AMORY – Lessons in leadership and tricks of the automobile trade picked up from some of Detroit’s finest led to fond years for Sam Stevens selling cars locally and doing progressive behind the scenes work for the Amory School District.
For years, Sam Stevens Motors was an Amory mainstay, but the former car lot at the intersection of highways 25 and 6 will soon make way for a Jack’s Family Restaurant. Going back to the car dealership’s humble beginnings, Stevens’ father was a Chevrolet dealer before he bought the lot in 1966. He added GMC trucks to the business’ inventory a short time later.
“At the time I was in college. I came to the store in 1969 and bought my dad out in ‘73,” Stevens said. “Probably in about 1980, we added Chrysler, Plymouth and Dodge and about five years later, we added Jeep.”
Through his father, he learned how to treat people honestly and maintain good customer service. For the past 15 years, customer reviews of Sam Stevens Motors averaged 4.8 to 5 on a 5-point scale.
Stevens’ years of being a car dealer led to several different titles throughout automobile companies, including president of the Chrysler Dealer Counsel for 15 years and regional president of the GMC Dealer Counsel for 13 states.
Stevens’ involvement in larger positions stemmed from being elected by dealers in the local and regional markets.
“I had an opportunity to travel with the folks from Chrysler and General Motors that were managing the corporations. I had the opportunity to meet the famous Lee Iacocca. Those were enjoyable days and opportunities that were immeasurable. When you get to know folks at the high level, it certainly benefits your knowledge of business.
“You could go to the meetings where Lee Iacocca would be, and it was like he was the most charismatic person you’ve ever been around. This guy was about 5-foot-4 or -5, and you would think he was 6-foot-5 by the way he presented himself. It was just awesome to be in the presence of those kind of people in those days,” Stevens said.
Through those meetings, he saw the early stages of advertising and marketing campaigns being first presented first-hand.
“We were the ones who helped develop advertising. It would be developed at a local level, but it would sometimes become national level. When the Dodge Caravan came out, I think, in 1984, we were involved in marketing for that nationwide. We went to Nashville and helped cut radio spots with the local stars who were available in those days,” he said.
He carried some of the lessons picked up in the corporate automobile meetings back home and even through the Amory School Board, which he served on for 16 years beginning in 1985.
“You learn from being in board meetings how to handle a board meeting. Certainly that helped me with the school board job because it was always important to me that we were unanimous, that we discussed the matter we were handling, and I would always request each member of the board express himself so that we didn’t have someone with some feeling he wasn’t sharing with us that needed to be shared,” Stevens said.
Through that formula, the school board took progressive action such as being the first school district in the state to prohibit tobacco products on campuses and one of the first to close school for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“We also realized you can’t have classrooms if you don’t have space for new classes. We added a lot of classrooms in the school, and those were things you learned from being in the corporate world that they couldn’t increase manufacturing if they didn’t have space to manufacture. They would add on to their facilities just as we added on to the facilities of the school. Being around people like that, you were stimulated because you saw the possibilities. You didn’t just think about the world I live in, you thought about the possibilities beyond the world I live in,” Stevens said.
Reflecting on some of the attention-grabbing cars that came through on the Sam Stevens Motors car lot, the Dodge Viper, a V10 sports car introduced in the early ‘90s, seemed to stick out the most.
“We sold more Dodge Vipers than any dealer in the south and shipped them all the way to Hawaii. That was the most exotic car we had,” Stevens said.
With the Viper, he recalled a time when the late comedian Phil Hartman came to the dealership while in town for Stars Over Mississippi.
“He insisted he knew how to drive a Viper. He took it down the road for a spin and had it wide open before he even got out of the driveway. He was burning rubber when he got on the main road. Phil enjoyed his drive in the Viper,” Stevens said.
As part of being a Viper dealer, Stevens was part of the Viper Club and had the opportunity to drive one on the track of the Indianapolis 500 at 110 miles per hour.
Sam Stevens Motors advertised in the duPont Registry magazine, a classified publication for high-end homes, automobiles and boats, which helped promote the Vipers he sold far beyond Monroe County.
“The duPont Registry sent a person here to interview us because they couldn’t figure out how a place with a population of 7,000 people was selling Dodge Vipers all throughout the United States. It was simply because we were marketing them through a magazine the more wealthy clientele read and looked at, so it worked very well for us,” Stevens said.
Also in the ‘70s, van conversions turned heads, and Stevens said he went to Arlington, Texas to get them.
“I remember when we got the first one, my wife and I had flown out to Dallas to pick it up in Arlington and drove it back down and parked it in the car lot. We went home to take a shower and went to go get something to eat and came by the car lot and you could not find a place to park. People covered up the car lot, and there were cars parked down the highway in front of Piggly Wiggly and then up the road towards Smithville. The car lot was slam-pack covered with people stopping to see that van. There had never been one in Mississippi, and we were the first dealer to sell one in the state.”
He also sold GMC Astro and General 18-wheeler-type trucks at one time.
Stevens sold the GMC franchise to Larry Clark Chevrolet in 2005 and the Chrysler and Dodge franchise back to Chrysler in 2009. Four years ago, the dealership relocated from Amory to Tupelo.
“It was a very hard decision, one we waited probably four years on before we made the decision to move. I had served on the school board for 16 years and I was invested in this community and still love this community and still live in this community. I knew the tax base was important, but the economy just changed with people shifting to Tupelo [for work]. We honestly sold to more people from Amory in Tupelo than we did when we were in Amory,” he said.
The Tupelo dealership, which sold used vehicles, closed in May due to Stevens’ retirement.
Jack’s is anticipated to open later this year on the property formerly occupied by Sam Stevens Motors in Amory.
“I had a lady call me to say, ‘You really messed me up.’ She said, ‘I don’t know how to tell anybody how to get to my house. I’ve always told them go to Sam Stevens Motors and take a left,’” he said.
He has great memories of his staff and customers from the dealership that will last a lifetime. He said driving by the former dealership now can be emotional.
“That was a period of my life that was awesome, and I enjoyed it and I wouldn’t take anything for it. I was barely 22 years old when I was a franchise dealer, which I was the youngest franchise in the United States. That was quite a responsibility, and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” he said.
Through the years of business and his personal life, he praised Amory.
“I’ve enjoyed living here and I plan to live here until I’m not living on Earth anymore. It has wonderful opportunities for people here, and they all need to pull together and be aggressive about the things that this community could do. We have a good mayor and a good board of aldermen. They really need the support of people in this community and especially the businesses. They need your traffic. I know you can buy it in Tupelo and you can buy it online but if it wasn’t for the businesses, our taxes to our individuals would be much higher.
“To whomever that’s out there, learn to trust God to help you manage whatever you’re doing. You’ll find life is a lot better if you’re taking God into all that you do. It’s a whole lot easier getting Him to help you before you make mistakes than it is after,” Stevens said.
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