Say Patel achieves the elusive dream of buying a car dealership

on Jul2

On May 15, Say Patel received a Fed-Ex package that he had waited for his whole life.

It contained a letter from General Motors approving his purchase of Tri-County Chevrolet in Royston, Ga. It was his dream come true. Patel sat silently for an hour holding the letter, realizing he just won one for the underdogs.

“I consider myself an underdog because I could have failed just as easily,” said Patel, 53. “I’m of Indian descent, born in Manchester, England, grew up in a rough New Jersey neighborhood and got beat up every day because I was different, until I realized cars were something that could get me through.”

Patel’s story is remarkable. The old pattern of general managers buying stores rarely holds true any more. The high prices of dealerships today, combined with automakers’ scrutiny, including both requirements for franchisees and the propensity of some brands to exercise a right of first refusal and pick a buyer they prefer, make it nearly impossible for a person to break into the ranks of ownership, even with years of experience in management.


“It’s becoming more and more unusual for non-car dealers to buy a dealership,” said Moshe Stopnitzky, president of buy-sell advisory firm Performance Brokerage Services in Irvine, Calif. “Before 2007, non-car dealers represented as much as 50 percent of our business. Then the recession hit. In the last few years, I would say that non-car dealers represent less than 5 percent.”

Patel practiced years of disciplined savings to stockpile the cash for a store. Now, he employs 19 people in the dealership and expects to sell about 700 new and used cars a year.

“It’s a small store, so most seasoned dealers wouldn’t look at this,” said Patel. “But I would!”

The store’s location in a town of fewer than 3,000 between Athens, Ga., and Anderson, S.C., is one reason GM granted Patel the franchise, said Stopnitzky, whose firm was not involved in the sale. “If this was in Dallas, he would have never got it.”

A GM executive said Patel’s passion for cars and customers and his business acumen drove the decision.

“That’s what you need to succeed as a dealer, and it doesn’t matter if you’re running a multi-point operation or a small rural store,” said Brian Sweeney, U.S. vice president of Chevrolet. “We think the key ingredients are there for him to be very successful.”

But, Stopnitzkey said, it is “amazing” Patel achieved ownership. “Prices have risen, making the purchase of a dealership an expensive endeavor unless it’s a broken one and out of compliance. Even then, the manufacturer might opt to shut it down.”

There are also “the four C’s” most buyers must meet: They must have capital, be of good character, have established customer satisfaction scores and demonstrated capacity to run all parts of the dealership, Stopnitzky said.

“It’s practically impossible for someone from the outside to be approved as a franchised dealer,” Stopnitzky said. “They cannot demonstrate all of the four C’s.” In particular, the factories’ “scrutiny for cash,” he said, is “absolutely the highest I’ve ever seen.”

Tri-County Chevrolet


Patel is no stranger to a struggle. In 1969, his father immigrated to the U.S. from England. Three years later, at age 7, Patel followed, along with his mother and siblings. He grew up in Clifton, N.J., a city about 5 miles west of Manhattan that often served as a setting in HBO’s hit series “The Sopranos.”

At 5 feet 4 inches, Patel relied on grit to survive there. “I’m a small person, but I lettered in baseball, football and wrestling. I could run just as fast as the other kids could and I could catch the ball,” said Patel. “I got hurt a lot, but I never stopped going to practice.”

In the late 1970s, Patel discovered a talent for fixing cars. That’s when he beat the bullies.

“The kids realized not many people knew how to work on cars, but ‘Say did!'” Patel said. “I fixed their cars and I charged them a lot of money, too.”

Patel earned a degree in automotive technology from Lincoln Technical Institute in Union, N.J., in 1986. He had already bought two local full-service fuel stations a year earlier with a $10,000 loan from his father.

One day in 1992, Patel had a serendipitous encounter at one of his fuel stations. A Ford Motor Co. executive pulled in and chatted while Patel pumped his gasoline. Patel blurted out, “I’d love to own a car dealership.” The executive invited Patel to a regional office to discuss the idea. There, he told Patel a dealership would cost about $1 million. “I got up and walked out,” said Patel. “I was lucky if I had $20,000 in an operating account and $5,000 saved with my new wife.”

But the meeting lit an ember in Patel that would smolder for two decades.

“I started thinking of just saving money,” said Patel. “I never lost sight of owning my own dealership one day.”

A turning point came in 2001. By then, he had sold his fuel stations and moved his wife and two daughters to St. Petersburg, Fla., to be near his parents. He got a job on the parts counter of an ACDelco Distribution Center. He met many GM employees through the job, who explained auto retail to Patel, reigniting his dream.

Patel often worked 70 to 90 hours a week, and “I just saved and saved and saved my money,” he said. “I banked it all away.” Patel’s wife put him on an allowance of $25 a month. He spent $5 and saved $20, he said. “To this day, I get $100 a month in my allowance,” he said. “I spend $50 and save $50.”

His peers were living in big houses, but Patel’s family lived in a modest two-bedroom apartment or similar-sized one-bathroom home. “When we went out to dinner, we didn’t go out to dinner,” Patel joked. “We ate at McDonald’s or Burger King. That was the highlight of going out.”

Patel’s next big break came in 2012 when dealer Bill Holt hired him to run his dealerships. Holt owns three stores in Georgia — two Chevrolet and one Mitsubishi — and a Chevrolet-Buick-GMC store in Tennessee.

“He gave me the opportunity when a lot of people wouldn’t,” said Patel. “He knew I was a hard worker; he was told by GM people in the region. Without Bill, I wouldn’t have gotten the shot.” Holt couldn’t be reached for comment for this story.

Lessons learned

By 2016, most dealers in the region knew Patel wanted to buy his own store, Patel said. Gary Phillips, who had owned Tri-County Chevrolet since 2001, wanted to retire. The two men started talking last December. Patel soon quit Holt.

From January to May 15, “it was a crazy ride,” Patel said. He paid, he said, between $500,000 to $1 million for the dealership — his life savings, leaving him “petrified, scared, excited.”

Every day, “I walk into the dealership with butterflies in my stomach,” Patel said. “I’m not like other dealers, second-generation dealers, who have built-up revenue and have access to another area of revenue.”

But he is learning. He has backed off of his former micromanaging style, realizing, “If I am going to take care of 19 families and get where we need to go, I have to delegate and trust others.”

He will embed himself in Royston’s “truck-country and cattle-farm” culture to entice customers, he said.

Finally, Patel has embraced the one thing that got him beat up as a kid: Being different.

“I was not a good, typical Indian son,” Patel said. “I put my parents through heck and back, I know I did. But they are very happy for me now.”

Say Patel

Path to becoming a dealer principal
1982: Graduated from Clifton High School, Clifton, N.J.
1985: Purchased two full-service Exxon fuel stations with repair shops
1986: Earned a degree in automotive technology from Lincoln Technical Institute in Union, N.J.
1992: Sold both fuel stations, became a body shop manager for independent shop
1994: Took over a junkyard and repair shop, built it up and sold it
2001: Started as a parts counter worker at an ACDelco distribution center in St. Petersburg, Fla.
2005: General manager for a GM accessories distributor-installer, covering four Southeast states
2012: Executive manager for Bill Holt Chevrolet in Canton, Ga.
June 2017: Purchased Tri-County Chevrolet in Royston, Ga.

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