By Sarah Kuper
Celebrating 100 years in business is a milestone for any company, but Lee Edwards of Edwards Chevrolet said it is especially impressive for his family’s business.
“Very few car dealerships make it this long. It seems like every decade there was some sort of major event or hardship: the Great Depression, WWI, WWII, the recession … . It takes a lot of hard work.”
The Chevrolet dealership was established in August 1916, when Sterling Edwards opened the first location in downtown Birmingham on 21st Street. At the time, Chevrolet cars were relatively new on the automotive scene.
Without even a high school diploma, Sterling Edwards started selling cars while supporting his family.
The business began to grow as WWI approached. After the war, demand for the cars increased and Edwards Chevrolet expanded – opening dealerships in outer areas of town.
But, as a result of the Great Depression, Edwards was forced to close dealerships and re-centralize operations downtown.
Edwards Chevy continued to weather the storm and survived through a time when Chevrolet stopped making cars to focus on
manufacturing tanks for WWII.
During the time when no new cars were coming on the lot, Lee Edwards said the business relied on the service and used car sides of the business.
In 1944, Edwards Chevrolet moved headquarters to Third Avenue North and continued to grow its parts and service division.
The dealership continued to thrive even through the Arab Oil Embargo in the ‘70s and the recession in the ‘80s.
Today, the dealership has another location on U.S. 280 and employs more than 200 people.
Lee Edwards is the third generation to run the business, working along with his father, Leon Edwards.
He began working summers at the dealership when he was 15 years old and now he is hoping the next generation will choose to continue the family legacy; his son and nephew are working for the business now.
But, he said, just because Edwards Chevrolet is a family business doesn’t mean leadership will put any Edwards in charge.
“The key is to realize first and foremost it is a business. It is a privilege to have family be a part of it. When you look at it, there is a hierarchy – no family member gets special treatment or a free ride. The world is just too competitive.”
He emphasizes that being a part of the family business is an opportunity that has to be earned, not a gift.
When reflecting on the ups and downs of the business’ history, Lee Edwards cites customer service and employees’ well-being as keys to success and longevity.
“If you treat employees well, they will turn around and treat customers well.”
Even with the car buying tools widely available on the internet, Edwards still believes classic car dealerships will be around a long time.
“Most people aren’t willing to buy a car without driving it and sitting in it. In fact, most people end up buying a different car than the one they came to see. There is still value in the sales process.”
Edwards said the business has been able to weather economic hardships and fluctuations in auto trends and he believes the same will be true for years to come.
“Whether it is driverless cars, electric cars or ones that float or fly, someone is going to be selling them – we represent them to consumers.”
Edwards said that, at its heart, the satisfaction of a job at a respected and established business like Edwards Chevrolet is making dreams come true.
“We have the opportunity to provide a person with one of the most important purchases in their lifetime. It is the American dream to get a nice car. Sometimes it is a first-time purchaser getting their first car or it is someone getting, for the first time, a car they’ve always wanted.”
The entire Edwards family is taking the month of August to celebrate and appreciate all who have supported them over the years.
But, Edwards said that with the celebration comes the acknowledgement that there may always be a tough time around the corner.
“We know it is all about building relationships over decades with great employees and loyal customers. Those are the things that translate and carry through the tough times, because something is always coming.”