In the late 1960s, W. Harold Arnold Jr. - at the time a Greenville businessman - toyed with a number of business opportunities. The one that he settled on was to join partners to buy a car dealership in peninsular Charleston.
The dealership would become Sentry Buick Pontiac GMC. But to most people, the venture would be Harold Arnold's Sentry Buick Pontiac GMC. Since 1983, Arnold has run the outlet - first downtown, then North Charleston and for the past four years, Savannah Highway in a former supermarket. He is still the president, even as son W. Harold Arnold III serves as general manager and daughter Anne Arnold is vice president of governmental affairs and community relations.
Harold Arnold Jr. talked recently about the automotive industry, the dealership and his family legacy.
Q. How did you get into the auto business?
A. It was a business opportunity. At the time, a lot of car dealers were going out. I'm a graduate of The Citadel, and was in the Air Force four years. When I got out, I started looking at options. I always enjoyed Charleston.
Q. Why did you move Sentry to Dorchester Road?
A. It was 1989. We rebuilt it after September 1989 (Hurricane Hugo). There were other dealers on Dorchester Road, who subsequently left. The Mark Clark (Expressway) just did not develop the way it looked like it was going to. The (Charleston) Naval Base closed down, then all the car dealers left Dorchester Road.
Q. How about the move here?
A. Oh yeah, an excellent decision. This is the single most productive sector of business activity in South Carolina. These dealerships, I understand, generate more tax dollars for the Charleston area than any other length of highway.
Q. And the large size?
A. We have 65,000 square feet of building space. We're one of the largest Buick Pontiac GMC dealers in the Southeast.
Q. Did you intend to be a family-owned business?
A. No. Certainly it was not the goal. I was excited that they (Anne and Harold III) came in, when they graduated from college and decided to help me.
Q. Did you have automotive mentors?
A. I really didn't know anyone in the auto business. I looked at a number of opportunities. No one inspired me.
Q. Who then shaped your life?
A. My grandfather, Alester Furman. My father, (Harold "Bevo" Arnold) was a d--- good lawyer.
Q. What are the biggest changes in the auto business over the years?
A. The biggest changes are the misconception that American automobiles are not of the quality and do not get the gas mileage that the foreign competition does, and the continuing negative press.
Q. For example?
A. The emissions are 99 percent pure from the 1960s. If we took off all government mandated emissions on vehicles, they would be much more fuel efficient. There's heavier safety glass, collapsible steering wheels, ABS (anti-lock brakes), rollover roofs. They're all good things.
A. They are still more fuel efficient. GM has 18 (vehicles) for 2008 that exceed 30 mpg. Our G6, G8 Pontiac cars get better gas mileage than the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
Q. Your thoughts on the Big 3 bailout?
A. I'm not going to say they should or not (help out the domestic auto industry), but South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas gave huge tax incentives to BMW, Nissan, Toyota (to build plants in those states). That's the same. They've got to be realistic. The auto business, on top of that, they can't borrow money as in the past.
Q. Is there a solution?
A. I think locally, look at the economy. We still have excellent financing available particularly through local credit unions and banks. The world's auto manufacturers are the only ones who are going to take us into the future. My hope is I will someway be involved in a dealership that does sell hydrogen and electrics. Dealerships aren't just interested in selling gas (powered cars).
Q. How do you view the automotive future?
A. I don't think anyone could have perceived what happened this year. There will be changes; it will be for the better. Certainly, American car (makers) didn't get costs under control. GM is coming out with a plug-in vehicle (and) three hybrids. The (GMC) Yukon (hybrid) is a year old now. You'll see smaller SUVs coming out with hybrids (and production) accelerate as demand for them increases.
Harold Arnold Jr.
President, Sentry Buick Pontiac GMC
Family: wife, Martha Ann; a son and daughter in the car business.
Hobbies: Building 18th century furniture reproductions, hunting, fishing, playing the banjo.