Four Generations of Business, Community Service at Sweeney
BOARDMAN, Ohio – Doug Sweeney recalls his first job at State Chevrolet. At his family’s Wick Avenue dealership in Youngstown 42 years ago, the 14-year-old dusted the parts shelves in the parts department.
“Back then it was probably legal,” the president of the dealership today known as Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC reflects with some amusement.
Working in the parts department “is a great way to learn the business,” Sweeney says. “Everything flows through that.”
Today, the family’s two stores are in Boardman, with operations across the street from each other. Sweeney Chevrolet is at 8010 Market St. and Sweeney Buick GMC is at 7997 Market, where a 40,000-square-foot building will be completed in about a year to replace the building damaged in a November 2017 storm.
The family’s history in the auto business began with Gene Hopper, Sweeney’s great-uncle, who was a founder of the Stearns Motor Sales Co. in 1921. His grandfather, Arthur Sweeney, married Hopper’s sister and was part of the business.
“They went through a couple of different franchises early on and Buick was the first, so to speak, major franchise,” Sweeney says. That began the Sweeneys’ long relationship with General Motors.
The Sweeneys were out of the Chevrolet business for a time, having sold State Chevrolet in the 1990s, but in 2004 bought Spartan Chevrolet, which was near Sweeney Buick Pontiac GMC on Market Street.
Doug and Dave Sweeney followed their father, Robert, in the family business, with Doug taking over State Chevrolet in 1981 at age 25. Before taking over, he worked in every department at the dealership.
Dave Sweeney assumed control of the GMC, Buick and Pontiac operations five years later and the two worked together until 2009, when Dave moved west and his interest in the company was bought out.
“He was tremendous,” Doug Sweeney says. “He was a class act.”
Sweeney’s father and grandfather emphasized several points to the succeeding generations, including the importance of taking care of customers and employees, capitalization, and giving back to the community, he says.
Sweeney estimates the dealership donates upward of $200,000 each year to the community, including Operation Santa, which sets aside $50 from each vehicle sold in December for designated local charities. That doesn’t count smaller contributions, such as those to youth sports teams.
“We look at it as an opportunity and a pleasure to give back,” he says.
Sweeney credits the mentorship of former State Chevrolet general manager Jack Stanko, who now operates a dealership in Nevada. “He taught me his version of the business and I’m forever indebted to him,” he says.
Sweeney’s daughter, Alexa Sweeney Blackann, vice president, represents the fourth generation of Sweeney leadership.
Blackann started with the dealership in 2004, first in marketing before doing a rotation in each department. She participated in the dealer academy through the National Automobile Dealers Association, graduating in March 2016.
“I’ve been pushing to get better every day,” she says.
Asked what she learned from her father, Blackann responds, “What haven’t I learned from him?”
Among the lessons she specifies are leading a team toward a common goal. From both her parents – her mother is Mahoning County Health Commissioner Patricia Sweeney – she learned the importance of giving back to the community.
“We don’t have a job without our customers and we go above and beyond every time we get the opportunity,” she says, reinforcing another lesson from her father. “And he’s big on attitude. Your attitude makes all the difference in your life.”
Although auto sales remains a male-dominated industry – the Detroit Free Press last year reported that women make up 7% of top dealership jobs in the United States – Blackann says that isn’t an issue for her.
“I’m always mindful that you have to get up every day and work twice as hard, not just because of being a woman but also because you’re the daughter. So you don’t want to ever appear entitled to something,” she says.
During his time in the business, Sweeney notes how vehicle technology has advanced dramatically. Anyone who has driven a new vehicle today can attest to how much electronics and satellite technology have taken over.
“Many people my age and older talk about how they used to be able to work on their vehicles themselves and enjoyed it,” he says. “It’s pretty much over their heads.”
Technology outside the vehicle represents the major industry change that Blackann has witnessed. The internet is “a huge game changer” in terms of not only advertising and social media, but regarding the vehicle information available to consumers before they enter a showroom.
