Harrisburg has a new Chevy giantTurner Automotive hopes to build upon Sutliff legacy
Turner Automotive Corp. may be the new Chevy giant in Harrisburg, but dealer principal Lee Turner said he doesn't see his purchase of Sutliff Chevrolet as a step toward becoming a big automotive chain.
In fact, the new owner of the longtime Chevrolet dealership on Paxton Street — now known as Turner Chevrolet — seems content to carry on the Sutliff legacy as the biggest Chevy dealer in town, with about 400 new cars on the lot.
But he also hopes to take it to the next level with the addition of sales and service staff.
“I want to embrace their customers,” Turner said in early December as a new billboard went up on Interstate 83 advertising the Turner name.
A good fit
Turner has been in the automotive business for 36 years and succeeded his father in purchasing the family dealership in 1999. He said he considers himself lucky to take over the Chevrolet brand in Harrisburg from Greg Sutliff.
“He has an outstanding reputation and it fit nicely with the location,” Turner said, as he sat in his Kia dealership off Chambers Hill Road.
The Sutliff family opened the Chevy dealership in 1931. Sutliff Auto Group’s Greg Sutliff, who is now 86, started in the business in 1947 and became dealer principal in 1962.
Sutliff bought back majority control of the Chevrolet dealership in 2014 after a succession plan eroded and approached Turner earlier this year about taking over Chevrolet.
“It was time to turn it over to somebody,” Sutliff said. “Lee had tried to purchase Chevrolet about 10 years ago and it didn’t happen. This was a good chance for him to do it again.”
For Sutliff, the sale of the Chevrolet dealership gives him another chance to wind down some of his automotive holdings and retire.
“Everything comes to an end,” he said. “Nothing lasts forever. And at my age, I can’t continue to run it. It has to be in the hands of an able person who has the wherewithal to proceed.”
That said, the Chevrolet deal does not impact the company's other dealerships.
The Harrisburg company still runs a Volkswagen dealership next to the Chevrolet dealership. It also owns Buick GMC and Cadillac dealerships in State College.
Greg’s son-in-law, Jonathan Casey, manages those dealerships.
Sutliff said no immediate changes are planned at his company’s other dealerships. However, it’s possible the Sutliff family “might do some adjustments down the road,” he said. “We just have to watch out for opportunities.”
Indeed, the auto retail business has been consolidating, Turner said.
Single-store dealers can be strained by inventory costs and the large capital investments required by automakers, who want dealers to adopt their latest glossy showroom models. Bigger dealers are buying smaller companies to achieve greater economies of scale in terms of operations and marketing as more of the car-buying process moves online.
Subscription services that allow customers to switch vehicles more often also could impact new-car sales, as could the growth of ride-sharing services. In addition, the rise of fully electric cars and self-driving cars could also upend traditional car sales in the future.
“It is harder to get into the business today,” Turner said.
But he’s not convinced that dealerships are going away anytime soon, especially in smaller markets like Central Pennsylvania.
“Ride-sharing services will continue to be a factor, but there are many areas where people still need cars,” he said.
The internet has put consumers in the driver’s seat in terms of data and pricing, but most people still want to test drive cars before they buy, Turner said. “With changes in retail, people forget the value that a dealer brings to the transaction.”
He believes there will always be opportunities for hands-on owners who embrace the service and collision side of the business.
Service may also be an area of growth for Turner, who hopes to add 10 to 20 new people between sales staff and technicians over the next year at Turner Chevrolet. But growth on the tech side could be the bigger challenge in a tight labor market, where employers in all industries are looking for skilled workers.
The used-car market also will remain a focus for dealers, like Turner, as full-time used-car companies like CarMax continue to expand.
“If it weren’t for used cars, you could sell new ones on Amazon or Costco or wherever,” Sutliff said. “You have to take products in for trade, appraise them in minutes and you have to be right. It’s a challenge, but the big operations are succeeding these days.”