By Whitney Burdette - email
To say Richard Stephens knows cars is an understatement.
The Boone County businessman has been around auto dealerships all his life. After his father worked in the industry, first as a bookkeeper, then as general manager and finally as owner of the former Boone Motor Sales, Stephens has taken over management of Stephens Auto, a Ford and Chrysler dealership along U.S. Route 119 in Boone County.
But after earning a degree in business administration with an emphasis on finance from West Virginia University, Stephens thought maybe he wanted to be a stockbroker. That changed, however, when he realized his career goals had changed. After working in his father's dealership over summer and school breaks, he thought a job outside the dealership would be to his benefit.
"My first job out of college, I decided I should probably try to go to work somewhere else," Stephens said. "The only jobs I had were in the dealership during summer and breaks from school. I went to work for Chrysler Credit. They had an office in Charleston at the time. I did collections for them; I called people about their car payment; I repossessed cars. I did dealer floor plan audits. Our inventory we finance through the manufacturers or banks is called the floor plan, and we would have to go out and audit that inventory they owed us money for. I did that for a little over a year, then came back to the dealership."
Stephens' father has stepped aside and allowed his son to take over day-to-day operations of the dealership, but he still comes in the office daily.
Stephens acknowledged running an auto dealership has its ups and downs, especially in light of the recent economic downturn and events in Detroit.
"It's ever-changing, especially in the last few years with everything that happened with the economy (and) the financial crisis. The lending institutions tightened up and would not lend money the way they did before," Stephens said. "Of course we had General Motors and Chrysler go into bankruptcy and emerge as new companies. That was a pretty frightening time to be a dealership with one of those franchises. We came through that OK. We're still a Chrysler franchise, but some were terminated in the process."
Though Stephens Auto is still standing after the economic crisis, new trouble is brewing. Many customers at Stephens Auto are affiliated with the coal industry, which is undergoing a crisis of its own. With layoffs, shutdowns and decreasing benefits, Stephens said he has found many coal miners are hesitant to buy a new vehicle.
"Really through the recession we've had in recent years, we came through that pretty good because coal mining jobs were pretty good at that time. Coal prices were high, so people in our area were still buying cars," Stephens said. "We didn't have the housing bubble a lot of areas of the country had. That wasn't a big impact on us, but it's been a little tougher recently because of what's happened in the coal industry and some mines cutting back or shutting down. A lot of people who are still working in the mines are concerned about their future; they're not sure if they'll have a job in the near future. Some miners are worried about their benefits and health insurance with Patriot Coal and what's going on there. All that has become more of an impact on our business recently, where we see people may be holding off on the purchase of a new car."
But, Stephens said, this isn't the first time the coal industry has affected his business. Past United Mine Workers of America strikes, downturns in coal prices and fluctuations in business have had an effect on the number of cars the dealership has sold, but the business is still successful.
"While coal miners are a significant part of our business, we have a lot of other people who aren't directly associated with that so much — teachers, people who work in a variety of industries who might to some degree be impacted by coal mining but not as directly themselves," Stephens said. "2012 was still a good year for us despite what's happening in the coal industry. But I'm still worried about the future."
If Stephens isn't in his office at the dealership, it's probably because he's representing West Virginia auto dealers to the National Automobile Dealers Association. Stephens also has served as chairman of the West Virginia Auto Dealers Association and served as chairman of the West Virginia International Auto Show in Charleston. Stephens said his involvement in these professional organizations has introduced him to new experiences.
"I am very proud of being elected to this national association because I'm really getting some great new experiences there, meeting wonderful people from all over the country, dealing with the execs at some of the manufacturers," Stephens said. "I just came back from Detroit where one week I was with the national dealer council with Chrysler and meeting with all their executives and then the following week I was at a meeting with Ford and meeting with executives in the fleet department because we specialize in fleet sales and do a lot of government sales. A lot of dealers aren't involved in fleet sales, and it's added a new dimension to our business model."
Another way Stephens continues to diversify his business is by getting involved in real estate. He has partnered with some other investors to develop a tract of land in Fayetteville. Stephens said because of the influx of tourism, especially with the new Boy Scouts camp, he expects the venture to be successful.
"It's a large tract of land that we've purchased," Stephens said.
"We think there will be several phases of the development and we don't know what that might entail."
At least one phase of the project will include building upscale cottages to be rented out to tourists.
But Stephens isn't just a businessman — he's a family man, too. He and his wife, Melissa, have two sons, ages 13 and 10, who are involved in a variety of activities, including Boy Scouts and track. And luckily, the youngest Stephenses have a while yet to decide what they want to be when they grow up, because their dad said they're currently undecided.
"Sometimes they talk about being in the car business when they grow up," Stephens said. "Other times they talk about other avenues they might want to explore. They're 13 and 10, so they have a ways to go before they have to make those decisions. Just this weekend I was asking them what they might want to do when they grow up and one said he's interested in anthropology and the other said he wanted to be an actor."