|Honorees Tom Armao and Scott Davis are reflected in the hood of a 2012 Camaro.|
By JIM KEVLIN
When Tom Armao was in high school, he spent one summer working for Ralph Johns, a farmer in his Schoharie County neighborhood, and Johns’ self-discipline impresses him still.
“He painted one side of the barn every year,” said Armao, in his bright office on Country Club Auto Group’s Kia-Nissan-Mitsubishi side of Oneida Street. “He always got everything done when it was meant to be done.”
In applying Ralph Johns’ code today, Armao embraces system and practices self-discipline: “Life is more predictable than random. It’s not beating the odds; it’s knowing the odds and playing the odds.”
Across the street in his wood-paneled office amid Country Club’s GM offerings, Scott Davis describes his years developing Oneonta’s Rent-A-Wreck franchise into the best of the 500 worldwide.
Because of the franchise’s name, in particular, Davis’ cars “had to be spotless. They had to look good. They had to smell good. They had to be mechanically sound,” he said.
As he got to know his repeat customers from SUNY Oneonta, Hartwick College and other institutions, “I would put on the radio station I knew they would turn to.”
Discipline, customer focus, integrity – they both quote their mentor, Bill Davis: “We don’t lie, cheat or steal, and wouldn’t employ anyone who does – at least, not for long.”
With those qualities, is it any surprise the two partners, who bought the prime dealership from Bill Davis in 2009 and have continued to expand its reach, are being honored as the Otsego County Chamber’s NBT Distinguished Business of 2011 this Saturday, April 16, at SUNY Oneonta’s Hunt Union?
Business success over time and community service are the two criteria the chamber committee uses to pick its honorees, said chamber President & CEO Rob Robinson, and Country Club certainly has achieved both.
Much of this is Bill Davis’ legacy. “Serving your community is primary if you’re going to be successful in business,” said Robinson, and he said of the founding father, “If I could choose a grandfather for my kids, I would choose someone like Bill Davis, someone you can look up to and respect and learn from.”
But since Armao and Scott Davis bought the business in 2009, they combined two sites and two brands under the “Country Club” umbrella, reducing costs and focusing marketing. When the Big Three hit the bumps in the national economic road, the dealership was lean, consolidated, ready to weather the travails.
Robinson credited luck, but also vision and foresight. Armao and Scott Davis’ personalities, he continued, are also being forged into a strong partnership that bodes well for the future, he said.
“When push is needed, Tom is there,” said the chamber exec. “When restraint is called for, Scott is there.”
Tom Armao was born on a farm in the Town of Summit. He had three brothers and four sisters. (At a family reunion in Jersey Shore, Pa., two years ago, more than 60 close relatives were present.)
His first car? A ’55 Belair, “I rebuilt it myself.”
Graduating from Richmondville High School, he joined the Air Force, where he spent three years, seven months, three weeks and two days at basic in Texas, electrical school in Biloxi, Miss., and repairing long-range radar systems at the Blaine (Wash.) Air Force Station.
For the first time, the farmboy was exposed to
people from all ethnicities, regions, ages, social classes. The lesson? “It made me realize that people react differently. We’re all different, and that’s OK.”
Back in Schoharie County in the early ‘70s, Tom briefly studied fish and wildlife management at SUNY Cobleskill, then joined brother David in Armao Construction, installing foundations and framing houses. In 1975, he joined his father Herb and brothers Dave and Steve in Cobleskill’s Amoco distributorship, wholesaling and retailing gasoline and maintaining the fleet.
“It mostly involved work – dirty work,” and in October 1978 Tom answered an ad, was interviewed by Bill Davis, his partner Paul Donowick and the Otsego Automotive GM, Gary McPherson, now of Certified Auto, and was hired as a salesman.
It was a tough time to break into auto sales. The country was coming out of the second oil embargo, interest rates were approaching 20 percent, but the economy was rebounding.
“I was the newbie in a staff of a lot of experienced people,” he remembered, so he listened and watched, and developed his own approach to sales. The dealership was selling Jeeps and Chevys at the time.
“It’s really a conversation,” Armao said. “You listen to people. Find out what they want. It’s not any marketing scheme. It’s just small-town America: Helping your neighbor.”
Just ask Mack and Kathy Culpepper, to whom he’s been selling cars since she was single and bought a Chevy Nova in 1978. Recently, he sold a car to one of their grandchildren.
“Sales sells the first car,” he said. “Service sells the rest of them.”
Armao had married in 1972, and he and wife Cynthia raised three children. Son Matthew, 38, is at Country Club; daughters are Rebecca, 36, and Sarah, 33. Armao had six grandchildren.
Within two years with Bill Davis, he was sales manager, directing eight sales people. When McPherson went on to other ventures in 1988, Armao became general sales manager.
“Some who has the motivation to win,” Tom said when asked the qualities he looks for in a salesman. “You can’t teach desire.” And, “you have to like people.”
As the son of an auto sales executive – his father, Bill, bought Otsego Automotive in 1960 – Scott Davis was pushing a broom and washing cars at the Oneonta dealership by the time he was 14.
Even by then, he knew his way around motors. His father would come home to find the son’s Honda CB160 motorcycle “in a million pieces on the floor” as Scott tried to figure out what made it tick.
