Article

Sisters Take The Reins At Oldest Transportation Company: Hare Chevrolet Makes Way For The Sixth Generation

January 2008, Auto Dealer Today - WebXclusive

by John Carroll - Also by this author

Growing up in Noblesville, Ind., Courtney Cole always knew one thing; she never wanted to run the family business –  ever. She did, however, want to play professional golf, and later, when that didn’t work out the way she had once dreamed, she set her sights on an accounting career.

Then, back in the summer of 1994, facing a lengthy break between graduation at the University of Indiana and the start of her first job in public accounting, she took a temporary turn on the sales floor of Hare Chevrolet – a family business that had leapt along five different branches of the Hare family tree, dating back to the mid-19th Century.

You might say the auto business was written right into Courtney Cole’s DNA, and she didn’t even know it until she started racking up sales. “I loved it,” she said, with obvious relish, looking back to her first sales experience 13 years ago. “I never even imagined what it could be like.” Two weeks after getting certified as a public accountant, she was back at the family business, selling cars. This time, she was there to stay.

Eight years later, her younger sister, Monica Peck, sold out her other business interests and came home to Hare Auto. Over the past few years, they’ve both been gradually working through a transition – from father to daughters – that will leave the sixth generation of Hare family descendants in charge of the enterprise. Their experiences offer some valuable lessons on how to handle succession planning in a family business. And they’ve managed to pull it off during a period of rapid growth.

When Cole, 36, joined the business, dubbed “America’s oldest transportation company,” a great month at Hare Auto involved about 120 sales. But, with the area around Noblesville growing rapidly in recent years and the business aggressively expanding used car sales and now Internet sales, that monthly total has swelled to around 320.  The business is split almost evenly between new and used vehicles.

“I’m sure, when I was growing up, they were selling about 80 cars a month,” said Cole, who’s now the general manager, “and then we blew that thing big time. There were a lot of factors,” she explained. One factor: She operates in a region north of Indianapolis, which is rich in GM-loyal car buyers. Another factor, “I really had a love for the business, and we moved locations to the main highway on State Road 37. This area has grown tremendously since we moved in 1999.”

Cole’s sister, 33-year-old Peck, joined the business four years ago and took over the back-end operations, which includes a body shop, service and parts, as vice president while Cole stayed focused on sales, advertising and the front end of the company. “It’s the best way that we can work,” said Cole. “It’s a pretty good size operation now, so it’s nice to focus on your talents and not compete so much. We complement each other.”

Although Cole may have passed on a career in athletics, but the auto business has a lot of similarities with competitive sports. “I wanted something as close to athletics as I could get,” said Cole, “where you’re rewarded based on performance.” The car business is also in her blood.

Exactly 160 years ago, 19-year-old Wesley Hare started the family tradition by getting into wagon making, gradually building his business to a regional enterprise based in Noblesville. His grandsons, Frank, Albert and Willard, added cars to the buggies and wagons for sale in the family business, back in 1912. In 1921, the family started selling Chevrolets. After flying planes in the rugged India-China theater during World War II, Jack Hare, the fourth generation, eventually took over the business. He later hired a young parts runner, named David Cox, who went on to become his son-in-law and the fifth generation dealer.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. A few years ago, the family bought two area stores and later sold the underperforming Chrysler/Jeep location. Cole chalks it up to experience, and she’s happy that the two stores selling Chevy, Buick, Pontiac and GMC are doing well.

The Hare name is branded right into the fabric of the community. The family has always been careful to align its marketing efforts to underscore the dealership’s hometown tradition. It’s no accident that the nearby high school football field is called Hare Chevrolet Field, but there are a host of other local activities that also depend on Hare Auto for funding – something the town has always appreciated.

Each new generation has helped build the business and its reputation. “There are generations of families that have been customers of ours,” said Peck. “People are very intrigued by the history.”

That’s an advantage the sisters can rely on, but it’s also an added responsibility. “You feel a lot of pressure to protect the legacy,” said Peck. However, these two seasoned businesswomen are up to the task.

After Cole shifted her attention to the family business, there was time along the way for her to go to NADA’s Dealer Academy and the Chevy dealer management school, which helped her gain expertise on the management side of things, while still working with her father. “I like setting goals and figuring out a way to get there,” said Cole. Her sister, she said, likes to find things that need work and fix them. “You get into different issues, no doubt. I think we struggled a touch, at first, until we figured out what our strengths were.”

For Peck, there was a chance to work in another profession outside the family company and gain insights on how the rest of the business world operates before she joined the dealership she grew up in. She started at Andersen Consulting after college and went into a startup IT business that was sold back in 2002. From there, she went to work at Hare with her older sister. At that time she already knew a lot about the operation.

Peck first started working at the family business when she was still in high school. On weekends and at night, she clocked in as the receptionist, taking the bus after school to join her father at work. Now she’s the IT professional in charge of the business’s fixed operations. Peck said that, by the time it’s all over, the family will have spent around 10 to 12 years making this generational leap. The final details of a complex financial transfer will be completed in the fall, when her father finishes selling some of his holdings to his daughters and gifting others.

There are two types of transitions, Peck added, and both take time and plenty of patience. “There’s the financial transition for stocks and everything like that,” Peck said. “And there’s the emotional transition, at my father’s level, where you think you want out but you also want a place to work when you’re in town. He’ll never be completely retired, but how do you have a role in the business and not be in charge day-to-day?”

“It takes a little bit of time,” said Cole. “To me, the key is planning and planning early.” Succession planning was probably a lot simpler in the earlier days of the family business, both sisters agree. When their father bought out their grandfather, the business was much smaller. Success has expanded the potential rewards and greatly complicated the task of this latest generation-to-generation hand-off – a lesson that others in the same business should be aware of.  

“Over-communication is the key,” said Peck. “You have to communicate and communicate and communicate. Everybody has to get everything on the table. Our father tells us what his fears are, where he sees weaknesses and strengths, where he thinks we need help before he’s comfortable turning it over.”

To get that kind of communication going took a series of outside consultants who could facilitate the conversation. “I think that is one of the key things,” she added. “Get somebody that doesn’t have a dog in the fight to sort through strengths, roles and responsibilities and how the business should transfer down. No one in the family or the business can have a truly objective point of view. You’re too close to the trees to see the forest. So we brought in executive and family business consultants, some specific to the car business.”

“I think it will continue to transition,” said Peck. The company chief financial officer will retire in a few years, and those duties will fall to the sisters.

Cole said she and her sister are ready for the challenge. The business can only benefit from a younger generation’s verve and enthusiasm for a business they love. “I don’t want to say this is a young person’s business, but you definitely have to love it.”

Of course, there are limits to how much family you’d want in the family business. Both of the sisters’ spouses have their own work outside the dealership, said Cole. “It’s probably better to keep it like that,” said Cole. “They’re happy doing what they do; happy having their own businesses. I think it would be hard on your marriage if you worked together.”

The children, though, are a different story. Will the Hare business pass down to the seventh generation? “If they’re interested,” said Peck. But, then again, the oldest in that crowd of four is five now, and the youngest is one year old. But, while they’re more interested right now in toys than career planning, that doesn’t mean their mothers haven’t given it a little thought. “There are going to be operating agreements, if a child wants a role or job in the business,” said Peck firmly. “When we worked, we were treated as any other employee, same pay and so forth.”

The seventh generation can expect the same kind of objective supervision. Just maybe they’ll be open to taking the Hare family business to its 200th anniversary.

Vol 4, Issue 12

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