you know, if we're going to play a game or whatever, we strive to be the best.
What did you do before you had a car dealership?
Before that, I was going to school and I worked for the government -- I worked for the state of Kansas.
What were you doing for the state?
I worked for the attorney general's office.
As an investigator?
What kind of stuff did you investigate?
Anything and everything. Whatever my friend Vern Miller, who was the attorney general, told me to do.
How long did you do that?
Three or four years.
You weren't going to get rich investigating with the AG. Were you saving money while you were doing that?
No, but let me tell you, I wasn't married at the time. As an example -- maybe that entrepreneurship was there at the time -- I was based out of Wichita, Kans., and I found an apartment complex that needed some security, and you know, here I am working for the state. I said, "Hey, you give me a free apartment and I'll do your security when I'm here." So, obviously I found ways of trying to decrease my overhead and put a little extra money in my pocket.
That's not how the normal person thinks.
I don't know. Look, everything I do I think is normal. I don't consider myself out of the norm at all. My wife tells me I'm incredibly hard-headed. I have certain things that I have done. I'm a creature of habit. I do it the same way over and over and over again, and that's kind of what has made this thing happen.
Give me an example of one of your rituals.
I get up pretty much at the same time and I have a sequence of shaving, showering, brushing teeth, dressing. And if that sequence somehow or another gets distracted, my day gets a little screwy. For a while I was doing a lot of walking and trying to work out. Then the problem is that I travel so much and it breaks that sequence and it's hard for me to get back into it.
Speaking of breaking sequences, you're knocking on the door of 65 and you have a 7-year-old son. That's a little different. How important is that boy to you?
He is my life right now. Look, I love all of my children, no question about that, but look, he is special.
Is this a do-over?
You know, maybe I'm trying to reach out vicariously with the things that I missed through him. I don't know. He makes me smile, he runs pitter-patter across the upstairs and hops in the bed with me. Maybe it's just been a long time, but it makes my heart smile.
You've got an incredible perspective right now that most people never get. You've got your 36-year-old son sitting across the desk from you during your workday and you have a 7-year-old son at home when you get there. You're living in two worlds.
But it's by design. He didn't show up by himself -- and certainly 36 years of feeding, training and educating -- so it's worked out.
Do you think about the position of those sometimes?
Obviously, my little son is unlikely to be in the car business, but there's other worlds beside automobiles. And we will make certain that he will have an appropriate start in life as well as my other children have as well.
So, at 65 you're not ready to retire.
At 65 I will weigh every option just like I did at 60, and I did at 55, and hopefully I will do at 70.
What do you see the rest of your life looking like?
I tried staying home for a couple of months some years ago, and my wife said, "You better get out of here or else." My office is close to the kitchen, and obviously there's a lot of activity there, and sometimes I get intense with some folks, and she said, "You've got to get out of here, you're making us all crazy.
So, obviously I can't retire and stay at home. I've got to be doing something. And I'm worried. People that retire, six months later they're dead. And there's an old saying, "When you're green you're growing; when you're ripe you're dead." And I don't want to be dead.
Listen, ideally if I could work two or three days a week, that would be great. And if I got to choose what to do, it would be great. Now I'm more of a problem solver, and the fun part is dealing with my customers and talking to my customers.
Do you walk down there and talk to the guy who's buying a Volkswagen?
Sure. Wherever I'm at I try to visit with my employees, I try to visit with the customers. If someone is buying a car and I happen to be in that store, I thank them for their business and I tell them I appreciate it, and I sincerely do that.
Because let me tell you, everyone of those deals -- I don't know what we sold, 20,000 cars last year -- we sold them one at a time. And if it wasn't for those one-at-a-time deals, my kids wouldn't be going to school. I wouldn't be living the lifestyle that I live, and I wouldn't have the opportunities that have been granted to me. So, I don't forget where I come from.
Name: Carl Gregory
Job: Owner, Carl Gregory Enterprises; manages 16 stores located in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. The automobile brands include Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, Ford-Lincoln, Hyundai, Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Volkswagen
Education: Topeka-Washburn Rural High School, Topeka, Kan.; University of Kansas, degree in liberal arts; Wichita State, master's degree in general administration.
Family: Wife, Leila. Children Jason, president of Carl Gregory Enterprises; Josh, owner of CJ's Steakhouse in Phenix City; Christi, employed by Carl Gregory Enterprises; and Cameron, a second-grader. Six grandchildren.