Out in Front: Energetic sales team helps suburban dealership take volume title among local Ford outlets last year

Summerville Ford lead all local Ford dealerships in new car sales last year, averaging more than 100 a month. Leroy Burnell/Staff 1/27/2014

There's no doubt car dealers seeking to sell the most vehicles want to be as close as possible to the largest numbers of shoppers.

Why else but "location, location, location" would the bulk of local affiliates bunch together in one of two places: Savannah Highway in Charleston and Rivers Avenue in North Charleston.

While not situated in either "auto mile," Summerville Ford set up shop in a smart location: a highly visible building on a busy highway. The dealership, at 9700 Dorchester Road, is in the fast-growing Oakbrook area of lower Dorchester County.

Its market would seem to be less than peak, at least to rack up big volume. Car buyers come from moderate-sized Summerville and smaller outlying villages such as St. George, Walterboro, Ridgeville and Moncks Corner.

Yet even without a huge customer stream, Summerville Ford racked up close to 1,200 new-car sales last year to place first among local Ford dealerships. It's not the first time, either. The dealership, which has 63 employees, finished at the top four years ago as well.

Vidonne Colston, assistant to the general manager, said there's plenty of credit to go around.

She pegged "hard work" as the top reason for the success. "We have a really talented sales staff," she added. The dealership has 14 sales people.

At the same time, "We have a very good selection of inventory." New models include the nation's bestselling vehicle, the F-150 truck; the popular Fusion and Focus sedans; Explorer, Escape and Edge SUVs; and the C-Max hybrid. Rolling out this fall will be the newly redesigned, much anticipated 2015 Mustang.

Also, the company builds much of its business on referrals and returning customers, she says.

Summerville Ford owner Sam Johnson agrees that the Ford products, the expanding Summerville area and a "tremendous amount of repeat" business play roles in the dealership's success. "We continue to work very hard to keep the customers we have."

In recent years, the dealership beefed up its Internet presence, even landing sales online. "We've shipped cars to New York, Georgia, Florida," Johnson said.

Whether at the lot or in cyberspace, "People like to do business in Summerville," he said.

Satisfied with the recent sales reports, Johnson doesn't foresee major changes in Summerville Ford going forward. "It's kind of business as usual," he said. "The staff is basically the same. We have longevity as a whole." At the same time, he said, "We are always looking for a few good men, and women."

Along with being tops in new car sales, Summerville Ford specializes in used car deals, too. "We sell more used cars than anyone in this area," Johnson said.

Summerville Ford emphasizes the importance of service in retaining customers. "We tell our service (staff) for instance, if we sell in front, and aggravate a customer in back, they don't come back."

Johnson bought Summerville Ford in 2003 and moved it to the current location three years later. He owns two more dealerships, in Fayetteville, N.C., and in Tupelo, Miss.

Colston said the Summerville Ford sales staff plays a big role in the dealership's growth because they're the first people that customers see.

The crew includes Brian "Elvis" Hayes, a former University of Louisville football player who's worked at Summerville Ford for six years.

Hayes, whose parents owned a Chicago jazz club, earned the nickname "Little Elvis" as a kid because "Elvis was the only thing that got me going."

At Louisville, Hayes played defensive end on the 1990 team that won the Fiesta Bowl. He said the athletic experience "absolutely" has helped him years later in selling cars and trucks, including a whopping 248 last year.

Like football, "this is a competitive business," Hayes said. He goes out of his way to keep in touch with customers, sending them Christmas and birthday cards. He's also known for coaching newer salespeople in the finer points of the job. But he hasn't lost the will to compete.

"On the (sales) floor," Hayes said, "I've set a bar that's difficult to top."

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