From age 10, he’d push the motorcycle three miles from the family’s Sidney home “to where I could ride it on a trail. From there, I could go to Masonville.”
His first car was a greenish-blue Plymouth Savoy, “the poor man’s Fury,” with a push-button transmission on the dashboard. He bought it for $100, and immediately spent $50 adding an eight-track tape player.
His 1965 MGB soon threw a rod. (“I got the Savoy back.”) Then came a Chevy Corvair, which he loved despite Ralph Nader finding it “unsafe at any speed.” It was white with a black interior, and Scott soon had it painted bright red at Scavo’s Body Shop.
Trauma came in 10th grade when the Davis family – Scott, cross-country captain, was newly admitted to Sidney’s varsity club – was uprooted to Otego. He graduated in 1972 and went on to Keystone College in LaPlume, Pa.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” the accounting major remembered. “But I wanted to do something in business providing a service that the public can afford.”
He transferred to Syracuse, soon found himself at Utica College, then an SU subsidiary, and by the mid-’70s was enjoying life in Daytona Beach, Fla., managing an EconoCar rental franchise across from the speedway. The 1-9 p.m. shift was perfect for a 20-something.
During college, he had worked in Country Club’s parts department, bookkeeping and doing title work. By the end of the decade, he was back, selling Chevys.
As fleet sales manager, he experienced his first big coup, winning a contract that provided eight-passenger Chevy Suburban school buses to school districts “from Montauk, Long Island, to Buffalo.” (The vans were painted bright orange and adapted to their new use in the dealership’s service department.)
“We were in on the ground floor. We sold hundreds of them,” said Davis.
As that business became more and more competitive, Country Club decided to dip its toe in the car-rental business and obtained the Rent-A-Wreck franchise, which soon was spun off as a separate business with Bill Davis, Donowick and
Scott Davis as equal partners.
He began with five cars – “one of them cost me $500” – and grew it to 55. Rent-A-Wreck – “Don’t let the name fool you. They are dependable cars. They just aren’t new,” Scott said – also grew, to 500 franchises worldwide.
So it was some satisfaction for Scott Davis when his little franchise on Oneida Street, Oneonta, was named Franchise of the Year in 1990, based on two factors. One, fleet-size growth: “We were more than double what the population would bear.” And customer comment cards: “Out of hundreds, they never got a bad one from us.”
During this period, he and wife Kathy, from Bainbridge, raised two girls, Heather, now 25, a Cornell grad and clinical dietitian at Lenoxville Hospital in Manhattan, and Erin, a Unatego junior, a dancer, and second-runnerup in this year’s Miss Otsego County Teen.
Life was good. Kathy was helping with the franchise, which also supported a couple of employees, allowing the family some free time. Then, in 1999, his father asked him to come back into the car business.
“I thought long and hard about it,” he said, finally concluding, “If I don’t try it, I’m always going to kick myself. I’ll try it for 10 years.”
And so the association began that led to the partnership being honored this weekend.
Tom Armao was general manager of the Country Club piece, then Jeep and Chevy. Scott took on Otsego Automotive, then Buick, Pontiac, Cadillac, GMC, Olds and Mitsubishi.
“We all got along, like one big family,” said Scott Davis of Otsego Automotive. “We took the dealership to new levels.”
At the time, selling 65 cars a month was “a big deal.” Sales reached 85, then 100, then the peak – 115. He remembers “walking on air” as he entered Ristorante Stella Luna for the victory celebration.
The secret: Promotion. In 2008, when the City of Oneonta rebuilt Oneida Street, Davis took his inventory to a tent in the Southside Mall’s parking lot, and ended up staying there for a record summer.
A key event of the decade came in 2005, Armao said, as manufacturers realigned. “For some time, Chevy had wanted us to get rid of Jeep,” he said. When the dust settled, Royal had taken over Jeep from Armao. Empire Toyota had absorbed Scion from Royal. And Empire had transferred Kia to Armao. (For a time, Kia was sold next to the used-car lot on Southside purchased from Bob Harlem in 2002.)
In 2009, Armao and Scott Davis formed their partnership, Country Club Automotive Group; that didn’t signal an end to change, but the beginning of a new round.
Immmediately, all the GM products were consolidated in the former Country Club Chevy lot across Oneida from SFCU. In April 2009, Kia and Mitsubishi were consolidated kitty corner in the former Otsego Automotive lot. In September 2009, Flagpole Nissan left the market, and the partners bought that franchise from the Maldonados.
At the same time, they hired Vibrant Creative, Chris Quereau’s ad agency, which developed a consistent look in the advertising under the “Country Club” brand, “to position us in the marketplace as the market leader,” Armao said.
One thing hasn’t changed, both partners said: dependable employees, seven of whom have been with the dealership more than 30 years, “unheard of today,” Armao said.
Despite all the change, both partners anticipate the best is yet to come.
“The technology today is incredible,” said Armao. “The new Optima is an incredible vehicle. The new Kruse gets 40 miles to the gallon. More than 50 percent of our service is on cars more than six years old. So cars last.”
“People who don’t change make the decision to go out of business,” said Scott Davis. “They just don’t know when.”