Story by Darrell Smith Sacramento Bee / photo by Hector Amezcua Sacramento Bee
Jeff Boatwright, left, and his father Montie, have long weathered changing market conditions at their dealership on Fulton Avenue.
Published Wednesday, Aug. 04, 2010
It's an unlikely success story, defying economic flux, larger competitors, changing conditions along Fulton Avenue's auto row and industry stereotypes.
For more than 40 years, the Boatwrights – Montie and now, son Jeff – have made their mark with customers and in the community with About New Auto Sales, their used-car dealership. The U.S. Small Business Administration recently selected the dealership as its Sacramento District family-owned business of the year.
"We've persevered through the economy. It's been real good for our family for nearly 50 years," said Montie Boatwright. Following in his car dealer father's footsteps, he opened the original About New lot in 1967, a few blocks from where it now stands at the top of Fulton Avenue.
"The reason we've been a mainstay is that we've adapted to economics," Boatwright said. "I don't think there's a cycle in business that we haven't adapted to with product."
In order to qualify for the SBA award, Boatwright had to show that his business was turning a profit.
The longtime dealer has an industry survivor's dose of perspective – the 1973 gas crunch, the interest rate spikes of the early 1980s, base closures in the early 1990s and now the prolonged recession.
Boatwright leaned on muscle cars – Corvettes, Camaros and Firebirds – in the 1970s, leaned off of them in the '80s, stocked his lots with family-friendly minivans in the '90s and, today, with gas-sipping commuter sedans.
All along, he's forged relationships with new-car dealers and auctions to supply inventory, local lenders SAFE Credit Union in North Highlands and Sacramento's Golden 1 Credit Union to provide financing, and with longtime and new customers.
"They want to help people out. They're not high pressure, and that's a big deal for a business," said SAFE's Laura Hill, the business development officer who nominated About New Auto Sales for the SBA award. "They pay attention and they have a passion for their industry."
But it's still been a struggle for independent dealers like Boatwright and others.
"The car business is in a downturn. Everything going on has a trickle-down effect on the car business," Boatwright said. "People are almost afraid to buy anything, not just cars."
A brief look at the numbers tells the story.
As late as 2007, used cars brought in more than $1.2 million in sales tax revenue for Sacramento County, said Tom Burkhart, Sacramento County budget officer.
That total plunged to about $863,000 in 2008 and crept up to a little more than $887,000 in 2009.
Used-car sales tax revenue is on pace to break the $900,000 mark in 2010, but barely, Burkhart said, as federal incentives that boosted sales ended in March, cooling demand.
At about 35 cars a month, About New sells a fraction of what it did in its Big Three heyday, but Boatwright said he has developed a niche. He skews his inventory toward attracting budget-conscious young commuters with rows of Acuras and Hondas.
The pressures on local used-car dealers are numerous, said Carl Brakensiek, executive vice president of the Independent Automobile Dealers Association of California.
Used-car dealers "were really hit by the recession. People drew in their horns," he said. "Banks drew in loans and it became more difficult for dealers to get flooring (financing for dealer inventory). They tightened credit and it put the squeeze on dealers. We've got the survivors now."
Cash for Clunkers, a federal stimulus program aimed at boosting auto sales, further hurt the used-car business, Brakensiek said. Used cars turned in through the program were scrapped, not sold.
"Dealers found with Cash for Clunkers that the program benefited new car dealers. "Thousands of cars – reliable transportation – were scrapped and taken out of the source and the average wholesale costs went up," Brakensiek said. "That had a big impact on a lot of dealers."
Locally, dealers on Fulton Avenue also have faced an onslaught of new competition from suburban auto malls. Fulton was one of Sacramento's primary auto rows – along with Florin Road – before new malls lured dealers to Roseville, Elk Grove and elsewhere.
Still, the street shows some signs of life. A new GM complex is opening on the just-closed site of Mike Daugherty Chevrolet at Fulton and El Camino avenues. Boatwright predicts his industry, and his location, will endure, particularly as a place to buy a used car.
"There's always going to be a need to buy a moderately priced used car, and Fulton will always be the source for that," Boatwright said. "It will come back and it will survive."