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Auto sales | Keys to survival

Suncoast Chrysler Jeep, Castriota Chevrolet weather the auto storm

All around us there are businesses filing for bankruptcy, neighborhood shops shutting down. It's no different for auto dealers. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the National Automobile Dealers Association estimates 700 new-car dealerships will close this year, up from 430 last year. So we set out to find some good news: businesses that have withstood the test of time. We checked in with two family-owned dealerships in the Tampa Bay area: Suncoast Chrysler Jeep in Seminole and Castriota Chevrolet in Hudson.

Suncoast is family-owned, with three generations of the Schmidts running it, says Phil Schmidt, 52, sales manager and co-owner. Wayne Schmidt Sr., who opened the business on Park Boulevard in Seminole in January 1975, is still very active in the business. So are his sons, Wayne Jr. and Phil, and his grandson, Wayne III. "My brother and I grew up in the car business," Phil Schmidt says. "We've been doing this all our life."

Tom Castriota and his wife, Anita, opened their dealership on U.S. 19 in Hudson in 1993, and still run a dealership they opened in Pittsburgh in 1979.

We asked Schmidt and Castriota the secrets to surviving — and thriving — despite the economic ups and downs.

Focus on customers

The customer always comes first, they say.

"We know customers are the most important aspect, they are our lifeblood," Schmidt says. "Our job is to make customers happy, and then they keep coming back. They feel they know us, they trust us. It's not like an adversarial scenario. They pick out car, and we see what we can do to make a good deal. . . . We have a small-town feeling, and we have many good, loyal customers. . . . We try to make it easy. Keep customers in mind to see what we can make things better."

"We do the best we can. We treat customers well and we focus on the basics," Castriota, 55, says.

Staying involved

Schmidt and Castriota both say one of the things that differentiates them from other businesses is that they're always there — in their dealerships, and in the community.

"We're here every day," Schmidt says. "Walk in from 8 (in the morning) to 8 (at night) and one of us will probably be here . . . 99 percent of the time one of us will be here.''

"Any business that's successful needs to give back to the community," Castriota says. "Give back with money and time. We'll weather this by being involved every day, by keeping the staff involved. . . . Sometimes bigger businesses, when they're owned by a franchise, they forget about their community."

Castriota sits in on nonpartisan boards and hospital boards, and keeps active in neighborhood events.

Suncoast stays involved by sponsoring Little League and local soccer teams. "We are involved in community and people recognize that," Schmidt says.

Going the extra mile

Every business needs to look at two things, Castriota says: sales and expenses. "Some businesses try to expand so quickly, they build large stores geared for selling hundreds and hundreds of cars. Our economy now can't support that."

Businesses need to look at their costs and at their market, and make adjustments to reach the need-based consumer. For Castriota, that meant analyzing the advertising budget and shifting more into the used-car business. "People are very leery of spending on anything other than necessities," he says.

At Suncoast, most used cars come with a warranty and a service ticket, showing what has been done to the car through their shop. Most used cars also come with free oil changes for two years. "We give a little more," Schmidt says. "It's not just, 'Here are the keys to the car. Good luck.' We take pride in what we do and make sure we do a good job. . . . When we sell a used car, it's a quality one."

Positive outlook

Everybody's feeling the effect of the economic downturn, the dealers say.

"Not as many people are going out to eat, or buying big-ticket items," Schmidt says. "We're not selling as many cars, but we're getting by okay. Our customers who've been here will be here for years to come. I think things will pick up, turn around. After the election, we'll have new direction and the economy will move forward."

Castriota agrees. "Most car dealers are self-driven and optimistic," he says. "We always think it will get better. And it will, but the question is who will still be here to weather this."

Castriota says new-car sales are down, but the used-car market is picking up; business in the body shop is down (some people can't afford the insurance deductible, he says), but in the service department there's a lot of potential growth, because people are keeping their cars longer.

Suncoast Chrysler Jeep, Castriota Chevrolet weather the auto storm 10/31/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 31, 2008 4:30am]
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