The title of “car dealership owner” is not exactly what Steve Jacobs had in mind after graduating from Miami of Ohio in 1971.
“I was going to law school,” he said.
But in his first post-graduate job, Jacobs came to a career-shifting realization: “I found out in order to increase my pay, I had to work more years.”
Recently married, Jacobs admittedly was disillusioned with his prospects. So he sought a job that was more performance driven: auto sales.
The decision took him far afield. He sold cars at a dealership in upstate New York, then relocated to Kansas City, Mo. Eventually, he would hook up with a dealer with an emerging national presence — Rick Hendrick — and would run an outlet in Wilmington, N.C., with NASCAR superstar Jeff Gordon.
Jacobs was comfortable in his job. At one point in his career, he managed a group of Hendrick dealerships with more than 1,300 employees. An avid pilot — his father worked on Army helicopter production during the Vietnam War — Jacobs was involved with the Young Eagles outreach group that teaches underprivileged youngsters about flight.
Still, by 2005, Jacobs had yet to reach one goal. That was to own a dealership outright. The chance came that November when he bought Chevrolet stores in North Charleston and Summerville from publicly traded United Auto Group and renamed them Marathon Chevrolet.
He’s had to tussle with the downturn in the automotive industry, which contributed to Marathon closing its Dorchester County outlet earlier this year. Yet business has been steady and is picking up this year. “It’s extraordinary. We had the best month we ever had in July.”
The lot has 170 cars and trucks at any one time and employs 75 people. New car sales outnumber used 60 percent to 40 percent. But the pre-owned business has helped in the economic slowdown.
Chevrolet is manufacturing popular vehicles, such as the trendy 2010 Camaro, classic Corvette, redesigned Equinox crossover and new Traverse sport utility, Jacobs said.
The Volt, likely to be the first all-electric car sold by a major manufacturer, is set to arrive next year. He said “the Volt obviously has a lot of publicity.” But Chevy is also scheduled to introduce a gas-powered compact that’s going to post 30-miles-per-gallon-plus fuel economy numbers.
“New car (sales) has picked up,” Jacobs said. “There was not a lot of inventory. We have actually gone out and purchased from other dealers to supplement what we already have.”
What has helped sales is the fact that Chevrolet has one of the top warranties in the industry including 100,000 miles on the engine and related parts. As a sign that General Motors is building solid cars, the amount of money paid out on warranties has dropped by two-thirds, he said.
Along with car sales, Marathon Chevrolet has built a busy sideline repairing wrecked vehicles in its collision center. “The collision business is sort of recession proof.”
To further diversify, the outfit plans to be the local dealer for Indian-built Mahindra trucks — a move that could take place as soon as February. The Asian manufacturer specializes in smaller yet solidly built pickups,
“We are excited about that,” he said. The supplier will be Global Vehicles U.S.A. in Alpharetta, Ga. Marathon will be the exclusive local truck dealer. “I feel like we are fortunate with Mahindra.”
While landing in Charleston just four years ago, Jacobs is hardly a stranger to the region. He first made his way to South Carolina in 1980 as general manager of a dealership in Rock Hill. It was a tough time to sell cars. “Interest rates were at 20 percent,” he said.
He would leave the auto trade altogether, running a series of small businesses before returning in 1992 to start an independent outlet selling high-end cars in Rock Hill.
Jacobs in time would join Hendrick Automotive Group. “Mr. Hendrick was an extraordinary leader. I was just happy to have the opportunity (to work with him).”
In the late 1990s, he was shifted back to Kansas City to run operations of the former Superior Auto Group, which Hendrick had purchased. He would also head up Hendrick dealerships in Charlotte and Hickory in North Carolina and Easley in South Carolina. Then he partnered with race car driver Gordon to run the Wilmington dealership.
“Jeff was a very kind individual,” he said.
The only trouble, Jacobs said, was he was always going to be managing general partner in Wilmington, but not outright owner. That’s when he got wind of the Charleston area dealerships.
Jacobs, 60, and his wife Marcie live on Daniel Island. They have one daughter, Kelly, who is 32 and lives in Charlotte.
Marcie has been active in “Women Making a Difference,” which helps dozens of groups such as the Children’s shelter at the old Navy Base.
Since Jacobs spends the bulk of his time keeping Marathon Chevrolet in good sales and financial shape, “my wife has been my public relations person,” he quipped.
Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or firstname.lastname@example.org