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Uncommon Courtesy

Jack Grimley is helping Courtesy Chevrolet recover from one of the worst economic stretches in San Diego history. His secret? Keep it simple.

December 2010, F&I and Showroom - Cover Story

by Gregory Arroyo - Also by this author

Courtesy Chevrolet's General Manager Jack Grimley.

The three years following 2006 were anything but courteous to Courtesy Chevrolet. The San Diego dealership hit rock bottom in 2009 — the worst year for car sales in California since 1975. But, like most of the Golden State’s dealerships, Courtesy’s prospects began to improve in 2010. As of the start of November, the dealership was already 300 percent ahead of last year in terms of profit, and it’s expecting bigger things next year.

Total retail units sold at Courtesy are up 31 percent, with new-vehicle sales up by 45 percent and used up 15 percent. The finance department’s profits are up by 34 percent. Even the dealership’s body shop is up 22 percent ahead of 2009. But Courtesy Chevrolet’s comeback story is far from complete. In many ways, it’s just beginning.

“We’re climbing out,” says General Manager Jack Grimley. “But the whole market is ticking up and we anticipate a bigger uptick next year. We just need a little help from the economy.”

As Grimley says, the entire San Diego area is on the comeback trail. In the first nine months of 2010, drivers bought 63,491 vehicles in San Diego County, up 12.7 percent from last year, according to the California New Car Dealers Association.

Even more promising is that Detroit’s Big Three automakers have increased their market share from 28.7 percent last year to 30.7 percent this year. And although domestic brands don’t crack the top 10 list of popular cars in California, Grimley says new models like the Chevrolet Cruze will definitely grab the attention of his customer base.

“We sold our first Cruze in less than 10 minutes of it being out on the lot,” he says.

Courtesy Chevrolet’s five-acre lot is on a prime piece of San Diego real estate, near heavy traffic, a large shopping mall and several other dealerships. The 50-year-old store will undergo an extensive renovation beginning in January 2011.

The Long Climb

Courtesy Chevrolet is one of two stores owned and operated by William Gruwell, who, along with his former business partner, the now-deceased Edward Fitzgerald, purchased the location in the early 1980s.

The group’s flagship store, founded in 1955 by Fitzgerald, is located in Phoenix and is one of the top selling Chevrolet dealers in Arizona. It houses 325 employees on an 18-acre facility. The San Diego location is spread over five acres and claims a staff of fewer than 100, but the dealership is far from being a second thought.

With a major shopping center down the street and the Mission Valley Shopping Mall just next door, Courtesy sits on a prime location. Grimley has yet to experience the holiday rush, but he has heard horror stories of the traffic nightmares ahead. He says it will be a welcome sight, especially after what the local economy has experienced in recent years.

Things have been bleak since consumer spending hit record highs in 2006. That year, retail sales in San Diego County peaked at $47.8 billion, housing prices hit all-time highs and unemployment fell below the 4 percent mark. Since then, the jobless rate has climbed to 10.6 percent, consumer spending has dropped 17.4 percent — the biggest decline since 1935, when the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. Retail sales have fallen an astonishing 25.6 percent.

“We definitely went into a little boom in 2006,” says Ted Fregoso, the dealership’s customer satisfaction manager. “Then, in 2008, you saw the big crash. A lot of dealerships were lost, but we rode out the storm.”

The biggest loss for the Mission Valley Auto Circle family was Bob Baker Ford. A staple in the San Diego area for decades, the dealership tried to stay open as a used-car lot after it lost its franchise agreement with Ford Motor Co. in October 2007. The lot, which is next door to Courtesy, now stands empty. Across the way is John Hine Mazda, which lost its Dodge franchise in June 2009 and its Pontiac tag this year when General Motors shuttered the ailing division.

More than 300 California new-car dealers have shut their doors since the recession took hold. It’s unclear exactly how many dealerships were lost in San Diego, but, according to a commercial real-estate information site, the vacancy rate for properties where new and used cars are sold sits at nearly 5 percent.

Grimley won’t say how bad things got at Courtesy, but says his employee count is down. In fact, the dealership was without a general manager when he arrived nine months ago. Since he’s been there, the dealership has added six new people — many of them hired into the sales and Internet departments.

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