By JIM PARKER

The Post and Courier

An early outpost for Rick Hendrick’s then fledgling car sales business was the Savannah Highway-based Honda dealership in Charleston in 1980.

Looking back, it was something of a harbinger.

Hendrick Automotive Group is no longer an upstart. It is the seventh largest dealership venture in the U.S. and second biggest privately held operation with close to 100 dealerships, according to Automotive News.

Meanwhile, the Charleston market has grown to be the second largest in the Hendrick stable with 12 stores, placing behind only headquarters city Charlotte and just ahead of greater Kansas City in Missouri and Kansas. A chunk of the local growth took place when Hendrick bought the holdings of local dealer Gene Reed three years ago while adding two individual stores.

It’s clear that Charleston is an important spot for the group, said Tom Blocker, executive vice president and East Division chief operating officer.

Blocker, who was in Charleston for one of his periodic visits to the local Hendrick dealerships, was complimentary of the dozen stores’ successful business as of late.

“It’s a great mix of families,” Blocker said. “This is so important to Mr. Hendrick; working together,” he said.

In the past few years, the local Hendrick stores have teamed up to form Charleston Drive to assist with charitable efforts locally. The group and individual outlets have “specialized in ongoing community projects,” said Brad Davis, who is executive general manager of Rick Hendrick Imports.

Dealerships in the Charleston area are Hendrick BMW; Rick Hendrick Chevrolet; Hendrick Dodge Ram; Fiat of Charleston; Hendrick Honda; Hendrick Hyundai; Hendrick Hyundai North; Rick Hendrick Jeep, Chrysler, Dodge North Charleston; Lexus of Charleston; Mini of Charleston; Rick Hendrick’s Toyota/Scion of North Charleston; and Volvo of Charleston.

Blocker oversees dealerships in the Southeast, more specifically Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

A few cities are adding branches: For instance, Hendrick just opened dealerships in Tallahassee, Fla. Those new stores have a Charleston connection: former local Hendrick general manager Ryan Regnier is heading up a region that includes parts of Georgia and Florida.

“We really like the Southeast. This is our growth spot,” Blocker said.

The Charleston area buying spree came in 2010, when Hendrick bought Toyota/Scion and Lexus from Gene Reed and added the Hyundai stores from Palmetto Car and Truck Group and McElveen Automotive Group.

Blocker said he expects the greater Charleston market to continue to expand. At least for the short term, “it will probably be internal growth. We are running out of space,” he said. Hendrick still has some properties available to move into, however.

The company plans to keep its focus on service. “Sales and products come and go,” Davis said. What brings people back is how they are treated on return trips for tune-ups, repairs or to look at buying another new or pre-owned vehicle.

Blocker, whose hobby is riding Ducati motorcycles (his top speed is 170 mph at Roebling Road auto track near Savannah), acknoledges that he can’t predict Rick Hendrick’s every move. But he can “absolutely” confirm there’s no chance the automotive group will become a publicly traded company. “I can answer that with or without” checking with the boss. “We are well capitalized,” he said, adding that the group has good relationships with banks across its coverage area from the South Atlantic to California.

Blocker is also fairly certain of another thing: Rick Hendrick’s $1.1 million purchase at a January auction of the 2014 Corvette Stingray with vehicle identification number, or VIN, ending in #0001 won’t go out on tour.

“That will go to the museum,” in Charlotte, where Hendrick has a vast collection of classic and new vehicles, he said.

All proceeds of the sale will benefit the College of Creative Studies in Detroit, according to Fox News and High Gear Media.

Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or jparker@postandcourier.com.