JACKSON — Taking risks has worked well for the Herrin-Gear family.
When no other dealership took Saturn’s offer to open Mississippi’s only franchise for the GM-manufactured automobile, Herrin-Gear did. And when then unproven Korean-made Kia was made available, Herrin-Gear added it to the product line.
Now Herrin-Gear Autoplex of Jackson includes Herrin-Gear Lexus, Saturn of Jackson, Herrin-Gear Infiniti and Hallmark Toyota-BMW-Kia, and is the exclusive Lexus, Saturn and Infiniti dealer in Mississippi.
“Our mission is to be the premier automotive dealership by providing the best possible products and services while exceeding our customer’s expectations,” said Jack Herrin, 47, president of Herrin-Gear Autoplex.
Within the last three years, Herrin-Gear’s leadership has shifted to the second generation. Jack Herrin assumed total responsibility for all of the Herrin-Gear automotive operations Oct. 1, 1998, on the 30-year anniversary of the dealership after his dad, Carl Herrin, now chairman of the board, retired. When George Gear died May 24, Jack Herrin and Carl Herrin became majority owners of Herrin-Gear Autoplex.
The Herrin-Gear saga began Oct. 1, 1968, but the groundwork had been laid decades earlier. In 1950, Dumas Milner hired Carl Herrin to work at the new Milner Chevrolet dealership. Before that, Herrin and his brother had managed a small Dodge-Plymouth dealership in Lexington.
Within a decade, Carl Herrin moved from service salesman to general manager and was responsible for implementing sales and marketing programs that resulted in record-breaking sales.
In 1946, Jackson businessman George Gear, an Ohio native and an executive of General Tire and Rubber Company, purchased the General Tire dealership in Jackson. Four years later, he joined Standard Life Insurance Company. Little more than a decade later, Gear was named chairman of the board.
When Milner wanted to open a Cadillac dealership in Jackson, he had to sell his Chevrolet dealership, so Herrin and Gear partnered to buy it and opened Herrin-Gear Chevrolet with 85 employees — and one car.
By implementing the sales and marketing program that had been so successful under Milner, the partners saw sales top $10 million by the end of the first year. On the company’s 30-year anniversary, sales topped $135 million. The company declined to disclose recent sales figures.
The decision to move the dealership from its original South State Street location in downtown Jackson to High Street east of I-55 in February 1978 was “the single best business decision I ever made,” said Carl Herrin.
Some business associates had criticized Herrin for moving a large dealership so close to the Pearl River.
The April 1979 Jackson flood put the dealership under several feet of flood waters, but Herrin-Gear was one of few area businesses with flood insurance coverage.
In 1983, Gear acquired the former Capitol Toyota, changed its name to Hallmark Toyota and moved it to its current location. Jack Herrin, a University of Mississippi graduate, had worked in the automobile business in Dallas for several years before returning in 1983 to manage the franchise.
When Hallmark added Kia its product line, the name changed to Hallmark Toyota-BMW-Kia. Under Jack Herrin’s leadership, the franchise has received Toyota’s prestigious President’s Award for 13 consecutive years.
“Hallmark’s success is based on great products, great employees and treating the customer right,” said Nat Keating, general manager. “Completely satisfied customers mean repeat customers.”
In 1991, Herrin-Gear opened the Saturn franchise. In 1993, luxury car line Infiniti became the fourth dealership at the Herrin-Gear Autoplex.
The Autoplex has the largest inventory in a tri-state area, with four franchises divided into various lots, including a “savings zone” area, where only special discount-priced vehicles are located, a luxury pre-owned department, a commercial fleet department that specializes in business-to-business needs and certified pre-owned vehicles at all four franchises.
Reed Howell, general sales manager of the Autoplex, said the dealership has been so successful because it is a “stable organization and because everyone is treated like family.”
“At the Autoplex, we offer a broad selection, from high line to the most economical vehicle in today’s market,” Howell said.
The body shop, parts departments and service departments have won numerous awards of excellence through the years, a benchmark Jack Herrin attributes to “consistent and dedicated staffs.”
“We have many employees that have over 10 years’ experience with us in these departments,” he said. “They are highly trained and experienced in their fields of expertise and that shows in our high ‘customer satisfaction’ scores. Taking care of our customers after the sale is the key to any dealership’s continued success.”
Stephen Gong, corporate comptroller-fixed operations manager, who joined Herrin-Gear in 1973 as a cashier, said, “dedicated and loyal employees in all departments make it happen.”
“We know ‘total customer satisfaction’ is our No. 1 goal and we come to work each and every day ready to meet that challenge,” Gong said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.