Posted: February 01, 2012
Corporate Growth Award Winner: Schomp Automotive
ACG Special SectionDavid Lewis
You would have to be a very recent Colorado transplant not to have heard of Schomp Automotive.
First off, the company is a fourth-generation family business this year celebrating its 70th anniversary, a phenomenon about as rare as a 1954 DeSoto Coupe. Second, the voice of company president Lisa Schomp, media pitchperson for the company, is as ubiquitous as the '54 DeSoto is unusual.
Yet while the media image of Schomp is all Lisa, the force behind the scenes these days for the most part is 28-year-old Aaron Wallace, eldest child of Lisa Schomp and longtime General Manager Mark Wallace.
Business is usually a team sport, and the younger Wallace cheerfully describes his company's success as a combination of genes, hard work, family togetherness and team spirit.
Those qualities, plus long-term profitability, combined to make Schomp Automotive this year's winner of the Association for Corporate Growth-Denver Corporate Growth Award.
A little history - a lot of history, really - is in order first.
Lisa Schomp's maternal grandfather, Roy Weaver, started Schomp Automotive in 1941 as a modest service station in Englewood. Weaver displayed a couple of Oldsmobiles for sale, named the gas station Arapahoe Motors, and the Schomp saga began.
After World War II, Weaver's son-in-law, Ralph Schomp, joined the company, and in 1955 bought it and renamed it Ralph Schomp Oldsmobile.
Schomp succeeded and grew, but it likely would not have continued as a family business if it had not been for the extraordinary gumption of Lisa Schomp.
You may recall that the automobile business in the olden days was an entirely male preserve. Lisa Schomp was first pegged as the company's "coffee greeter girl," then advanced to sales, then service. She eventually earned her father's approval, and she and Mark Wallace took the company over upon Ralph Schomp's death in 1988.
Their career since was highlighted by the 2008 opening of the company's palatial $22 million BMW showroom in Highlands Ranch, the region's biggest BMW dealership.
So it's no great surprise that Aaron Wallace seems to have been born to run a vehicle dealership.
"I started with small summer jobs in eighth grade, but I've really been working full-time for Schomp since I finished college eight years ago," he says. "I started stocking parts shelves. When the trucks came I was the guy who put the parts away, or brought them to the counter when someone needs one. From there I went to two summers in detail and window tint, and then became a lot tech," shuttling vehicles around the dealership lot.
Wallace attended Northwood University in West Palm Beach, Fla., not a bad place to be. But he mainly marked time before he could get back to the family business. "I would not say I was the most excited student," he said, laughing.
With that prologue, the post-university transition to dealership management seemed a natural.
"My mom was the third generation, and they got over a bunch of hurdles to get to three," Aaron Wallace says. "They got over the hump. It would have been really easy for the third generation not to have happened, so in reality both my parents have made it easy on me. They had been through the hard part, and they wanted to give me the opportunity. They made it clear to everybody that that was what was going to happen, and then they got out of the way."
Aaron Wallace doesn't face a climb up a sheer cliff the way his mother did, but it does not follow that the car business is a cakewalk, especially not during the current economic uncertainty.
"From the time I started up until today, the business is pretty much completely different in terms of just the structure of customer flow, and how people shop for and buy cars - an immense amount of change," he says. "I can't even imagine what my parents had undergone."
Today, Schomp Automotive is the umbrella organization for three dealerships: Schomp Honda, Schomp BMW, and Fay Myers Motorcycle World, an acquisition Schomp Automotive made in 2004.
Today, "I make all the decisions," Aaron Wallace says. "All the business choices are my choices. At the end of the day the significant decisions have to do with employee issues, decisions on which direction we want to go on selling cars - if we want to sell 200 cars that month, or 300 cars that month, there's a major difference on how to get there."
Company plans include construction of a Honda dealership near its BMW store.
Looming in the background of every decision, however, is the increasing threat of getting crosswise with the government or the legal system.
"The hardest part is the unknown," he says. "Anymore, it feels like you're not worried about making the right choice. You know what the right choice is, but in this day and age you always have to question if you are allowed to make the right choice or not for your company. You have to decide whether some sort of government agency or a judge is going to think it is the right choice or not."
David Lewis is a freelance writer based in Denver.