Jim Kelley opened his first car dealership in Fort Wayne on August 21, 1952, the same day his son, Tom, was born. Tom started working for his dad in 1974 and realized immediately the importance of good customer service.
“If you were a customer, you became a friend of Jim Kelley and if you were a friend, you became a customer,” says Tom Kelley, president of Kelley Automotive Group in Fort Wayne. “It was my second week of working for my dad and a couple came in that wanted to buy a Buick LeSabre. We pulled the car up to the front of the dealership and they said, ‘We’ll take it.’ They didn’t even know the price! They told me they had worked with my dad at GE during World War II, knew him well and trusted him. My dad had such a solid reputation for being fair-minded and trustworthy that they knew he would give them a fair deal. I had worked as a salesman for only 10 days, but knew this was not the way people typically buy cars. Later, when my dad was handing me the paperwork for the car, he looked me in the eye and said, ‘Tom, if you treat every customer as if they’re your best friend, you’ll be okay. You will sell a lot more cars treating everybody equally, fairly and like a friend than if you try to size up each customer.’”
Those words stuck with Tom and he has since passed those values down to his own son, Jim Kelley, and daughter, Stephanie Hartman, who work for the company.
“Jim Kelley focused on doing the right thing,” says Stephanie, COO of Kelley Automotive Group. “He instilled in his family core values and principles like giving back to the community and taking care of his employees. His business model and philosophy are at the center of everything we do.”
“Taking care of our employees and our customers is the main reason we’re in the middle of a large expansion of our company,” says Jim, CEO of Kelley Automotive Group. “As we grow, along with our dealerships and employee count, we always want that family feel and atmosphere.”
Kelley Automotive Group is growing its footprint on the southwest side of Fort Wayne as it finishes up a large development on 55 acres of land off I-69 by State Road 14.
“We’re moving about a quarter-of-a-mile down the road from our current location in the auto mall off 14,” says Tom. “The investment in this project is significant and includes all new buildings for Jaguar Land Rover, BMW and MINI, Volvo, Cadillac and Buick GMC dealerships. We’re also adding a dual lane, state-of-the-art car wash on the northwest end of the property and in the back northeast corner, a state-of-the-art body shop that will be the best of its kind in the entire Midwest.”
Everything in the new location is scheduled to be up and running by the end of this year. In the original auto mall off 14, more construction is due to take place in 2022 to house the Kelley family’s Midwest Auto Parts business. Numerous other projects are slated for next year, including remodeling the car wash at the Kelley Chevrolet dealership off I-69 and Lima Road.
“Since 1998, we have offered free car washes to our customers, no matter if they buy a new or pre-owned vehicle from us,” says Jim. “It’s one of the biggest things that separate us from our competition. With the new car wash opening, we’ll have three car wash locations and anticipate doing about one million free car washes a year.”
Tom, Jim and Stephanie emphasize the importance of always looking toward the future and transitioning the business to the next generation.
“This is a generational project for our family,” says Tom. “This isn’t just building new stores; this is insuring the future of our company, family, employees and customers.”
The Kelleys also say they’re always looking for creative and unique ways to find talent.
“The car industry tends to be a very misunderstood business, so we’re trying to challenge the status quo and figure out ways to be different,” says Stephanie. “We understand that employees need a work-life balance and we’ve worked hard to create a work environment and culture to meet those needs. In the new auto mall, there will be a type of wellness center, including a fitness area for employees as well as outdoor and indoor spaces to do things like eat and relax. We want them to love the place they work and to enjoy their time here because we truly value them. We’ve also started a summer internship program for college students to be mentored by our Executive Leadership Team. The end goal is to attract, recruit and retain college-educated individuals who have a passion for this line of work and will be committed to our team.”
“Our internship program is relatively new, but we’ve had a longtime program of partnering with vocational schools in the area to recruit young people interested in pursuing a career as a certified technician,” says Jim. “This is a great opportunity for high school students to earn an automotive degree while working at Kelley. Our certified technicians are some of the best out there and they do very well. It’s a rewarding profession for them.”
The Kelleys also want to credit the 9-member Executive Team as a driving force behind their success as a family and a company.
“These are people representing various departments of our business and they keep track of our vision, our plans moving forward and challenges along the way,” says Tom. “With our latest developments, we now have nine dealerships in Fort Wayne and Decatur and we offer 14 brands, which helps to diversify our inventory and provide more customized options for our customers. We want to run our business as a family, but we also have to run it as a big business. The first two words of our mission statement are ‘We serve’ and that’s become inherent in all of us. That’s the way my dad founded this business and that’s the way we will keep it.”
Tom Kelley Buick GMC Fort Wayne
Kelley Chevrolet Fort Wayne
Tom Kelley Cadillac, Inc. Fort Wayne
Tom Kelley Volvo Cars Fort Wayne
Jaguar of Fort Wayne
Land Rover of Fort Wayne
BMW of Fort Wayne
MINI of Fort Wayne
Tom Kelley Chevrolet Buick
Tom Kelley CDJR
Tom Kelley FORD
Owner(s): Tom Kelley: President, Jim Kelley: CEO, Stephanie Hartman: COO
Years in Business: 69
Number of Employees: 700
Products & Services: 14 brands of new and pre-owned vehicles at nine dealerships in Fort Wayne and Decatur