BAKERSFIELD, CA — When Harold Meek holds the official grand opening of his new Chevrolet dealership here Sept. 28, he will score a coup: The new-generation, 2007 Chevrolet Silverado will be on display for all to see.
The appearance of the new Silverado, not scheduled to go on sale until later in the fall, even upstages by a day the official public showing of the new Silverado slated for the Texas State Fair, opening to the public Sept. 29.
Why does Meek, the president and dealer operator of Three-Way Chevrolet here, and the unglamorous town of Bakersfield figure so prominently for the Silverado and for Chevrolet?
Simple. Meek's Chevrolet franchise, marking its 50th year in 2006, is the top retail seller of Chevrolets in California. It's a title held since 2000.
Nationally, Three-Way's 3,966 sales of new Chevrolet cars and trucks last year positioned Meek sixth overall, and General Motors Corp. officials say Three-Way is on track for another leadership year in 2006.
Meek's sales, customer satisfaction and community involvement has earned him GM's top dealership honor, the Jack Smith Leadership Award, for all six years that it has been awarded.
In further recognition of Meek, GM Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Rick Wagoner traveled to Bakersfield Aug. 8 for breakfast and a tour of the new Three-Way store.
The $10 million facility is 62,000 square feet.
The grounds have room for an inventory of more than 800 vehicles. It is Meek's largest store. He also has Hummer and Cadillac/Saab franchises in Bakersfield.
The large inventory exceeds that of many Los Angeles dealers, who can only park 200 vehicles at their facilities.
“We have a golf cart,” Meek said. “You come in and say, ‘I want a green, half-ton pickup, do you have one?’ Our standard answer is, ‘I don't know, let's go see.’ And we'll put you in a golf cart and take you through the trucks we have.”
Wagoner, noting that a rundown of Meek's participation in various community groups fills five typed pages, says, “He's obviously a very important man to us and to the community of Bakersfield. We really appreciate it.”
Meek stands out in import-oriented California, where GM's market share has been running far lower than the national average for years.
Yet, the Golden State is the largest car market in the country, accounting for about 10% of all new-vehicle sales annually. It's also regarded as an influential bellwether region for the auto industry.
“California is a very important market for us, and we need to do better here,” Wagoner says. “We can't keep a steady share without doing better in states like California.”
The new dealership features high ceilings, large windows, bright white and blue decor and airy, spacious customer and work areas. It is the latest example of the new look and image of Chevrolet, says Susan Docherty, western region manager for GM.
She, along with national media, accompany Wagoner to the dealership.
Wagoner jokes that he doesn't want to put pressure on Meek with the new Silverado, but it's obvious that GM and Chevrolet expect strong sales of the new truck in Bakersfield.
The city's residents — many of whom are natives of Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri as well as Mexico — have shown a unique loyalty to GM brands, especially the trucks. Meek said he has sold more trucks than cars in past years.
Neighboring car dealer Dick Stricklin, owner of Motor City GMC in Bakersfield, is a sales success, too.
Stricklin, who received his second Jack Smith Leadership Award this year and also was at the Wagoner breakfast, sold 2,208 GMC trucks in calendar 2005. That's the most of any GMC dealer in the country.
With an economy that's based on large-scale agriculture operations and an oil industry, Bakersfield has been known primarily as a dusty farm city with a small-town friendliness and a love of racing and country music.
But when Southern California home prices began setting record highs in the early 2000s, commuters discovered Bakersfield's cheaper housing.
It takes only one hour to drive from Bakersfield to Santa Clarita in the northern reaches of Southern California, notes Kay Meek, Harold's wife.
Today, among cities with more than 250,000 people, Bakersfield ranks as the fastest-growing in America.