Jim Sumpter, owner since 1980 of the Valley Ford dealership in Oneonta, and a virtual institution himself after 36 years selling vehicles in Blount County, sold the dealership last month and retired from its active management. He will remain associated with the business on a consulting basis. Highlights of a 52-year career
• began selling cars in Atlanta in 1964
• continuing that career path, moving to Birmingham in 1966
• went into the new car business in Shelby County in 1967
• bought out Turner Brothers Ford dealership in Oneonta in 1980
• built the present Valley Ford dealership facility at its present location in 1986
• sold about 20,000 cars, he estimates, in his 36 Blount County years
What do you ask someone who’s sold that many cars over that long a time? How about something about changes in the industry over that period?
Sumter describes several situations related to the economy. “Back in the 1980s, we saw astronomical interest rates along with gas shortages that affected the business. Back then, sometimes your overhead was more than your gross sales.
“More recently, during the recession, you had many people out of work or who were likely to be out of work next week or next month. They weren’t going to spend any money on new cars.
“But we never laid off anyone during those years,” Sumpter said. “I tried to operate the business like a family. You get close to employees and I knew their families, their children. You just try to take care of the family.”
What about other changes over the half century he’s been selling cars? The cars themselves, for instance.
“I’d say the major change has been in safety features and electronics,” Sumpter said. “You can have $15,000 worth of electronics on the car and you don’t even see it until you use it. Also durability – that’s another big area of change. When I got in the business, when you got 60,000 to 70,000 miles on a vehicle, it was worn out. Nowdays, there are cars out there, lots of them, with 200,000 miles and up. They’re building much better cars today. And the maintenance is much less.”
His advice to anyone going into the car business these days?
“You’ve got to realize everybody’s got a good product now. So you sell yourself and the place you work. Whatever else you do, you’ve got to listen to the customer. Hear what they’re interested in, whether its gas mileage, safety, style, interior, whatever. And then respond to that. Try to relate to them personally and help them find what they want.”
The personal touch. That might be Sumpter’s secret to success. You can feel it just talking to him. But explaining that is going to take a bit of a roundabout route. We started talking about what he would do now that he doesn’t need to be at the dealership “12 hours a day, 6 days a week.”
He said he’d like to travel. “My wife and I – we haven’t really had a real vacation for six or seven years. “They had an annual industry association conference where they got away to a resort for three days or so each year. But that wasn’t a real production number of a vacation, he said.
So where would he like to go? “Well, maybe out west,” he said. “You know, drive out one route, seeing the sites, Grand Canyon and so on, and come back another way seeing the sites along that route.” Every-thing he’s heard about Alaska, he said, is that an Alaskan cruise is a fantastic experience.
Is he a golfer? Well no, he says, but he’s not against it. As a matter of fact, he feels pretty positive about the game. Why? Well, because when he first started selling cars in Atlanta, it was a big dealership – 40 some-odd salesmen. Most of’em were golfers. Once a week they’d take Wednesday afternoon off and all go play golf, leaving behind a skeleton crew to mind the store.
“I’d sell a couple of cars every time they all went out to play golf,” he laughed. So he’s had a lifelong favorable outlook on the game. That’s the personal touch. Not that he made a killing while the other guys were chasing the ball around the fairway. That was just taking advantage of an opportunity he’d have been crazy to ignore. The personal touch was telling the story – on himself – about an activity he doesn’t personally pursue – but has nice, mild, favorable feelings about anyway, and can relate the story to you in such a way as to make you feel the nice, mild, personal touch – like an inside secret he’s sharing with you.
So, how would he sum up his many years as an auto impresario in Oneonta?
“I’ve certainly enjoyed my time here,” he said. “It’s been a great place to live and have a family (all three grown children, with grandchildren, live within a short drive – lucky guy).”
So, why change the game now? Why sell out now?
“It just came along at the right time,” Sumter said. “It seemed like a good time to get out of the 12 hours a day, six days a week routine, while I still have time to enjoy it,” he said.
Makes a lot of sense when you think about it.