In the past, shoppers visited six dealerships before they bought their vehicles. Now that’s down to one. “As much as you can get done online before you get to the dealership, we want to help,” she says.
Social media has become “a fun part of our business” that allows the dealership to interact with customers, she continues.
Sweeney’s digital-media team does everything from using Google Analytics as a way to tightly target advertisements to “fun things like Snapchat filters at Panerathon or the Y Live concert,” she says.
“It’s a creative space that’s fun to try new things and see what works and what people want,” Blackann says.
The Sweeneys acknowledge the challenges operating a business with family members poses.
“If you’re in a family business, you really can’t choose the family members,” Doug Sweeney says. “The ones who are interested, you want to give them an opportunity but you can’t choose their strengths and weaknesses.”
The situation requires patience “because you’re not necessarily dealing with a chosen successor that you would have” in a nonfamily situation, he says.
“You have to sit together at Thanksgiving, too,” Blackann adds.
Except for himself, Sweeney says modestly, the dealership has been fortunate to have “a lot of great family leaders” over the past near-century in business. His daughter is no different, he adds.
“She enjoys the business,” he says. “She embraces the challenge and has a lot of ability to take us to the next generation.”
The biggest difference between father and daughter is communication styles, according to Blackann.
“He’s been running the place for 40 years. He’s very direct,” she says of her father. “He’s very specific about what direction he’s going and I tend to be more collaborative. I like to engage people in the process for a solution to something.”
That difference in leadership styles “can be like whiplash,” for key staff, she allows, but has improved in recent years.
“We’ve figured out a positive way to communicate with each other and to move the whole enterprise forward,” she says.
“They’re different personalities,” affirms managing partner Bobby Stackhouse.
A grandson of the founder of the former Stackhouse Olds, where he also worked, he joined Sweeney 12 years ago.
“They definitely have different managing skills but it’s easy to adapt to both of them,” he says.
Sweeney “constantly challenges us and doesn’t let us be complacent,” a quality that Stackhouse says he also sees in Blackann.
Although he has spent most of his time at the dealership working under Sweeney, working with Blackann has been an “easy transition,” he says.
“She’s very knowledgeable about the business. She gains your respect because of that,” Stackhouse says.
Stephanie Pozega, office manager and controller, has worked under all four generations of Sweeneys at the dealerships.
“I’ve enjoyed it. The family’s great,” she says.
Each generation has brought their own ideas to the table, but how they do business remains the same.
“They like to be honest. They like to do it right. But they each brought their own twist to it,” she says.
Pozega affirms the Sweeneys’ consistent care for their employees, their support for their community and concern for how they are perceived. “They always wanted to have a good name,” she says.
Preparations are underway for the transfer to the fourth generation of leadership.
“We are working with some talented people who are very astute at estate planning” to craft the best way within the law to transfer assets to Blackann. The goal is for her to have control within the requirements of GM, as well as to preserve capital so the business has the opportunity to survive, Sweeney says.
Blackann is also working with a group of 20 dealers across the country to compare notes, Sweeney continues.
“We work very hard at trying to be the best of the best, and her team is very active in that,” he says.
Members of the dealers group are “constantly at all levels going to school,” working with manufacturers and exploring opportunities in and out of the retail business to get better.
“I hope we’re putting in the work now” for the transition, Blackann says.
“I’m proud of the team we put together. I learn more every day and I’m grateful to the people that spend time explaining something or coming up with a great idea that we can execute. Everyday we’re just making sure that the customer’s experience is excellent.”
Pictured above: Balancing management styles have allowed Doug Sweeney and Alexa Sweeney Blackann “to move the whole enterprise forward” at the Sweeney dealerships.
3 Minutes With: Alexa Sweeney Blackann discusses the impacts of the internet on the industry, and the eventual rollout of electric and self-driving vehicles. CLICK TO WATCH
3 Minutes With: Doug Sweeney discusses the nearly 100-year history of his dealership and how the business has changed. CLICK TO WATCH
Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.