When it comes to automobiles, trucks and SUVs, two established Jasper dealerships now want a Penney for your thoughts.
The Bill Penney Auto Group has two dealerships (Toyota and Mitsubishi) in Huntsville, as well as one of the largest collision centers in the state, which opened in 2020. They have the number one volume Toyota dealership in the state (based on total retail sales of new Toyotas in Alabama for 2020 per Southeast Toyota distributors) and 82nd in the nation, selling 6,000 cars a year.
Now, the company is expanding for the first time beyond Huntsville, having taken ownership of the Chrysler and Ford dealerships in Jasper, sitting across from each other on Highway 118. Both sites were previously operated in recent years by Automotive Group of Jasper.
Zack Penney, 39, the dealer operator, said, "Everyone in Jasper has been so welcoming. When they hear we've come here - (General Manager and partner Hunter Johnson) jokes sometime that you would have thought we had bought a church, because they say, 'Thank the Lord.' That was the common response."
Bill Penney Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, or Bill Penney CDJR, will hold a ribbon cutting at 2 p.m. Friday. Grand opening festivities will be held Saturday, Feb. 20, with food and open house activities.
The festivities will be be repeated for Bill Penney Ford on March 26-17, again with a Friday 2 p.m. ribbon cut on March 27. (This was originally set for March 19-20, but was changed due to a scheduling problem.)
Penney is the grandson of the late founder, Bill Penney. (His father Jerry Penney, is retired from the business.) He talked Tuesday while seated in the Chrysler showroom in Jasper, flanked by two partners, Johnson, 41, and Chief Financial Officer Ryan Hensley, 48.
Penney said Jasper fit the criteria to export its culture and business practices, he said, with an emphasis on having fun, selling cars and taking care of employees. That also allows growth for employees, noting several of the employees in Huntsville moved to Jasper to help operate the stores.
"I think it is a fantastic town. It is really ideal, especially for Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ford. I think these are two franchises were were underrepresented in this market," he said. "This town has a long legacy with the coal business," and is close to Huntsville an Birmingham. "I think Walker County is positioned for growth in the next five to 10 years."
Johnson said they know dealership numbers in Jasper and Birmingham, as well as the type vehicles that sell here. "We'll pump a lot of cars back into Birmingham, into Cullman and back into Huntsville," he said.
"Ford and Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep should do a lot better than it is doing," he said.
"We've spent over three quarters of a million dollars opening these two stores," Johnson said. "But you can also talk about how much money that pumps back into this town."
With COVID-19 and the poor volume seen at both local sites, inventory has been tough. "When we took over the dealership, they had less than 40 or 50 cars on the ground," Johnson said. "Then you throw the pandemic on top of it, and the manufacturers being shut down for 10 to 15 weeks, it has been really tough the first 90 days. But we've positioned ourselves well. We have fought hard with the manufacturers to give us inventory, give us inventory, give us inventory."
Officials have aggressive goals to move those cars, considering Johnson says manufacturers would expect each store to sell a minimum of 400 vehicles a year. The last year the old owners were in operation, Fiscal 2019-2020, they sold 1,052 vehicles combined at the Ford and CDJR stores, Johnson said.
Instead, the Penney team wants 75 new and 75 used vehicles to be sold each month at each of the two stores. That's 300 vehicles a month, or 3,600 vehicles a year.
"We've got high goals, but the data says we can do it," Johnson said. "The manufacturer says we can do it. The PMA, the registration, says we can do it. The Toyota store does it. The Honda store does it. Carl Cannon does it. So there is no reason we can't do it. We just have to bring the domestic brand back to a blue collar community."
Penney said they knew they would have to support and reinvest in the community. "These stores hadn't had money spent on their employees, on the facilities, and on the customer touch points," he said. To become stable to the community, he said they knew they had to train the workers.
Maintenance of cars has also been a common complaint with the two local dealerships; the old Chrysler dealership was doing none for at least two years, in fact, sending all maintenance across the street. Business has been going to Cullman and Birmingham, "and they are backed up six to 12 weeks before they can get a customer in for an oil change," he said.
Thousands of dollars have been spent reopening the service department at CDJR, which includes putting five lifts back in, hiring technicians, and training and certifying the new hires in Atlanta.
Johnson said the Penney group has brought in 13 employees. "You need 50 plus employees to run each store the correct way. Currently we're almost up to 40," he said, with 20 at either dealership. The central office will still be in Huntsville, with each sale run through there. The general manager at CDJR will be Danny Youngblood, and the Ford general manager will be Brandon Mosley. The partners also are in Jasper often.
The partners have tried hard meet new people in Jasper, even meeting with other new and used car dealers.
"They are very welcoming," Penney said. "If you look at a successful community, I've always been a believer, you can look back and see there are good quality car dealers there. If you look in the past, (a car dealer) was a pillar of the community," supporting community projects and generating local tax revenue. "In this good community, there are some good ones - the Cannons, the Crumps, Kevin (Callahan) - good dealers, and tons of good used car dealers, so there are good people here. We want Bill Penney to be part of that."