Texas auto company to purchase Rivertown Ford

Rivertown Ford on Whittlesey Road is hitching its wagon to a fast-growing, publicly traded Texas company that racked up $6 billion in revenue in 2011.

The Columbus dealership, which has been selling new and used vehicles in the Bradley Park shopping and dining area for nearly 12 years, is being sold to Group 1 Automotive, headquartered in Houston. The sale is expected to be completed in early December.

"They're going to retain the name and they want to and plan to retain every employee," Rivertown Ford owner Richard Stephens said Thursday. "It's really a blessing for everybody. I think the customers are going to be served well. These guys have virtually unlimited resources."

Group 1 owns and operates 121 auto dealerships, 158 franchises and 30 collision centers in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. It has 31 brands in its portfolio and employs more than 8,000.

Its footprint includes six dealerships in Georgia -- four of them in Atlanta -- and two in Alabama, with four stores in Florida. The Georgia and Alabama brands include Ford, Toyota, Scion, Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Nissan.

The Texas firm's collection of dealerships stretches west to California, north into Oklahoma and Missouri, across the Deep South and up the East Coast through the Carolinas to Vermont.

"These guys just have so many assets and they're able to do so much. They have such big numbers," Stephens said. "But they also are the nicest people I think I could ever have dealt with. It has just been the smoothest of transitions."

Pete DeLongchamps, Group 1's vice president of financial services and manufacturer relations, declined to discuss the acquisition, saying the firm doesn't comment on pending transactions.

The auto company issued its third-quarter earnings data Thursday, reporting a record profit of $31.3 million on revenue of $1.98 billion.

For all of 2011, its profit was $82.4 million on revenue of nearly $6.1 billion.

So far this year, the company has bought 14 franchises that are expected to generate $580 million in annual revenue, it said in Thursday's release. It also has sold three that had combined annual revenue of just under $85 million.

Asked about acquisitions and what changes Group 1 makes when they occur, he said the firm generally likes to leave things in place.

"We think that the people in the community are the most critical component," he said. "What we do try to do is add a higher level of professionalism. As a public company, we're kind of held to a higher standard. We hope to bring in our core values and just a higher level of professional auto retailing."

Rivertown Ford is an offshoot of the Freeway Ford dealership launched by Stephens on Box Road in 1981. Rivertown was constructed on eight acres of land in 2000 and opened in January 2001, with Freeway Ford closing its doors in 2008.

Located across from the Jay Automotive dealerships on Whittlesey Road, Rivertown has a 35,000-square-foot showroom with space for 700 new and used vehicles. It employs about 70 people, said general manager Wayne Harbert, who has been with Stephens and his Ford operations since the beginning.

"I'm the last of the Mohicans. I'm the last one that was there," joked Harbert, who, at age 68, plans to retire in December.

"I feel good for the folks who are going to remain here. I feel real good for them," he said. "It's a big company, a multimillion-dollar company, and I think there's a great future for these people. If I was 20 or 25 years younger, I would be real excited about it, too."

Stephens said he and wife, Dee Dee, plan to spend more time with their four children, eight grandchildren and close friends. Members of Christ Community Church in Columbus, the Harris County couple also will travel on missions to assist those in need. They ventured to India earlier this year and will journey to Uganda in November.

The acquisition of Rivertown Ford by Group 1 Automotive is the first such purchase of a local car dealership by a large publicly traded company in the city's history. Stephens said the move has been emotional for him, but he believes it's a "win" for all concerned -- Group 1, Rivertown Ford employees and local residents who will be shopping there in the future.

At age 70, the man who started his career working with Ford Motor Co. said now is simply the best moment to transition away from the auto industry and into other fulfilling pursuits.

"It's just been a wonderful life. I was telling somebody today I don't think anybody could be more blessed than me and my family," he said. "But because of that, it's time for me to take a different step in my life. It's a wonderful thing to be able to do that when it's not forced by health or economic conditions ... It's a real pleasure to be able to do that."