BOARDMAN – Contrary to what many people might expect, Alexa Sweeney Blackann wasn’t expected to go into the family business. She was working in retail when her father, Doug Sweeney, suggested that she might be interested in the car business.
Today, Blackann is president of Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC. She represents the fourth generation of her family’s ownership of the Boardman dealership, which marks 100 years in business this year. Blackann took over at the end of last year.
“Sweeney Automotive and the Sweeney family have been outstanding General Motors partners, true examples of Chevrolet and Buick/GMC dealer excellence,” says Steve Fahner, regional director of sales, marketing and aftersales, for GM’s Buick/GMC brands. “We are excited to continue this valued dealer relationship with Alexa Sweeney Blackann at the helm.”
Blackann stresses that it’s less about her and “more about the team,” as well as the “generations of people before me that made this a success way before I got here.”
The transition originally was planned for the end of 2019. “As the beginning of 2020 started, we tried to put it together, and then COVID hit,” she says.
“We worked really hard to get here and so many really talented people came before me,” she says. She was excited to get the “No. 1” license plate for her vehicle, which signifies the dealer. “That was a big deal for me to put that on my car,” she says.
Sweeney, who was gradually becoming less active in the business, says he felt the time had come to pass on the reins. Blackann had the desire and the ability to take over.
“I thought it was time for me to get out of the way,” he jokes.
Blackann, who had worked in the dealership during a summer while in high school, was working in retail for a clothing company while in college, she recalls. During a lunch with her father, she showed him a performance review she had received at work, which prompted him to suggest that if she liked working in retail she might enjoy his business.
Before then, it was never a given that either she or her two sisters would work for the dealership.
“My dad did a great job of never pushing that. It was not an assumption that any of us would ever work at the business. It was something he wanted to come from us organically,” she says.
“But I’d always been kind of a bossy kid, so maybe it was a better fit for me,” she adds. Neither of her sisters works at the Sweeney dealerships.
“It’s not for everybody,” Sweeney says. “She clearly has the ability and she understands retail. She studied marketing in college and I felt like she had the family genetics and appreciated the family history to be interested. Just like any family business, you have to give the next generation an opportunity.”
Blackann joined the dealership full time in 2004, starting in marketing and eventually working in every department.
“We have an amazing team,” she says. “The commitment from these people to work with us sometimes 45 years, that’s your whole life that you’ve invested in this company and in this mission to serve the Valley. That spirit is always my favorite thing about it.”
About 7% of GM dealerships are owned by women, but efforts are underway to recruit more women and minority dealers.
“There’s no question that I am the only woman in the room a significant portion of the time when it comes to those leadership/dealer meetings,” she says.
She sees her gender as an asset, helping the dealership “make a customer experience that’s more suited toward everyone,” rather than people thinking of it as so male-oriented to be off-putting, she says. “I hope that’s what I bring to the table in that we’re always looking to innovate and make it a better experience.”
Blackann praises her parents for their role in shaping her. Both have strong ethics and are “really quality humans,” she says.
“If you know Doug, you probably like Doug. He’s great with people,” she reflects. “He definitely created that team atmosphere and people are here for years because of that team he put together and the way that he feels about serving the community.”
Her mother, Patricia, who retired in 2019 as Mahoning County health commissioner, co-founded a local home health care company years ago. She has “a little bit of an entrepreneurial spirit as well,” Blackann says. “I get a little bit of that from her.”
“Her mother and I are very proud of her,” Sweeney says.
Blackann also credits the support she gets at home from her husband, Josh, an engineer. It explains how Blackann is “able to raise four children and do this work,” she says.
Blackann takes over at what she characterizes as an “interesting” time, when General Motors has committed to “a full electric route” and innovations such as autonomous technology are emerging.
“We’re at a really cool spot in our history where we can really change the customer’s experience using our Sweeney FastPass,” an online platform that allows a customer to purchase a car from search to delivery, she says.
“We feel like we’re taking a leadership role in the community and in the region to be able to serve the customer in the best way possible going forward,” she says. “I’m looking forward to the electronic future. That’s going to change how we do pretty much everything in a really positive way.”
That future is bringing surprises she doesn’t anticipate.
During a discussion of where to place charging stations on the dealership properties, the issue of chargers for employee vehicles came up since many employees purchase vehicles from the dealership. “That was a great point. I hadn’t even considered that,” she says.
Already, she is talking to potential employees about filling the needs new technologies will bring.
“We know that we will need to have an [electric vehicle] specialist in each building by the end of the year that will have to be an expert in how to install charging stations inside their home,” she says. “There’s a lot of training that GM will provide for us to be able to do that but the people that are interested in doing this work are going to be really critical to be part of our team going forward.”
Pictured: As president of Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC, Blackann takes over as the industry transitions to electric vehicles.