Sweeney Celebrates Century of Auto Sales in Mahoning Valley

BOARDMAN, Ohio — Online tools such as social media and the emergence of electric vehicles are among the changes affecting the auto industry as Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC in Boardman drives into its next century.

Alexa Sweeney Blackann, who took over as president late last year, is optimistic about what lies ahead as she reflects on the history of the company, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this month.

“It’s a testament to the community and the support of the community that we’re here for 100 years,” she says. She also credits the “great people” on the dealership’s team and the community’s recognition that “we do things the right way every time.”

The dealership that is today known as Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC got its start as Stearns Motor Co. in 1921. The downtown Youngstown dealership originally sold the Stearns-Knight luxury auto brand, according to Bill Lawson, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.

The dealership, which acquired the Buick franchise in the 1930s, started as what Blackann describes as a “community enterprise,” with some 20 individuals involved with the downtown Youngstown dealership.

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Gallery includes historic images of Sweeney dealership through the years.

Partner Gene Hopper eventually came to be the leader of the Youngstown dealership, eventually bringing Arthur Sweeney, his brother-in-law and Blackann’s great-grandfather, into the organization. That dealership later became Buick Youngstown, and moved to Boardman in 1986.

In 1955, the business opened State Chevrolet on Wick Avenue the same day that Blackann’s father, Doug, was born. That began its relationship with the brand, she recalls. Other milestones include acquiring the GMC franchise in 1987 and Pontiac in 1996, and the Chevrolet operation moving to Boardman as well with the purchase of Spartan Chevrolet in 2004. Sweeney Chevrolet is at 8010 Market St., and Sweeney Buick GMC is across the road at 7997 Market St.

How prospective customers approach buying a car has changed significantly, Blackann says. In the past, most people would visit five or six dealerships before they bought a car. Now they do most of their research online and might visit just one or two dealerships. Social media has changed the business in “really fun ways,” allowing the dealership to engage with people on a “really transparent level,” she says.

“The customers are asking for more control over how they do business with us,” she says. “We’re trying to meet those needs with things like Sweeney FastPass,” an online tool to purchase vehicles.

She also expresses excitement for the future with the advent of EVs, which “are really going to change the way we do business.”

The Sweeney organization is working with General Motors to determine how it can be EV ready, Blackann says. GM representatives have assessed the GMC dealership to be prepared for the new Hummer EVs, which Blackann expects to arrive later this year or in early 2022, “so that we’re positioned to sell and service those vehicles efficiently.”

As part of the EV transition, a Youngstown State University engineering student is working with a Sweeney technician “to find out what we don’t know” and determine how to best prepare technicians “for an EV future,” she says.

“Technicians really will be more like computer programmers in the next 10 years,” she says.

“I wouldn’t hesitate to say we’re already there,” says Devon Smith, shop foreman for both the Chevrolet and Buick GMC dealerships. The electronic equipment most vehicles are equipped with “requires quite a bit of reading and attention to detail to know if the system’s functioning correctly and what part of the system has stopped working correctly or malfunctioned.”

GM does a good job of providing the training technicians need in a timely manner, Smith says.

“The training is going to be lengthy because it’s a whole new product,” Smith continues. “That being said, we’ve been inundated with so much training already with the introduction of so many new power trains that it’s not going to feel all that different going forward than what we’ve been introduced to over the last five to 10 years.”

Smith notes the EV models don’t perform anything like the hybrids GM had introduced previously. They require “very little tweaking or adjustments” when they come in for routine maintenance, he says. They don’t require anywhere near the amount of service that an internal combustion engine needs.

“We’re going to be like the Maytag repairmen, standing around staring at each other quite a bit,” Smith says.

In addition to training initiatives, Sweeney has put significant effort into recruiting. With GM committing to an all-electric fleet by 2035, she wants to talk to students in 9th and 10th grades today about future job opportunities in dealerships.

Past outreach efforts have included involvement in events like Silly Science Sunday and National Skilled Trades Day. The dealership is “taking any opportunity we can to get in front of initiatives with Mahoning County Career and Technical Center, which is really ahead of the game as far as planning for the future in how to educate this young population and how to get them interested in jobs of the future,” she says, and New Castle School of Trades.

Sweeney will celebrate the dealership’s milestones and the people who helped it reach 100 years at a party Sept. 17. Invited guests included representatives of General Motors, customers, employees and supporters.

Pictured at top: Alexa Sweeney Blackann, president of Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC.