Auto Dynasties of the South


Published:

A legacy of family-run dealerships that have been selling cars for generations. 

The auto industry has had a long and storied relationship with the city of Savannah, going back to the era when Henry Ford took an interest in the Lowcountry and built his plantation in nearby Richmond Hill. In fact, the very first automotive recall in history came about when he chose to us our native Spanish moss as cushioning in his seats without first boiling off the chiggers. The First American Grand Prix was held on the streets of Savannah, running in a 25-mile loop starting on Victory Drive.

But if you really want to talk about the auto industry in Savannah, there are six powerful families whose names will come up again and again in the histories. Passing the torch from generation to generation, these families have come to define both the city and the cars we drive. Get behind the wheel with them, and see how they built their legacies

 

Vaden Family

Not every automotive family who defines Savannah can trace their lineage back across multiple generations of dealers. The Vaden family, for example, has become one of the city’s most iconic automotive families in just two generations.

Jane Vaden Thatcher is one of only 200 women to own a Chevy dealership out of the 4,000 Chevy dealerships nation-wide. She became the president of Vaden Automotive after taking the reins from her father Dan Vaden, who began Dan Vaden Chevrolet in a trailer after selling refridgerators door to door. Now as she carries her father’s legacy forward, she manages 10 dealerships that encompass seven different automotive brands and stewards a brand that has become a Savannah mainstay.

Jane’s success boils down to what she calls the “Vaden Way.”

“We do right by the employee and the customer,” says Jane.

The Vaden president makes it a priority to know every employee by name across all of their dealerships. They treat everyone like family, which means that same attitude extends to how they serve customers.

“It’s about being excellent at every opportunity,” says Jane. “My employees will often ask me about a certain solution and I’ll tell them I need to run on it instead of simply thinking about it. If my body is sharp, so is my mind.”

Jane and her husband Peter, who is heavily involved in day-to-day operations, have three kids, who have all been involved in the family business. Her employees say it isn’t uncommon for her to greet them with hugs.

“We try to maintain a family atmosphere,” she says. “People respond to being genuinely loved, and I think that’s what sets us apart.”

 

Kaminsky Family

Myron Kaminsky (center) with sons Adam and Ross. 
Myron, Danny, and Jay Kaminsky picked up where their father left off in the family business that was founded in the 1920’s. 
“I tried to dissuade my sons from going into the business,” he says. “But it was all they ever knew. Most businesses don’t last three generations, yet here we are.”
Today, the business is equally owned by five family members. 
“There’s a mutual respect and love. You have to have a respect for each other and a love for the business,” adds Myron. “There’s a lot you can say to family that you can’t say to employees, so even though working with family can be tough, I think it gives us an edge.”
The Kaminsky’s own three dealerships, Southern Motives Acura, Southern Motors Honda, and Southern Motors Chrysler - Dodge - Jeep - Ram. The elder Kaminsky says this would not be possible if his sons weren’t allowed to make decisions for themselves. 

“Guide. Don’t dictate. My sons’ generation brings a lot of great ideas to the table. They understand technologies that weren’t around in my day. The old way was that sons would work for their dads, but my sons are equal to me,” says Myron. “We plan on being here another hundred years and continuing to contribute to the community.”

The Kaminsky’s have been involved with Hospice Savannah for over 25 years, sponsoring children’s spring camps for children who have lost loved ones. 
“For us, it isn’t about just selling cars,” adds Myron. “We like giving back and also checking up on our customer’s after the sale. You can’t just sell one car to a customer and stay in business. You have to care about their experience.”

 

Critz Family

Three E-M-F racecars competed in the Tiedeman Cup Race in 1911, securing the top three 
positions. Today, number 33 sits in the Critz showroom. 

Dale Critz is the third generation of an 80 year-old business. He has been in the business 40 years himself.

“My grandfather died when I was fifteen years old. He was the original Critz and was a great merchandiser,” says Dale. “He wore a white sportcoat to send the subliminal message that we’d keep your stuff clean and take good care of you. My dad was probably the better businessman of the two. He’s 86 years old and still my best salesman. He did a masterful job of planning by selling me the business and then he stepped aside gracefully. The main thing my father taught me was that it’s not how much you sell — it’s how much you net that matters. Pricing is transparent and cost comparisons are available at the touch of a button these days, so you have to understand pricing models and cost structures since margins are getting squeezed.”

The Critz family owns two dealerships — a BMW dealership and a Mercedes, Buick and GMC dealership. But Critz attributes their success to giving back.

