What it Takes
2017 is shaping up to be a good year for the second-generation family-owned dealership in Elizabethtown, Kentucky.
TIME’s award recipients are among the nation's most successful auto dealers who also demonstrate a longstanding commitment to community service. Swope is in good company as several family members also have been nominated for the 48th annual award, making it particularly meaningful.
“Every year approximately 50 very qualified, very deserving men and women are nominated,” says the president of Swope Toyota. “It’s indescribable to be nominated by your peers, in my case the Kentucky Automobile Dealers Association. My father (Bill) was a nominee, as well as my uncle (Sam) in the '70s and my brother (Dick) was nominated twice. It’s very rewarding.”
The Right Move
Growing up in an automotive family allowed Swope to learn all aspects of the retail business. He began his career selling Fords for his brother’s dealership, Bob Swope Ford in Elizabethtown. After college, he launched a full-time career in sales with Sam Swope Auto Group in Louisville, Kentucky, working his way up to general manager at Toyota of Louisville.
Virginia Simmons (left) shows off the cake she made to General Manager Kathy McCubbin and Carl Swope. The dealership’s café opened last year and is a crowd pleaser.
In 1986, his father and uncle presented him with the opportunity to buy Swope Motors Inc. in Elizabethtown, which first opened in 1967. Moving back to his hometown with his wife and family proved to be a turning point.
“One of the things I was always grateful for (growing up) is that we stayed a very tight family, and it’s true you live this business 24/7,” he says. “The automobile business is done best by a family that’s local and highly engaged. That’s what we’ve been throughout my lifetime. It’s been a very, very rewarding decision to come to Elizabethtown to develop a family dealership.”
When he took over the dealership, Swope says his first order of business was to build a new facility next door. Since then, he’s grown the business from a single-rooftop, dual dealership with 50 employees to 300 associates as part of the Swope Family of Dealerships.
In January 2016, Swope more than doubled the size of the Toyota dealership, opening a new facility across the street. It includes a full-service café that’s become a popular meeting place for customers and the community. Swope credits his General Manager Kathy McCubbin with the café idea, which is intended to make the dealership a welcoming destination.
“We don’t really have a profit motive, we have an experience motive,” Swope says. “We have a major following in the community for our breakfast and lunch. About 70 or 80 percent of the people who come aren’t here to get their car worked on. They’re just locals who have found the food to be compelling. It brings people in on a regular basis and they’re comfortable here.”
McCubbin, who’s worked at the dealership for nearly 17 years, says Swope took a chance on hiring her as GM at a time when women didn’t traditionally serve in that role. And he supported her idea to open a full-service café, which she says has been a big success.
“The best way to describe working for the family, and especially for Carl, is they are such outside-the-box thinkers and they really make you feel like you’re part of the family,” she says. “His family has been that way with all the associates who work here. It’s no surprise that he won this award because he is so involved in the community and in associates’ lives.”
Leaving a Mark
Swope learned early on that a locally owned and community-engaged dealership can make a difference. Like those before him, he takes that responsibility seriously, helping establish the local affiliate for Habitat for Humanity in the early 1990s, and later working alongside President Carter, Mrs. Carter and volunteers to build more than 50 homes in Pike County.
Swope serves on numerous boards and supports civic activities like helping families at nearby Fort Knox and bolstering the historic downtown district. His associates have followed his lead and renovate offices and classrooms for local nonprofits and schools through a United Way-sponsored effort called Project United. They also fill backpacks with nutritious food for children in need and prepare care packages for deployed soldiers.
Each of his stores has a general manager who’s encouraged to serve on local leadership boards, and associates are out there volunteering and contributing as well.
“This is a people business and we need people who are engaged in making Elizabethtown and the Central Kentucky region a better place,” he says. “We have a fabulous organization and I am so blessed with the people I have around me and to live in a community like this.”
With two of his three children now involved in the business, Swope is not only thrilled but a little emotional talking about the third generation. One daughter, Susan Schmidt, a CPA, is controller at Swope Family of Dealerships, and the other, Jennifer Scarbrough, works at a Nashville dealership.
“I’m ecstatic,” he says. “When they were growing up my fear was none of them would follow, but if they all come, that’s the best.”