Steve Stefanovich wrote a speech to deliver to his employees, something he never did before Friday. Keeping with tradition, however, there ultimately were no prepared statements. He spoke briefly from the heart, choking back tears to encouraging applause from his employees. After 34 years, they knew how much he appreciated them both professionally and personally and they loved him back.
“Through 34 years, you’ve been family,” Stefanovich told the group. “Thank you all.”
Stefanovich broke the news to his employees nearly two weeks ago that he had sold Go Automotive in Clinton to Deacon Jones and owner Ken Jones. He introduced the dealership’s staff to Jones the next day. That transition will officially take place this week and Friday served as Stefanovich’s last day at the dealership he built over the last three decades.
“I’ve seen him grow the business over the past almost 35 years,” said wife Julie Stefanovich, who fought back tears of her own. “Steve has been all about the people. He’s given them opportunities and they’ve given him opportunities. His biggest concern is that we do the right thing by the employees.”
Donning an apron, Stefanovich served burgers and hot dogs to a line of people that were not just Go Automotive employees, but his extended family. As he was preparing the food on a large grill in the shop Friday, he reflected on the past and looked toward an uncertain future.
“After 34 years, we all get in our routines and become like family. We’re just going through a little separation,” said Stefanovich.
For the near future, there is no plan to leave Clinton. Stefanovich will continue to serve on the Clinton City Council (his term expires at the end of 2017), continue to raise money for education as a member of the Sampson Community College Foundation Board and will still be a member at Graves Memorial Presbyterian Church in Clinton.
He will, however, be assisting with the operation of Go Automotive’s pre-owned location on Carolina Beach Road, Wilmington. His daughter Annie, who has operated the location, is pregnant with her first child — Steve and Julie’s first grandchild — and is going on maternity leave in December.
“There are a lot of knowns and a lot of unknowns. I will finish out my City Council term. I have 14 months left and I will fulfill that obligation, then we’ll figure it out after that. I’m not walking away, but I probably won’t be as involved as I have been in the past,” he said of his community involvements. “There’s a lot more left for me to do.”
“This is not a retirement,” wife Julie noted. “It’s just the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.”
The weight of the move was not lost on her husband.
“It’s not so much a new chapter,” he added, “but a new book.”
Stefanovich said he “cried about half the time” in telling his employees of the sale. He said it took some by surprise, but others likely knew it would happen eventually. Even though they have had some time to digest news of the sale, it doesn’t make the separation and opening a new book any easier.
“I didn’t like it at first, because not only is he my boss, but he’s a good friend of mine and he’s family,” said Leonard Corbett, detail manager at Go Automotive for the past 26 years. “I’ve known his daughter Annie and son Peter since they were knee-high. It was sad, but at the same time I knew it was time. He’s done his job.”
He pointed out Stefanovich’s many donations through the years to the community, notably Little League teams and others that were not highly-publicized.
“If he sees somebody in need, he helps them,” Corbett said simply, noting a professional separation doesn’t mean he is saying goodbye to his friend. “If he ever needs me, all he has to do is call me day or night. I’ll be there.”
Parts manager Mike Warren has worked with Stefanovich for 32 years and said he will be missed by everybody.
“I’ve been with him so long, I just hate to see him go,” Warren remarked. “He’s helped me pay my bills and he’s such an easy-going guy. I think everybody hates to see him go. Everybody resists change.”
Cherese Small, a receptionist at Go for the past six years, agreed and said she supported Stefanovich’s decision.
“Change is inevitable and you have to roll with the waves,” said Small, who noted the last couple weeks has been filled with many unknowns. “You get accustomed to how things are, who you can go to if there are problems or just to say thank you. It was a shock, but it was also understandable. If he’s able to make that change at this point in his life, that’s wonderful. It’s nothing but great wishes for him and his family.”
“Once all this settles,” she continued, “I think everything will be all right.”
Stefanovich’s venture started 34 years ago and, along the way, he teamed up with Chris Fann and the Go dealership came under the Toyota umbrella in 1991. Since that time, the Clinton dealership has thrived, earning a string of President’s Awards along the way, the top honor Toyota gives to recognize the success of its dealers.
Earlier this year, Stefanovich was honored by the Toyota Motor Corporation for a quarter century of service, a successful benchmark the Go Toyota/Automotive owner said would not have been possible without the dedicated employees who serve as the lifeblood of the Clinton dealership.
On Friday, Fann noted that it had been “25 years, 52 days and 48 minutes” since he had been with Stefanovich.
“We have a lot of good relationships, employees and a great customer base,” said Fann, who served as general manager and vice president of the old Toyota store before becoming general sales manager for Go Toyota. “We’ve done that together and we’ve made a lot of people happy over the last 25 years. We were very fortunate to have Steve and Albert Thornton.
“It’s just another chapter in life,” Fann said of the transition.
He said he was proud that Go Automotive, even if under a different name, was chosen as Deacon Jones’ first Toyota franchise.
“Hopefully we can continue to expand our customer base with their retail stations and product lines,” Fann noted.
Ruby Hudson, in accounts payable at Go Automotive for nearly 18 years, provided some comic relief on an otherwise somber day Friday, pointing out the many portions of her pay stubs over the years that she cut out because Stefanovich drew a little picture for her.
The doodles were sometimes general depictions of the seasons like a snowman or a sunshine, or a sombrero for Cinco de Mayo, but others were more personal. There was a drawing of a turkey depicting the time she beamed about her son’s first turkey shoot, or a cruise ship for that vacation she was looking forward to or the middle finger for that time she gave him the middle finger.
While many have worked with Stefanovich for decades, Curt Smith Jr. is new to the business but has known Stefanovich his whole life. When Smith was just 5 years old, he told Stefanovich that he wanted to be a Chevy dealer one day.
From a professional auto racing family, Smith’s father Curtis Smith and his grandfather Earl Smith were close to Stefanovich, who took the youngest Smith under his wing.
“He’s been a great role model,” said Smith, a sales and leasing professional at Go Automotive for the past year and a half. “I couldn’t have asked for a better boss and I just appreciate everything he’s done for me and my family. He’s known me since I was a baby. Over the years, he’s been there for me like a second dad. I’m definitely going to miss him and this town is going to miss him.”
For his part, Stefanovich said he has been happy to belong to a community that has been so good to him and his family.
“There’s a beginning and an end to everything,” he said. “This community has been so good to us — we’ve tried to repay it as best we could.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.