A Car Company Keeps Its ShineDec 05, 2023 10:51AM ● By David Dykes
The television advertisements come across Upstate airwaves at a brisk clip these days.
In one, a clean-cut male figure touts Fred Anderson Kia of Greenville’s pricing, 15-minute trade-in offer and, if needed, three-day vehicle exchange.
Except it’s not Fred Anderson. It’s his son, Michael Anderson.
At age 44, the younger Anderson is making a name for himself in the Upstate and establishing a presence as his company, Anderson Automotive Group of North Carolina, prepares for the future.
The group in August acquired five dealerships in Greer, one in Greenville and one in Easley from MCE Automotive Group for an undisclosed price.
Those now operate as Fred Anderson Toyota of Greer, Fred Anderson Hyundai of Greer, Genesis of Greer, Fred Anderson Nissan of Greer, Fred Anderson KIA of Greer, Fred Anderson KIA of Greenville, and Fred Anderson Chevrolet of Easley (previously Mike Hovart Chevrolet).
The acquisition brought to 10 the number of Upstate South Carolina dealerships owned by Anderson Automotive. Earlier this year, the company acquired Bradshaw Automotive.
Anderson Automotive also owns seven North Carolina dealerships in Raleigh, Asheville and Sanford, as well as Fred Anderson Toyota of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina.
“We see enormous opportunity in the Greenville, Greer and Easley areas, and we are excited to add the MCE Automotive Group stores to increase our footprint in Upstate South Carolina,” Fred Anderson, chairman, Anderson Automotive Group, said at the time. “Dealer principal Mark C. Escude and his team have built a loyal customer base with world-class service by a tremendous group of employees.”
A third-generation family-owned business founded in 1955 with a Chevrolet dealership in Creedmoor, North Carolina, Anderson Automotive has grown to one of the most respected auto groups in the Southeast with more than 1,700 employees at 18 dealerships across the Carolinas.
But the elder Anderson said he’s leaving company operations in the hands of his son.
On that point, Michael Anderson said his company likely will pause its buying spree to digest and integrate its new holdings and deal with such matters as adding more technicians. Each auto brand will be represented independently and must perform on its own.
He believes car dealers haven’t lost their shine following the pandemic, tight supplies, and rising interest rates. “Long term, we’re still very confident in the business model that exists for franchise car dealers,” Anderson said. “We do think that some of the changes that are going on probably beg for more scale for groups like us to either grow or possibly go find something else.”
He noted that the cost of business is increasing and becoming more complicated “so to the extent you can scale your business and spread some of those costs and have more talent and maybe be more strategic about where you’re located and the brands that you’re with are going to be more important in the future than they have been in the past.”
Kerrigan Advisors, the sell-side advisory firm and thought partner to auto dealers nationwide, represented Greenville, South Carolina-based MCE Automotive Group, owned and operated by the Escude family, in the sale of its seven dealerships to Anderson Automotive Group, ranked the 71st-largest U.S. dealership group by 2022 new unit sales.
Kerrigan said the transaction represented nearly $500 million in revenue.
It noted, and Michael Anderson agrees, that Greenville serves as the economic anchor of Upstate South Carolina, an area that touts a low cost of living and a high quality of life. Kerrigan also said it is one of the three largest metro areas in South Carolina with a 67 percent rise in population since 2000.
According to Kerrigan, MCE Automotive Group captured 14 percent market share of Greenville’s new units sold, with a 45 percent share in suburban Greer. Kerrigan said the MCE Automotive sale included over 39 acres of property.
Kerrigan said that since 2019, the valuation expectations for Kia and Hyundai have shifted upward over 26 percentage points, while Toyota continues to outperform most franchises in valuation growth expectations.
Michael Anderson literally grew up in the auto industry, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He would go to the office to help them open mail and ride a bicycle around the parking lot. At age 16, he started attending peer-group meetings with his dad. They would talk about work and the son would ask questions. “He’d tolerate them and answer them and teach me what he could. We’ve always been that way,” Michael said.
