Group Runs 45 Dealerships in U.S. and China; More to Come

Greenway Automotive Group’s two co-founders believe in the entrepreneurialism of operating partners at individual stores.

Lillie Guyer, Correspondent

August 11, 2015

5 Min Read
Atkinson at Greenwayrsquos flagship Ford store in Florida
Atkinson at Greenway’s flagship Ford store in Florida.

Greenway Automotive’s name comes from the major Greenway bypass circling Orlando, FL, where the dealership group began.

The Greenway network now extends far beyond central Florida. Frank Rodriguez and Carl Atkinson are controlling stakeholders who currently operate 39 stores in the U.S. and six in Shanghai, China, with more expected to come.

“We’ve had a long professional relationship and never had a rub in 20 years of business,” Atkinson tells WardsAuto, speaking of how well he and Rodriguez get along.

The co-owners celebrate 20 years in business this year. They also have 18 operating partners who oversee groups of stores. It’s one of their secrets to management success.

It’s been a long steady ride combining sales and service success since 1995 for the two Floridians.

They currently represent Ford, Dodge, Chrysler, Jeep, Ram, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, Kia, Mitsubishi, Mazda and Hyundai.

Their U.S. locations besides Florida are Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Missouri and South Carolina.

Greenway’s China entry began in 2005. The Chinese dealerships are known as Greenway Asia. Yemao Huang, a Chinese-American, acts as their operating partner there.

 “We have five acquisitions in the process of due diligence,” Rodriguez says. “We feel confident we will close prior to year-end. “

Greenway’s Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Ram outlet ranks No.120 on the WardsAuto Dealer 500. Its Ford stores stood at No.166.

Total revenue topped $2 billion last year, according to WardsAuto. Atkinson is projecting 10% to 15% sales growth this year.

In addition to the five expected dealership openings in China, the company currently is looking for further expansion opportunities in the U.S., in no particular region.

Sharing the Wealth

The owners believe in sharing the wealth once the right dealership operating partners are identified. For the current partners, it has been a profitable relationship, Atkinson adds.

The dealership operating partners have proven they can run dealerships and generate cash flow, he says. They can buy into stores, and some get the opportunity to invest in multiple stores and brands.

Rodriguez says: “We leave our marketing to our operating partners who live, eat, and breathe in the communities their stores are located in. They know much better than Carl or I what's going on with their brands and their customers within their communities.

“Our equity operating partners are groomed under (our) management philosophy of hiring thermostat managers and not thermometers.”

What’s that mean? “Don't surround yourself with people who only know how to tell you that it’s too hot or too cold,” Rodriguez says. “Do surround yourself with people who not only know when it’s too hot or cold, but also know how to adjust to the situation.”

That philosophy enables the owners to operate without a lofty corporate structure that tells dealership partners exactly how to manage.

“We’re not laying down a mandate, and there’s no cookie-cutter approach,” Atkinson says. “We know each market’s a little different and our operating partners who live in their stores and communities can run a store better than (we) can.”

Operating partners “have skin in the game” and much autonomy in running their dealerships.

Atkinson says their dealership business model brings “a different level of intensity and focus” and requires minimum corporate oversight. He’s not into micro-managing. “We don’t want to be burdensome, so we create a wide lane and the freedom to operate their stores as best as they can.

“Of course, if there’s a problem, I’m there.”

When the two met at the Duval Ford store Jacksonville, FL in 1989, Rodriguez was general manager and Atkinson general sales manager. Little did they know that the seeds of a partnership were being planted.

Rodriguez became an operating partner at McInerney Ford in Orlando in January of 2005. He immediately called Atkinson, asking him to join as a partner. Atkinson hopped on board a deal that looked “too big and too risky” to a former owner.

With a strong funding package from Ford Credit, the new owners sealed “a 50-50 partnership on a handshake” to run the sprawling dealership. At the time, it ranked as one of the largest loan packages in Ford Credit’s history. 

In 2002, Rodriguez and Atkinson were approached by Chrysler executives. The automaker was consolidating Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge dealerships. The dealer partners bought into open points for Chrysler, beginning with Dodge and later Chrysler-Jeep stores. 

That led to another big facility adjacent to its Ford campus. More business came from adding Fiat and Alpha Romeo after the Fiat-Chrysler merger and adding the Ram pickup brand after it separated from Dodge.

Scary Times

The dealership group has weathered hard times, especially during the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009 during which thousands of dealerships were eliminated, many of them Chrysler stores.

“I don’t know anyone who was not affected by (the recession),” Atkinson says.  “Those were pretty scary times.”

He adds, “We thought we had plenty of cash (reserves). But we found ourselves hemorrhaging pretty badly. We knew we had to get our act together.  We understood the gravity of the situation and were ready for a pitched battle that might even last years.” 

As revenues fell nearly in half, the owners scaled back expenses and made fixes based on efficiency and leaner vendor and supplier contracts. They made other changes to survive the unparalleled times. It also meant shedding a Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge store in Atlanta.

Back on a healthy track by 2010, they could see the common thread in their multiline dealerships tied to their dealership successes. 

“We see our ability to grow successfully as linked to being able to identify, attract and retain talented dealership operating partners,” Atkinson notes.

With expansion on their minds, they are looking to sell luxury brands currently missing from their portfolio.

 “We are always looking to expand our organization, which of course means you need to be open to exploring other brands,” says Rodriguez. 

When it comes to investing in new dealerships, “the No. 1 variable is the group’s level of profitability.” Atkinson says.

“If the company is doing well and we’re generating free cash flow, then we can look for opportunities and talented operating partners to help us manage and maximize the potential of any new dealership we’ve purchased.” Atkinson says.


Company Profile

Greenway Automotive Group: Formed in 1995

Headquarters:  Orlando, FL

Owners: Frank Rodriguez and Carl Atkinson

Business philosophy: Avoid a cookie-cutter business management model

Total number of U.S. and China dealerships: 45 

Total projected by end of year: 50

Sponsored by Ally


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