Christopher Serju, Gleaner Writer
The automobile industry has seen many changes since the 1960s when Stewart's Auto Sales operated on Hanover Street, downtown Kingston. As the business started by Arthur Lionel Stewart evolved into the Stewart's Automotive Group it remains a family business in the truest sense.
Arthur's son Richard and his wife Diana, along with their children Duncan and Jackie, have excelled beyond anything Arthur might have imagined.
In 1987 the company relocated to Orchard Road, New Kingston, to meet the growing demand for its services and 20 years later was "bursting at the seams", prompting another expansion, according to director Jackie Stewart Lechler.
"It served us well, but we were having a little difficulty where the road was congested, with parking, we couldn't serve our customers," she told Automotives. "So we had the good fortune in 2010 when we did a transition - takeover of the Issa Transport Group that we acquired this property spanning from 47-53 South Camp Road, some five acres."
The next two years were spent renovating and upgrading the facility which would be the new home for Suzuki, Stewart's Auto Group having acquired the dealership in 1992. The transformation would include a new, spacious showroom capable of comfortably holding seven vehicles, expansion of the parts department and upgrading of the body shop and service area in keeping with its status as a full-service dealership.
Well worth it
The time, effort and money have been well worth it, Stewart Lechler was proud to share. "Customers are thrilled to see that Suzuki has a new home, clean, spacious and ready to serve them. We are tweaking, trying to ensure that we offer the customer an even better service. In terms of new vehicle sales, we are from time to time offering new services. Our staff is going through training, so hopefully it will serve us better in how we deliver service to customers," she said.
Having grown the BMW brand in Jamaica significantly since acquiring the dealership in 2006, the Stewart's Automotive Group will continue to operate BMW, Mini and Automotive Art from Orchard Road, though plans for how it will fully utilise the additional space are still in the making.
Maintaining its tradition of excellence in today's harsh economic climate is a given for the Stewart's Automotive Group, despite - and especially because of - the challenges. With the market nowhere near as liquid as in 2007 or even up to 2009, the company has had to adjust. "We have to be creative," is Stewart Lechler's take on doing business today. "We are offering value, so when the consumer comes in and they have a budget or have a concern, we can try and find something that will meet their needs despite the cash flow issue."
With an estimated 70 per cent of all local automobile purchases being financed, whether corporate or individual, and only 30 per cent being cash purchases, that creativity has resulted in a marriage of convenience between dealers and financial institutions. With customers growing more wary of taking on loans they had to find ways of making it attractive for customers to continue buying motor vehicles.
"We would say to the institutions 'well, customers want to hear low monthly payments, customers want to hear low interest rates, so what are you going to do for us?' Then, from our point of view, they would want to hear what vehicles we were offering, the price range and competitive advantage for the client. So it was more of a marriage to try and get consumers out of their comfort zones to take that chance," Stewart Lechler said.
To this end, test drives have become a very important tool in the auto dealer's sales kit, as the Stewart's Automobile Group director readily attests.
"We find that when the customer test drives the purchase, they feel and fall in love with the car and also the dealership. We will give you all the information and hopefully you will find what we're saying attractive and we can make the sale because at the end of the day we want to make sure you choose the Stewart's Automotive Group as your automobile partner," she said.
In addition to its Suzuki, Mitsubishi, BMW, Mini and Mercedes-Benz brands the group also has an industrial arm. Stewart's Industrial operates Komatsu for mining and JCB for construction, with Bobcat and AC Delco Batteries supporting the entire group. Also falling under the group is Stewart's Automotive Art, also known as Stewart's Auto Paints.
When Automotive Art started operating in Jamaica under the name Stewart's Auto Paints back in 1992/93 it was more of a paint supermarket, but today has expanded to stock oils, chemicals, tools, paint, mats, rims and more.
The director explained "we do light servicing - we'll fit the rims and tyres, we'll do engine washes and tinting is another big product that we offer. So Stewart's Auto Paint is our legal name, but we really trade as Automotive Art and Automotive Art is supposed to give you the concept - anything to do with automotive".
With the family having built extensively on the legacy of founder Arthur Lionel Stewart, Jackie wants Richard and Diana to cut their pace and enjoy some of the fruits of their combined labour. "I hope that our parents are able to say they can take more of a back seat now because Duncan and I are happily driving, changing gears and speeding along," she said.
Early last week American Suzuki Motor Corporation, the sole distributor in the continental United States of Suzuki Motor Corporation automobiles, motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles and marine outboard engines, announced that it plans to realign its business to focus on the long-term growth of its Motorcycles/ATV and Marine divisions and wind down in order to discontinue new automobile sales in the continental US.
Suzuki Motor Corporation, however, reaffirmed its commitment to the continued development and advancement of Suzuki vehicles in the Caribbean region, including Jamaica.
Brent Murphy, general manager of the
authorised Suzuki distributor for the Caribbean region, explained that
"Suzuki's new model plan started with the 2012 Swift, which has been a
great success for the brand, and continued with the 2013 Grand Vitara".
Murphy also noted that Jamaica will see the introduction of an exciting
new crossover sometime next