Capitol Auto Group Charting a Legacy by Following a Road Less Traveled
Surviving as a business in any industry for 90 years is a legacy-worthy accomplishment. Doing so in an industry as volatile as automobile sales may be in a class by itself. That’s the landmark Salem’s Capitol Auto Group established this year and from the looks of things, they do not plan to slow down any time soon.
What we know of as Capitol Auto Group was founded in 1927 by Douglas McKay. McKay opened Douglas McKay Chevrolet Company in Salem and soon added a Cadillac dealership. For some perspective, 1927 was a pivotal year in the automobile industry. It was the year Ford retired its Model T for the more weather- and family-friendly closed coupe Model A. It was the year automobiles started to surpass horses as the major mode of transportation for Americans. It was also the first year Chevrolet surpassed Ford in total auto sales.
McKay? You might know him for some of his other accomplishments as he went on to serve as Salem Mayor, an Oregon State Senator, Oregon Governor from 1949-1952 and as U.S. Secretary of Interior under President Dwight Eisenhower. McKay sold the dealership to his two sons-in-law, -Lester Green and Wayne Hadley, who changed the name to Capitol Chevrolet Cadillac. The company added a Toyota franchise in 1974. Scott Casebeer married into the family in 1977 and eventually bought out Green and Hadley and renamed it Capitol Auto Group. Today, Casebeer remains the sole owner.
Capitol has continued to grow and support its local neighborhoods under Casebeer’s direction. Around 2008, Casebeer purchased a 20-plus acre parcel of land on Salem Parkway. The plans were to consolidate dealerships and leave a bit of room to grow. Casebeer had to wait out the economic collapse. After markets started to turn, a newer Toyota/Scion facility became the first new Parkway dealership in the fall of 2011. A Subaru facility followed in 2012. In 2013, Capitol West Valley, pre-owned sales and service, opened in Dallas, Oregon, and about the same time, the last piece of the Parkway puzzle came together when the Chevrolet/Cadillac dealership took up its new residence.
Capitol has established itself as one of the nation’s top dealerships not only by sales volume but also by the expanding range of awards it receives and the reputation it has earned for community involvement. Another very important component is the way Capitol treats its more than 300 employees. The dealership’s success may stem from the unique and infectious perspective of its leader, Casebeer.
“I’ve openly admitted I was never a car guy,” says Casebeer. “I didn’t tinker with them when I was growing up. I have no fascination or attachment to them at all. In fact, I routinely tell my management staff, Don’t get all caught up in the car thing. It’s just a car. We’re ultimately not in the car business. I like to say we’re in the hospitality business.”
You can see that distinction in nearly everything Casebeer does with Capitol. Even the dealership slogan, “Have it your way on the Parkway,” puts the emphasis on the customer. Reviews and rankings of Capitol will tell you that this isn’t just car-advertising lip service.
“Yes, we will do everything in our power to make the deal a customer wants,” says Casebeer. “But 99 percent of the folks out there selling things like cars will always tell you The customer comes first. In my opinion, customers don’t come first, employees come first. If employees are happy, engaged, understand what they need to do and excited to come to work, it will naturally get reflected to our customers.”
Capitol has the rankings to back up the philosophy. From 2012 through this year, the dealership has been ranked near the top of Automotive News magazine’s annual survey of the “Best Dealership to Work for in the U.S.”
Closer to home, Capitol Auto Group has earned Legacy Award Status in Oregon Business’ Magazine’s annual ranking of the 100 Best Companies to Work for in Oregon. (The legacy status title comes when a company has achieved the designation for ten consecutive years.) For 2017, Capitol was listed number three in the large company category of the survey.
How the company treats its employees has extended into the community. Capitol encourages active involvement by providing each employee a paid “volunteer” day during the year. Capitol holds activities, contests, and competitions within the company to raise money for United Way Mid-Willamette Valley. This year, during its annual 28 Days of Love in February, the company and its employees raised $135,000, bringing its two-year total to just under $250,000, making Capitol Auto among the top three contributors to the local United Way campaign.
The combined community and charitable contributions fostered by Capitol are not the only way Capitol supports its community. When Casebeer started building the new dealership on Salem Parkway, he and his management team made a commitment to use sustainable building practices (a rarity among auto dealership nationally). The dealership was certified as an EarthWISE business in Marion County in 2013 and attained a similar “legacy” status as one of Oregon Business magazine’s 100 Greenest Businesses in the state. In the process, the dealership has carved out a few distinctive service and design features.
“When we first started developing the Parkway property, one of the features was a gravel pit and an accompanying pond,” says Casebeer. “We worked the pond into the design as well as using it for gray water recycling and for the preservation/creation of a wetland area. It also serves us well as the dealership “driving range”.
Yep, as the dealership is proud to boast, it is the “only local dealership with a driving range and a floating green” where patrons can work on their swing while the car is being serviced. Among its other natural features of the property include an inviting dog park at its Subaru dealership.
Casebeer and Capitol not only extend the inclusive values to employees, but it’s also a strong fiber in the thread that weaves business relationships. It’s one of many reasons why Capitol has relied on the CompSAFE group workers’ compensation program to provide coverage and service to its dealership.
“We would never want to have business partners that didn’t share our company values,” says Casebeer. “Who would?”
Casebeer points to both Oregon Business & Industry (OBI) and SAIF as two such partners.
“What these two organizations have done has been great,” says Casebeer. “With OBI, you have an organization working for all Oregon businesses regardless of size or location. With SAIF, you have an organization that treats each customer like you’re the only one they have. That’s what we try to do as a business and it seems to have worked pretty well so far.”
Well enough to go another 90 years?
“Look, I honestly believe that this dealership model will soon go the way of the dodo bird,” says Casebeer. “Uber. Online sales. Self-driving cars. The whole industry can feel the ground shifting beneath it. We’ll adapt and until then, keep doing what’s working.”
Fortunately for Casebeer, he has a pretty good fallback plan. When he is not overseeing his dealership from his second-story corner office above the Chevrolet store, he and his wife, Carrie, enjoy time on their horse farm east of Salem. Scott’s office is filled with photos, tributes, and artifacts, including a horse saddle that has pride of place in the corner. He openly talks about the day (soon) when he will leave his position and retire, leaving the operation of Capitol Auto Group in the hands of his sons, Alex and Matthew.
Not a bad legacy for a guy who never was into cars.