“It was probably priceless exposure to be around other owners and dealers and executives that were running their business and sharing their issues,” he added. “From pretty early on, I started to think from that perspective.”
Selling cars, working as a service adviser, or being a manager would follow. “I got a jump start of being able to connect the dots between why it was important to do certain things, and why it was important to pay attention to processes as much as you do, culture and people development and some of these other things,” he said.
His dad was his mentor, never pressuring and patient with his development.
His grandfather gave him his first car – a brown 1959 Chevrolet Impala. In college, the younger Anderson studied management economics, and his philosophy for his dealerships now is to operate as first-class retail operations.
“We don’t like goofy balloons and tents and signs and gimmicks,” he said. “You wouldn’t walk into a Saks or a Nordstrom and see that kind of stuff. You won’t see that in our stores.”
For employees, that means no smoking or eating in customer-facing areas. And sales people not being overly aggressive.
“One of the things we don’t ever want to see is to have it look like there are vultures on the front porch waiting on customers,” Anderson said.
In 1970, at age 21, Fred Anderson became the youngest Chevrolet dealer in the country.
In the early 1980s, after becoming the largest volume GM dealer in western North Carolina, he started to expand with the acquisition of local Nissan, Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep dealerships. He later became a Toyota dealer in Raleigh, North Carolina, and that would become Anderson Automotive Group’s flagship store, and one of the largest volume Toyota dealerships in the Southeastern U.S.
Michael joined the business in the early 2000s and worked his way through the ranks.
In 2006, he became general manager of the group’s newest location, a Toyota dealership in Columbia, South Carolina. He was in his mid-20s, and the business started off like gangbusters.
Then 2008 came.
“I had about 80 employees, and in a week’s time had to lay off 30 of them,” he recalled. “From there forward, for at least 12 to 24 months, everybody was playing defense, just trying to manage expenses, trying to survive and trying to not lose money.”
As the economy began to recover, it was a difficult transition to make, “coming out of playing defense and going back to offense and rehiring people and changing the mentality,” he said.
“I was slow to do that” and, in retrospect, “that’s what I think of as one of my bigger mistakes.”
In 2009, he transitioned from GM to vice president of sales and marketing, giving him oversight of the sales operations for all company dealerships.
In 2014, Michael became president of Anderson Automotive Group, and five years later he became CEO.
For his part, Fred Anderson said his son was a good student and athlete in high school, working with a football buddy during the summer to wash cars.
“We tried to raise our children without any expectation that they would go in the car business,” the elder Anderson said. “We didn’t want to create ‘this is what you need to do, should do, have to do.’ That was always an open window for them to choose to do whatever they’d like to do. But Michael did take an interest in the business.”
The family had a rule: no one could work in the family business without first working outside the business for two years. So, Michael worked for dealers in Charlotte and Fort Myers, Florida, and then returned to Anderson Automotive Group at a small dealership in Canton, North Carolina.
His son, Fred Anderson said, has done a great job “professionalizing” the company, and “it’s been a massive change for us to see that happen.”
It’s also a family affair. Michael’s two sisters sit on the company’s board of directors.
“We have family meetings. We have people who facilitate discussions among the family,” Fred Anderson said. “We talk about these things and do things in a very collaborative way. Michael, in the end, operates the business and makes the business decisions, and he reports to the board of directors.”
Outside of the office, the younger Anderson plays golf and either rides a bike or runs regularly, although a foot stress fracture recently slowed him. His son plays lacrosse, and his daughter plays field hockey in the Raleigh area.
The Columbia dealership has been sold, but looking ahead, he said, “both of the Carolinas are fantastic, and South Carolina, the Upstate and Charleston, are about as good as it gets in the Southeast. We’d love to keep growing there.”
But with a lot of other groups like Anderson Automotive not looking to sell, “by the time you take those off the market, and you’re focused on certain geography and certain brands, it’s much harder than you think.”