King Auto Corner celebrated major milestone in February

Published 6:31 pm Thursday, February 28, 2019

VALLEY — Before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, before the famous Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in New York and before the first message was sent over the internet, Hennon King sold his first car as the owner of King Auto in LaFayette.

King opened King Auto on Feb. 1, 1969, after working for a few years at Proctor Ford in Centre, Alabama.

According to his son, who bears his same name, but is known by anybody in the business as J.R. because he’s a junior, King wanted to own his own dealership. Upon looking for dealerships for sale, he had to make a choice between LaFayette and Talladega — before the racetrack was constructed.

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He closely surveyed both locations, chose LaFayette and now owns one of Chambers County’s most recognizable businesses.

J.R. says King’s first day of business was on Feb. 1, 1969, but he didn’t sell a vehicle until Feb. 7, 1969, when he sold a Ford F600 for $3,800. J.R. said the man who bought the truck brought him the bill of sale recently, and it is framed in his home.

“It means something to me, because it was the first vehicle he sold as the owner of his dealership,” J.R. said.

He said that vehicle today would cost about $80,000.

In the 1970s, King started to expand his business to include Chrysler models. The Chrysler brand was having financial problems at the time and was asking dealers around the world to purchase their franchises.

In 1983, King purchased Huguley Scott Ford-Mercury in West Point and renamed it West Point Ford-Mercury and attempted to run two locations.

However, J.R. said his father was such a hands-on businessman, he couldn’t stand not being in two places at one time.

“When he bought the one in West Point, it was a headache trying to be in both places,” J.R. said. “He would never feel good that he wasn’t seeing everything in both places.”

In 1985, he came up with the solution. He decided to build a new dealership in Valley and combine inventory. That dealership is located in Valley and is impossible to miss driving on I-85 today with KING in giant letters across the side. J.R. said the first day in the new store was Dec. 13, 1985.

Just a couple years later, King expanded once again, adding Lincoln to his arsenal.

Being a Lincoln dealer was a big deal then, but J.R. said to keep its status as a Lincoln dealer, the dealership had to remodel parts of its store to include a separate waiting room for Lincoln dealers and a few other Lincoln-specific modifications. However, King Auto is one of few dealerships that has been a dealer of all the manufacturers so long that it can house them all under one roof.

If King is ever bought by somebody else, J.R. said manufacturers would force the new owners to house different products under separate roofs. King Auto is grandfathered in, so it doesn’t have to comply with those standards as long as the dealership stays with its current owners.

J.R. said when King moved into Chambers County, it was a Chevrolet-dominated town and his father would do what he could to dissuade customers from buying them.

However, in 1993, King did the unthinkable in many people’s eyes — he bought a Chevy dealership.

J.R. likes to tell a story about the night they purchased the new dealership, and one of King’s customers asked his father how we could possibly buy a Chevy franchise. J.R. says his father never faltered and responded by saying “You know, they are making them a lot better these days.” 

J.R. said having those manufacturers under one roof wasn’t only great for the customer to have the largest selection, but it was great advertising for the company as well.

“It was a good deal to be able to say in your advertisements to come look at the top three selling trucks in the industry,” he said.

The company has since added Kawasaki in 2002 and later a Jeep franchise.

In 2000, King and his wife Barbara King decided they would take a step back and sell a portion of the business to their children.

This was when J.R. and his sister Tanya Waldrop bought into the family business after working there for several years. J.R. runs the Ford store, and Waldrop runs the Chevy store.

J.R. said King spent about two weeks at home in retirement, then came back to work, because he didn’t have enough to do. So, he went to the Chevy store to help build up the franchise.

In 2008, the business started to depend on technology, and King finally retired. In 2009, he suffered major health problems, and he was forced to quit working.

When the mills started to shut down, business started to get tough for King Auto, J.R. said. He said thousands of people who were employed in Chambers County and spent their money here were suddenly forced to leave or didn’t have the extra income.

“It devastated this whole area,” he said. “We are still behind in Chambers County. We are not as good in Chambers County as we were in 1970.”

However, even with the age of the internet, J.R. says customers still head to King Auto for that personal touch of its dealership. He said only about 30 percent of its business is done entirely over the internet, although he said about 90 percent of the people who stop in have at least looked at their website.

Regardless of how crazy the business gets, J.R. remembers the four-letter word that he learned by watching his father — work.

“He was always going to be the first one here and the last one to leave,” he said. “He was going to work six days a week. If he were away from this place, it would drive him crazy.”

J.R. says to be as successful as his father was and run a business for 50 years, you have to love it and be married to it.

“The last car that he sold made him feel the same way as the first one he ever sold,” he said. “I would be willing to bet that 100 percent.”

As he looks to build on the success of the past 50 years, he said his father gave him a job in high school, but he didn’t start on the sales floor.

He said he began with sweeping the floor in the shop, then changing oil, moved to work in the parts department and then finally made it to the sales department.

“He wasn’t going to give his kids the silver spoon that a lot of people looking from the outside would have thought,” J.R. said.

Some of the same values still exist within the company, and J.R. said his father knew what it took to take care of the customer.

“You can beat anybody’s price for zero profit, but where you take care of your customers is with great service after the sale,” he said.