H. Dale Critz (right) and Dale Critz Sr. (left)
with the ​Buick Zone Manager in the 1950s.

“If you’re in retail and the community supports you, you have an obligation to pay it forward.”

“We’re more responsive to the community than a lot of people. It’s a mandate to give back. Currently, we do a lot for leukemia and lymphoma. I started a road race on Tybee in 2009. Now it attracts between 2,000 to 3,000 runners each spring. We’ve raised $600,000 for charities that support education and healthy living,” says Critz.

 

Welch Family

O.C. Welch started his career working for Curtis Lewis, one of the longest-lasting dealers in the Savannah area.

“I used to wash cars,” says Welsh. “I knew how to recondition cars, so I thought, ‘I should do this myself.’”

Today the colorful character, known for his love of goats, is thriving in business and as a force of positive change in the community. Welch was recently awarded the Ford Motors “Salute to Dealers” Award. The award is given to three Ford dealers each year for their unwavering commitment to community.

“I’d been nominated for the ‘Salute to Dealers’ three times, so it meant a lot to me,” says Welch. “The way life works is that the more you give, the more you receive.”

Welch is a founding member of 200 Club in Savannah and is also involved in United Way. He has also donated reward funds to agencies and individuals to help solve crimes, including the murders of Wesley Franklin and Shawntray Grant.

“I’ve put five men behind bars,” he says. “But for me it was about giving the victims’ families closure. Everyone deserves closure.”

    

Grainger Family

Bill Grainger was born into the automobile business. His father was a Ford dealer, going back to the 1940s. Bill bought his first dealership in 1978 in Savannah.

“My dad got involved in the industry because he just loved the auto world,” says Bill. “He started working at Ford until he bought out the dealership. I’m the second generation of Grainger. The third and fourth generation are also currently involved in the business.”

“I learned the value of hard work and a handshake. Your word is your bond. That’s from the time you start the deal until you finish it,” adds Bill. “But what’s really helped us thrive in this industry is the fact that we demand so much of ourselves and we focus on fostering an atmosphere of integrity.”

Bill’s sons are involved in the family business as well.

“It gives us an advantage because we’re all deeply involved with all hands on deck. The extra effort you get when you’re working as a family on a day-to-day basis adds up. Everyone is on the same page and shares the same pride for being in the auto business,” says Bill. “Our first priority is always customer satisfaction and we deal with customers face-to-face. We’re not running our business from New York City. We’re local and we’re proud of it.”

    

Roberts Family

Steve Roberts quickly outgrew his original 1989 location, and moved to a larger location in 1993. 

Self-made auto dealer Steve Roberts has been in the business for 30 years. Steve started off as a boat mechanic. One day, they needed another person on the floor to talk to customers about the boats. He made more money in that day than he did the entire week as a mechanic. From there, Steve went on to work for Jim Moran between selling Fords.

“After working for Jim for many years, I told him I was interested in owning my own dealership,” says Roberts. “Jim was the main Toyota distributor in the South and the biggest in the United States, spanning five states. We had a good working relationship and he approved me for what they call ‘dealer development’ where someone like me who couldn’t afford to outright by a dealership would earn stock in the company until they owned it. I repaid the back in three years.”

“My mechanical knowledge helped out because I could find ways to improve efficiency,” says Roberts. “I bought the dealership fully in 1989. Then moved to a 10,000-foot location in 1993. We quickly outgrew it until we settled on 66,000 square feet on 12 acres of land.

These days, Steve has an eye on retirement. As he tells it, the two things he’s most grateful for within the business are the warm reception and support he received from the people of Savannah and being able to pass on the business to his General Manager Scott Richey.

“One of the things that’s kept us going strong is that we spend less money on advertising and more money on customer experience,” adds Steve. “Ladies can get complimentary manicures and there’s always fresh popcorn and hotdogs and we have our little cinema room at Toyota.

 

Subscribe now to the print edition to read the full article or get instant access to our interactive digital edition.

Edit ModuleShow Tags

South's Greatest Chefs 2020

Our 14th annual contest is back! Nominate your favorite chef (or yourself) for South magazine’s Greatest Chefs contest!

South's Greatest Pets 2020

South magazine is seeking the greatest pets of the South! Nominate your pet NOW through June 17th at midnight!
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Events Calendar

  • A Savannah Scavenger Hunt: Historic Savannah Adventure

    Feb 19, 2020
    8:00 AM - 10:00 PM @ Savannah

    Explore beautiful Savannah. Steeped in Civil War history, you will be sure to find some new-to-you spots. Tourist, local, or new to town, this is a...

