2nd auto dealership in town opens soon Head of firm says he's new to the business

March 26, 1996|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,SUN STAFF

Richard H. Shepherd Jr. isn't one to be easily discouraged. So it seems fitting that a man who never has sold a car will help open and run a car dealership in East Columbia.

Columbia Pontiac Buick GMC Inc. -- only the town's second auto dealership -- is to open officially in mid-April or May on 5 1/2 acres near the planned community's first auto dealership, Apple Ford, on McGaw Road in East Columbia.

Mr. Shepherd, 46, a resident of Columbia's Long Reach village, will be president of the 20,000 square-foot General Motors dealership, an $8 million project partly financed through General Motors Corp. In 4 1/2 years, he hopes to buy out GM -- the dealership's majority stockholder.

"I've always had an entrepreneurial spirit," said Mr. Shepherd, whose dealership initially will have 250 new and used cars for sale and will employ about 40 people. "I don't necessarily like working for other people."

Projected to generate $25 million in sales in its first year, the new dealership joins the county's handful of GMC, Buick and Pontiac dealerships and could signal a continued growth of the car market along Snowden River Parkway near Route 175.

Besides the GM dealership and Apple Ford, another 10 acres are available for a potential third auto dealership, said Gary Swatko construction manager for Merritt, a Woodlawn company that owns the land.

"There's currently nothing locked in on a third, but there's a good probability that the remaining land will end up as a dealership," Mr. Swatko said.

But neither he nor Alton Scavo, senior vice president of the Rouse Co., believe the new Columbia dealerships are likely to convert the area into an automobile-market strip like nearby U.S. 40 on both sides of U.S. 29.

"It can't physically be laid out for that kind of strip," Mr. Scavo said. Dealerships clustered in "an auto park" would better serve the community residents, who otherwise have to travel to the auto dealerships in Ellicott City or Burtonsville, he said.

The new GM business is due to open at a time of upheaval for the auto industry in general, exemplified by the proposal of Richmond-based CarMax to build a 46-acre used car operation near Savage.

The CarMax facility would combine self-service convenience, low-pressure sales techniques and computer-assisted browsing. That proposal hinges on passage of legislation allowing Sunday car sales in Howard.

Mr. Shepherd -- who has a bachelor's degree in sociology -- relishes the challenge of entering such a competitive business.

Though he never has sold a car, he gained general sales experience with Automatic Data Processing (ADP), a company in a suburb of Cleveland. In his 12 years there, he sold computer systems to auto dealers, which piqued his interest in auto sales.

In 1989, Mr. Shepherd and 14 other prospective dealers entered the competitive General Motors Dealer Development Academy in Detroit, which trains minorities to manage dealerships. Since graduating from the one-year academy he's wanted his own dealership.

"I had the patience and the perseverance to stick with this thing to make it happen," Mr. Shepherd said.

Car dealerships traditionally have been a white-male industry. Nationally, as of the early 1990s, only about 400 African-Americans were car dealers and less than 5 percent of all dealerships were owned by minorities.

George Doetsch, president of 2-year-old Apple Ford, met Mr. Shepherd through his work at ADP and welcomes his entry into the local market.

"I think he's a good guy. He'll bring positive focus to our industry," said Mr. Doetsch. "I think activity creates activity."

Drawing on his background in data processing, Mr. Shepherd plans to feature computers at his dealership that service technicians and other workers can use to deal with customers efficiently.

He also will offer second-chance financing and competitive pricing without high-pressure sales tactics, he said.

"I want to differentiate myself from the rest," he said. "I want to make sure people are treated fairly when they come in to the store and treated professionally, so they're not taken advantage of."

His enthusiasm is shared by others on his staff.

"I think the key is to make sure we get our name out and let people know we're in the community," said general sales manager Thomas E. Fisher, a 16-year car salesman from Washington. "These domestic cars we're selling are not only high-quality but excellent value for the money."

On Friday, Mr. Shepherd and his son, William, 13, observed the construction work. The eighth-grader shadowed his father at work as part of a program at Owen Brown Middle School.

As workers with hard hats labored to complete the facility, Mr. Shepherd noted how the showroom will have skylights to allow the sun to strike cars. His office will sit off the showroom floor so "people will have access to the owner. It's not like I'm some mystery guy up in a tower."

Mr. Shepherd said he has been encouraged in the project by his wife, Betty, a retired hospital and university accounts manager. Eventually, he would like to pass the dealership on to William and his daughter, Keisha, 14.

But William, an aspiring doctor, has other plans: "It just doesn't seem like something I want to do."

Pub Date: 3/26/96

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