Auto Dynasties of the South
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
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.”
Myron Kaminsky (center) with sons Adam and Ross.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.