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Nalleys keep ’em in the road in tough times

POSTED: August 2, 2009 1:00 a.m.

The Nalley name continues on 10 Atlanta area car dealerships, but the Nalley family no longer is involved directly in them. Asbury Automotive Group, Inc., a multibillion-dollar business, acquired most of the Nalley car enterprises in 1997, with Jim Nalley remaining as a partner and chief executive officer. His and wife Rene's three sons, Clay (C.V. Nalley IV), Street and Slater, continued working for Asbury.

Jim Nalley retired as CEO in 2005, and the sons eventually left Asbury to strike out on their own. They formed Sons Auto Group and bought four Hank Aaron Atlanta area dealerships. None carried the Nalley name as part of the previous deal with Asbury. Sons now operates five dealerships, all of which are doing well, said father Jim Nalley.

Though Atlanta has been his home for many years, Jim Nalley continues his connections to Gainesville, where he was born and where his grandfather started the family in the car business in 1918. He still has friends and some relatives in the area and served for several years on Brenau University's board of trustees.

"I am grateful for growing up in Gainesville," he said. "It was a wonderful small town to live in, and I'm proud of the progress it's made."

His childhood friends included Charles Smithgall III, Pete Turner and Glenn Brock. "We all got into trouble together," he said.

He played football for the Candler Street Greenies, attended Enota Elementary and Gainesville High School, where teachers often separated him and his friends because they made so much mischief. He particularly remembers them stressing out their Latin teacher after they all ended up in her class. Nalley finished high school at Baylor in 1960.

"I worked at Dad's dealership every chance I got," he said. Besides ordinary tasks, even as a teenager he was allowed to ride to car auctions with salesmen, help pick out cars, fix them up and resell them.

Nalley terms the present motor vehicle environment in the country as a sea change for the industry. He can count five economic slowdowns in his business career.

"I thought 1989-90-91 was the worst," he said, "but this is the toughest."

His sons closed three Suzuki stores, but the Nalleys own a franchise in Brunswick that sells GMC, Jeep and Honda products. "It's mighty slow, but OK," the elder Nalley says.

Potential buyers can't get money to buy vehicles, he says. But that isn't the only factor. Too many cars on the market, too many models, too many dealerships, Nalley said.

"I knew it couldn't last," he said. "It's sad to watch General Motors go from king of the world to messing up everything it touched."

While the used car business continues to do OK, he doesn't see the new car industry coming back until financing becomes less restrictive. The future is in service and parts, he says.

Other businesses might make note of Nalley's operations. His automotive group twice was named Atlanta's Best Place to Work. Employees are treated so well that managers worked for Nalley 20 years or more. Most worked their way up from the bottom.

Jim Nalley's philosophy is reflected in a sign on his desk: "Underpromise ... Overdeliver." He gave one to all his general managers. He stressed keeping customers happy, believing they'd come back if they were well served.

When he was working full time, Nalley often answered his own phone. Even today, retired, but still coming to his office on West Paces Ferry Road in Atlanta, a caller is transferred to him immediately if he isn't already on the phone.

It's been a long road from doing menial tasks at his father's Chevrolet dealership in Gainesville to operating one of the country's largest automobile groups. Nalleys in the car business span four generations.

Jim Nalley, 66, is playing more golf but isn't entirely out of the business. And as troubled as the industry is today, Nalleys apparently will continue the family tradition.

"The kids seem to thrive," he says, despite long hours that occupy most of their weekends.

They have produced five grandchildren for Jim and wife Rene. Son Clay's child is C.V. Nalley IV, who very well might be the fifth generation in a car business whose roots were on East Spring Street in Gainesville 91 years ago.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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