As Ken Jones sits down to talk about the expansion of the family-owned automotive group his father started almost 40 years ago and its sizable expansion this year, he is distracted for a moment. From the showroom, he has locked his eyes on a customer out in the parking lot. After a moment, he sees a sales associate headed toward them and he can relax again.
Customer service is paramount to Deacon Jones and, as the company’s president and CEO, Jones takes that seriously.
The very first slogan ever used for Deacon Jones was “We treat people the way we would like to be treated,” a golden rule they still stand by today. The motto is emblazoned on the wall behind Jones as he talks about the auto group’s newest acquisition — the former Go Automotive/Toyota on Sunset Avenue.
“All the brands here now will stay here,” said Jones of the Clinton locations next door to each other. “The transition is coming together. We’ve done a little painting and remodeling. There’s more to come. Both franchisees are requesting to do some major renovations but they are giving us a 24-month timeframe to get started.”
Deacon Jones now owns stores from Greenville to Clinton, Goldsboro to Garner, all within about a 50-mile radius of its home office in Smithfield. The Clinton location was eyed because it filled a void.
“Toyota was the only major mainstream brand that our family and company was without. We were without Toyota and Honda and in June of this year, we acquired the Honda store in Goldsboro (formerly Stevenson), which serves Sampson County as well because there’s no Honda dealer in Sampson County.”
Then the Clinton dealerships came available.
“That motivated us to work out a deal with Mr. Stefanovich,” Jones continued. “That was the main draw. And it was as close to us and our home office in Smithfield as any Toyota store we could have pursued. It became attractive when Mr, Stefanovich showed interest and was looking toward retirement.”
Stefanovich served his last day at Go Automotive at the end of last month. He informed his employees in mid-October that he had sold Go Automotive in Clinton to Deacon Jones and introduced the dealership’s staff to Jones the next day.
The dealership filled the void — the “missing gem,” Jones deemed it — and provided a stronger presence in Johnston and Sampson by having a Buick-GMC-Chevrolet store in the two of the largest land mass counties in the state.
“We are the holder of every major domestic and import brand, with the exception of luxury import,” Jones attested. “We try to stay within a 50-mile radius (of the home office in Smithfield) and this is about 45 miles.”
Due to the fact that Deacon Jones has a Buick-GMC-Chevrolet-Cadillac store in Smithfield, those in Clinton will notice that the local dealership will be equipped with a larger inventory of those brands — “to the tune of 600 or 700 more available units than they would normally have,” Jones pointed out. “That should help every customer find what they want.”
Toyota will also provide some extra inventory — standard protocol when a dealership changes hands to get the incoming dealer “off to a good start” — and Jones said it will take about 60 days for that to show up.
Jones father Bobby Kenneth “Deacon” Jones went into the new car franchise business in June 1978. Given the nickname “Deacon” in high school for his father’s years as a pastor, Bobby “Deacon” Jones always put the customer first and prided himself on good service. At the time he started, the family business sold just two brands — Pontiac and Buick.
Born and raised in Princeton in Johnston County, Ken Jones said his family have lived, worked and worshipped in the same community their whole lives. Their home church is Princeton Church of God, where his grandfather Rev. Clyde Jones pastored for two separate stints. Jones cited the Christian principles on which the family company operates, again pointing to that motto above his head that drives the message home. His father, who passed away in January 2010, lived by that. Both of Jones’ grandfathers were ministers.
Integrity, strong values and faith mean everything.
Jones took over as president and CEO after his father’s sudden passing and he, along with his Deacon and Faye Woodall Jones’ other children — Ken’s brother Anthony and sister Tina — are equal owners and officers, but Ken Jones plays the primary role in the day-to-day operations.
Over the years, the business has grown and 2016 has been a busy year.
For Jones, the dealership that greets visitors to Clinton from the western part of Sampson County provided the perfect opportunity, location, brand and a strong community infrastructure upon which Deacon Jones could expand its own growing venture.
“It’s unusual for a small family-owned dealership to acquire every major brand we have acquired, but the good Lord has smiled upon us and given us the opportunities. And two of them came within one year,” Jones said of the Goldsboro and Clinton locations. “Usually you don’t do two major purchases in one year, but these became available, they were two of the gems we were missing and they were close enough we were willing to do it.”
There are approximately 350 employees under the Deacon Jones umbrella, which offers 14 brands at locations in eight different cities. Deacon Jones has locations in Smithfield (Buick, GMC, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Ram); Goldsboro (Honda, Nissan, Kia, Ford, Lincoln); and Clinton (Buick, GMC, Chevrolet, Toyota); as well as Fayetteville, Garner, Selma, Greenville and Jones’ hometown of Princeton.
Since officially taking ownership three weeks ago, Jones said there nearly 50-strong employment base in Clinton has stayed intact. In fact, the dealership is seeking to expand its employee base.
“We are hiring sales assistants as we speak to hopefully create some job growth in the community, since we are providing double or triple the inventory they are used to having,” the president said. “Our intention was to use the people here, assuming they wanted to stay here with Deacon Jones. The only addition we have made is a general manager to help run both dealerships.”
Serving as that general manager is Scott McLeod, who grew up in Clinton and whose parents still live in town. Jones pointed to McLeod’s automotive knowledge and said he was hired about six weeks before the Clinton locations were purchased.
“He has been in a subsidiary of the car industry for 15-20 years,” Jones said of McLeod, “but the biggest drawing card in talking with Scott was he was originally from Clinton and Sampson County.”
Jones said he and his family are acquainted with Clinton Mayor Lew Starling — the mayor has law offices in Smithfield — but outside of that did not have any real ties to the local community.
“I knew if we could have somebody who had some ties to the community, knew the business owners here … I felt like that would be a good asset,” he remarked.
McLeod said he has enjoyed the transition back to the place where he was raised and graduated high school.
“On a daily basis, people have stopped by and I’ve made a lot of re-connections,” McLeod said. “Just last night, I walked over to greet a customer and it was a guy I played football with in high school, and we hadn’t seen each other since high school. Those kind of things are happening every day. I don’t know nostalgic is the right word, but it’s definitely been enjoyable.”
Jones said he looks forward to a long relationship with the people of Clinton and Sampson County and those who come to the county to visit and buy a car. The growth locally is an exciting prospect.
“We’re excited to be in the area of the community college and also excited about the possibilities of the new (N.C.) 24 coming in from Fayetteville,” said Jones. “We believe that will be a thoroughfare that will help our business grow as it gets completed to access some of the people in Cumberland County for sales. We believe Clinton has a lot of potential in this growing economy and we just look forward to being a sales and service provider for the people of Sampson and surrounding counties.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.