  • #iSPYtogether Summer Challenge

    Jun 01, 2020
    12:00 AM - 11:45 PM @ Savannah Power Yoga

    We’re in this together! We’re experiencing a shift in the world together, and together we can keep each other healthy and connected in the...

  • Prohibition Cocktail Classes

    Jun 22, 2020
    6:00 PM @ American Prohibition Museum

    Monday & Tuesday evening from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Prohibition Cocktail Classes at Congress Street Up inside the American Prohibition Museum....

  • Free Fort Pulaski Days

    Jan 20, 2020
    All Day @ Fort Pulaski National Monhument

    Fort Pulaski National Monument will have six entrance fee-free days in 2020. The dates for 2020 are: ● Monday, January 20 – Martin...

  • On the Spot Murder Mystery Show

    Jun 26, 2020
    6:30 PM - 9:30 PM @ Savannah Coffee Roasters

    On The Spot Murder Mystery Dinner Show hosted by The Odd Lot Improv Team at Savannah Coffee Roasters, 6:30 p.m. An entirely improvised...

  • Umphrey's McGee Summer Tour 2020

    Aug 07, 2020
    All Day @ Johnny Mercer Theatre

    Umphrey’s McGee Summer Tour will be making at stop at the Johnny Mercer Theatre on Friday, August 7th at 8:00pm. The music of...

  • Meet the Author: In the Cauldron

    Aug 08, 2020
    All Day @ Museum of the Might Eighth Air Force

    This is not just another book about Pearl Harbor. It is the story of Joseph Grew, America’s ambassador to Japan, and his frantic effort in...

  • Georgia Mountain Fair

    Aug 14, 2020
    10:00 AM - 10:00 PM @ Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds

    Look forward to the 70th annual Georgia Mountain Fair, held at the historic Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds this summer! Thousands of visitors from...

  • Tedeschi Trucks Band Signs 2020 Tour

    Aug 14, 2020
    All Day @ Savannah Civic Center

    The Tedeschi Trucks Band Signs 2020 Tour will be making at stop at the Johnny Mercer Theatre on Friday, August 14th at 7:30pm. Tedeschi Trucks...

  • The Price is Right - Live on Stage

    Aug 15, 2020
    All Day @ Johnny Mercer Theatre

    “The Price Is Right Live™ is returning to Savannah by popular demand! “The Price Is Right Live™ is the hit interactive...

  • 50th Anniversary Tour w/ Special Guest Don McLean

    Aug 25, 2020
    All Day @ Savannah Civic Center

    It’s been 50 years since Randy, Jeff and Teddy, left the cotton farms of Fort Payne, Alabama, to spend the summer playing music in a Myrtle...

  • Rodney Carrington Live Concert

    Aug 27, 2020
    All Day @ Savannah Civic Center

    The Savannah Civic Center is excited to Rodney Carrington will be coming to the Johnny Mercer Theatre on Thursday, August 27th at 7 p.m. Rodney...

  • First Fridays in Starland

    Jun 26, 2020
    6:00 PM - 9:00 PM @ Starland District

     Monthly arts event in Savannah’s Starland District, with street fair, art market or gallery shows. Starland doesn’t like to...

  • 2020 SMF Fall Concert — St. Paul & the Broken Bones

    Sep 03, 2020
    8:30 PM - 10:30 PM @ Lucas Theatre for the Arts

    Part of a new fall concert series of rescheduled 2020 Savannah Music Festival performances, St. Paul & the Broken Bones will perform...

  • Gene Watson, Janie Fricke and Marty Haggard Concert

    Sep 05, 2020
    7:00 PM - 10:00 PM @ Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds

     Enjoy an evening of real country music with Gene Watson, Janie Fricke & Marty Haggard. Plus a special tribute to legendary Merle Haggard!...

  • Shinedown Concert

    Sep 06, 2020
    All Day @ Savannah Civic Center

    Multi-platinum rock band Shinedown has announced their Shinedown: Deep Dive tour, an intimate run of Spring 2020 dates that will see the band...

  • 2020 SMF Fall Concert — Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

    Sep 11, 2020
    8:00 PM - 10:00 PM @ Johnny Mercer Theatre

    Part of a new fall concert series of rescheduled 2020 Savannah Music Festival (SMF) performances, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit will...

  • Happy Together Tour

    Sep 12, 2020
    7:00 PM - 11:00 PM @ Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds

    Enjoy an evening of hit after hit…after HIT!  The Happy Together Tour features: - THE TURTLES - CHUCK NEGRON (formerly of Three Dog Night) -...

  • Revolutionary Perspectives Lecture Series

    Sep 15, 2020
    All Day @ Savannah History Museum

      The annual Revolutionary Perspectives Lecture Series focuses on a wide variety of topics unique to the American Revolution era. Each...

