From horses to horseless carriages, the Sears family has seen it all.
"We can trace our transportation roots to 1883 with the livery stable and we’ve been a car dealer since 1913," says Garrett Sears, president and general manager of Eastern GMC Pontiac Buick Ltd. in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.
Sears is the fourth generation of the family to run and own the business. His father, Tom, continues his involvement in the dealership by running the medium-duty truck division and Sears’ brother A.J. is the service manager.
Sears says the dealership's nearly 30 employees all bring enthusiasm and their own fresh perspective. There is a mix of newer and long-term employees, such as the heavy-duty mechanic who has been with the dealership for more than 40 years.
While its roots run deep, Eastern GMC has not been afraid of change. "My father said to me when I was very young to expect change and to grow in change and to relish it," says Sears' father, Tom.
It was a time of change and an opportunity for innovations when the dealership, which includes a new and used car department, parts and service, and a rental department, moved from its long-standing location on Main Street to a four-acre lot overlooking the Trans-Canada Highway.
"When we built it we were ahead of the green movement in a way," Sears says. "We designed a south-facing building to retain a lot of the sun. We heat it with in-floor waste oil, so we probably cut our footprint by 75 per cent."
The facility, which opened in 2005, was also outfitted with all-new service equipment. "Any technology or advantage that we can get we like to investigate," notes Sears. "I like to think we're very open-minded when it comes to that."
The dealership is also working to maximize its web presence. "We had our staff at a seminar and they were saying that 95 per cent of the cars sold on the Internet are sold by five per cent of the dealers," Sears says. "So we’re doing some upgrades to our website. We have a feature now that when people request a quote we can respond instantaneously. We're really striving to move more of our commerce to the Internet."
The dealership does roughly $15 million in sales annually. Most of Eastern GMC's customers come from Antigonish, Guysborough and the western part of Cape Breton. The medium-duty truck division, which includes fire trucks and delivery trucks, draws customers from throughout the Maritimes.
While the automotive industry continues to face trying economic times, Sears says, "things are tough here, but not tough crazy. I was out the other day and a guy came up and said 'How are truck sales?' like he’s talking about a dying relative. Well truck sales are fine for us because we don't have the big disposable truck market. People in Nova Scotia who don't use trucks don't buy trucks. We sell to farmers and fishermen and contractors."
Sears believes customer satisfaction is number one, a sentiment that Sandy Sweet would likely support. Sweet has bought from the dealership all the cars he has ever owned.
Sweet is CEO of the Canadian Police Knowledge Network, which he describes as Canada's leading provider of online training for police officers. He grew up in Antigonish and "knew the Sears family since forever," even selling cars at the dealership for a short time while a university student.
He has bought 15 cars over the last 30 years. "For me the relationship really works because they know I'm going to keep coming back and I know they're always going to be there," explains Sweet. "I think they're very aware of the benefit of a long-term relationship. They understand my needs and work to meet those needs. It's a real give and take process. It just works."
Daniel McKenna, a dentist in Antigonish, speaks highly of the consistent and efficient service he receives at Eastern GMC. "When you phone or when you go there you know pretty well everybody on a first-name basis, they're very friendly and they all know you," he says. "You know when you deal with them, they're going to do a good job for you," he adds. "And you don't have to do things twice. You don't have to worry about it not getting done."
McKenna also mentions Eastern GMC's role in the community. "Whenever you go to any community event it could be a high school hockey event or something over at St. FX, they always seem to have their hand in it whether it's in sponsorship or anything. They’re everywhere."
Sears, who has served as a town councillor and as president of the Antigonish Chamber of Commerce, currently sits on the boards of directors of the Antigonish Area Partnership and the Antigonish Golf & Country Club. He is also active within his industry. He will serve on the board of directors for the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association and next year will be president of the Nova Scotia association.
Sears cites a low tax rate and proximity to the airport and Halifax as some of the advantages of being based in Antigonish. He says it's a great place to raise a family, mentioning the school system, the dedicated teachers and the university and the athletic facilities that are available. Not to mention the benefits of being five minutes from a golf course, 10 minutes from the beach and a seven-minute commute to work. (Sears says many of Eastern GMC's employees can go home for lunch.)
"I played golf against a guy in Toronto and he was 40 minutes from the dealership every day and to go golfing was an hour to get there. His cottage was three hours or four hours away," Sears says. "Here we're spoiled rotten. To get stuck at a traffic light for more than one light, this is a crisis. Our traffic jam is 10 minutes."
Feature story written by Marie Weeren