  • Dailey & Vincent's LandFest 2020

    Sep 17, 2020
    3:00 PM - 11:00 PM @ Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds

    Dailey & Vincent’s LandFest In The Mountains & On The Lake 2020 marks the festival's 7th anniversary of bringing the best American music to fans!...


Show More...

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Scenes of the South

Plant Riverside District Grand Opening

After $400 million and the better part of the past decade, the Plant Riverside District has finally opened for business. This 419-room JW Marriot marks the creation of a all-new entertainment district on River Street's west end. Speeches were made, hands were shaken (or rather, elbows were tapped), and the ribbon was finally cut, unveiling this monumental project for the public to enjoy.

Faces of the South 2020 Gala of the Decade at Plant Riverside District

On July 24, 2020 Richard Kessler unveiled his greatest accomplishment to date, the Plant Riverside District, to a guest list that read like a who’s who of Savannah’s movers and shakers. Adding to the excitement was the concurrent release party for South magazine’s Faces of the South: The Trilogy Edition. With safety and social distancing measures in place, guests enjoyed the sweet sounds of the Equinox Orchestra, dined on a sampler platter of Savannah’s finest food and drink and marveled at the excitement of watching Savannah’s hottest new entertainment district come to life.

Faces of the South Gala of the Decade at Plant Riverside District part II

On July 24, 2020 Richard Kessler unveiled his greatest accomplishment to date, the Plant Riverside District, to a guest list that read like a who’s who of Savannah’s movers and shakers. Adding to the excitement was the concurrent release party for South magazine’s Faces of the South: The Trilogy Edition. With safety and social distancing measures in place, guests enjoyed the sweet sounds of the Equinox Orchestra, dined on a sampler platter of Savannah’s finest food and drink and marveled at the excitement of watching Savannah’s hottest new entertainment district come to life.

Danny Merritt 2020 Election Watch Party

Danny Merritt held his election watch party at Coach's Corner in Savannah, Georgia on Tuesday, June 9th. Merritt ran for Congress for District 1 against incumbent Buddy Carter.

FACES OF THE SOUTH — THE TRILOGY GALLERY 5

This is not a celebration. It is not a salute. This, readers, is a manifesto. It is a bold declaration of the richness of the South, of the majestic talents, relentless ambition and singular vision that reside just behind each face you pass in your travels. These are the faces of the people who are creating the new South through the sweat of their brow and the depth of their passions. But if you never look closer you may never know how deep that passion goes, and what it has accomplished.

FACES OF THE SOUTH — THE TRILOGY GALLERY 4

This is not a celebration. It is not a salute. This, readers, is a manifesto. It is a bold declaration of the richness of the South, of the majestic talents, relentless ambition and singular vision that reside just behind each face you pass in your travels. These are the faces of the people who are creating the new South through the sweat of their brow and the depth of their passions. But if you never look closer you may never know how deep that passion goes, and what it has accomplished.

FACES OF THE SOUTH — THE TRILOGY GALLERY 2

This is not a celebration. It is not a salute. This, readers, is a manifesto. It is a bold declaration of the richness of the South, of the majestic talents, relentless ambition and singular vision that reside just behind each face you pass in your travels. These are the faces of the people who are creating the new South through the sweat of their brow and the depth of their passions. But if you never look closer you may never know how deep that passion goes, and what it has accomplished.

FACES OF THE SOUTH — THE TRILOGY GALLERY 3

This is not a celebration. It is not a salute. This, readers, is a manifesto. It is a bold declaration of the richness of the South, of the majestic talents, relentless ambition and singular vision that reside just behind each face you pass in your travels. These are the faces of the people who are creating the new South through the sweat of their brow and the depth of their passions. But if you never look closer you may never know how deep that passion goes, and what it has accomplished.

FACES OF THE SOUTH — THE TRILOGY GALLERY 1

This is not a celebration. It is not a salute. This, readers, is a manifesto. It is a bold declaration of the richness of the South, of the majestic talents, relentless ambition and singular vision that reside just behind each face you pass in your travels. These are the faces of the people who are creating the new South through the sweat of their brow and the depth of their passions. But if you never look closer you may never know how deep that passion goes, and what it has accomplished.

February Brews for a Cause

February's Brews for a Cause was held at the Drayton Hotel on Thursday, February 27th. South Magazine and Southern Eagle teamed up to raise money through a large silent auction for the Savannah Ambucs organization. Craft Beer samplings from Wild Leap Brewing, alongside appetizers from the Drayton Hotel were offered to guests.