You might assume a man who owns six auto dealerships, two Harley-Davidson franchises and a tractor-and-equipment store has spent his entire life growing his retail empire. If you learned his grandfather was a Ford dealer and his father was a Chevrolet and Honda dealer, you might feel certain his course was set at a young age. But if that man was Steven D. “Steve” Lamb, you would be wrong.
“The only thing I did for my father was mow grass and pick up cigarette butts,” says Lamb, 52, a University of Tampa graduate who once planned to become an attorney. His plans changed when, during a senior year in which his class schedule was light, he took an entry-level sales job at a family friend’s dealership. Seven months later, he had graduated to the finance department, and the chance to own his own store appeared to be within sight. “Law school wasn’t going to work out for me. My father said, ‘You’ll only make money when you’re working,’ and he was right.”
By 1989, Lamb had bought into two stores in partnership with the Ferman dealership family. Ten years later, he owned them. Today, he and his wife, Jewel, and his son, Justin, oversee a retail empire that includes two Central Florida Jeep stores: Crystal Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram of Brooksville and Homosassa. As a lifelong Jeep lover, Lamb has tracked the evolution of the brand and invested enough money in those service departments to offer a wide range of modifications and customizations — and include them in the financing.
“The average conversion is close to $10,000 by the time you add everything in,” he says. “When you start buying wheels, tires and a lift kit, $4,000 or $6,000 goes by in a hurry.”
Growing Fast and Giving Back
Lamb notes that, in his father’s day, owning two stores — let alone two brands — was almost unheard of. Dealers were expected to buy one franchise and stick with it. Starting in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the ownership model began to evolve. Today, massive dealer groups such as AutoNation, Group 1 and Penske own and operate hundreds of stores. The Lamb and Ferman families, among many others, built upon their success by applying their business practices and management style to multiple locations.
“If you had a chance to buy another dealership, and if it was profitable and staffed by a good bench of people, you bought it,” Lamb explains.
Nuts and Bolts
Steve Lamb is the majority owner of Crystal Autos, a 10-store dealer group that includes two fully staffed and stocked Jeep showrooms and service departments.
Crystal Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram of Brooksville (Fla.)
1435 Cortez Blvd 34613
Crystal Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram of Homosassa (Fla.)
1005 S Suncoast Blvd 34448
The group now includes 530 employees and is expected to produce total sales of 8,400 vehicles this year, including more than 800 Harley-Davidsons. Lamb puts a premium on “personal growth” among his managers and staff and dedicates time and resources to a long list of charitable causes, including the Boys and Girls Club, Citrus County Food Bank, YMCA and Save Crystal River. He is also past president of the Crystal River Rotary and United Way of Citrus County and a three-time Paul Harris Fellow.
As for supporting the Jeeping community, Lamb’s brother-in-law is president of the Inverness, Fla.-based Jeepsters club, and Lamb says Crystal Autos does “basically whatever they ask us to do,” including sponsorship of the annual Jeep Beach event in Daytona. “Jeepsters exists for camaraderie and to enjoy the iconic Jeep brand, and it’s family-oriented. Go to Jeep Beach and look at how many families are in those vehicles. It says something.”
Put Them in a Wrangler
Lamb’s personal history with the Jeep brand goes back to the 1970s, when he bought a restored Willys MB. “It was a little runaround, a grocery-getter. Bikini top. Four-speed. Bulletproof.” Although he now drives a 2013 Wrangler Unlimited he converted to an extended-cab pickup with a Mopar JK8 kit (and which “everybody and their brother” has tried to buy from him), Lamb says a classic two-door is still a great choice for a young driver.
“When my friends come to me and say, ‘I have a child getting ready to turn 16. What would you put your child in?’ I say I would put them in a Wrangler,” he says. “You would have to get hit by a train to get hurt.”
Like most Jeep dealers, Lamb credits the four-door Unlimited with “exploding” the Wrangler market. In the old days, he says, you would find about a dozen Wranglers between the Crystal’s two Jeep stores. Today, he has 40. “It’s a big change. It’s nice having the selection, and we do have a lot of buyers trading up. If it doesn’t eat, we’ll take it in trade.”
Jeep customers will typically find three or four lifted Wranglers in Crystal Autos’ inventory, Lamb says, and his shops are staffed with highly trained and Jeep-obsessed technicians. In addition to maintenance and repairs, they offer a selection of custom tires and wheels, bumpers, lights and accessories, and Crystal-installed Mopar-brand lifts up to six inches won’t void the factory warranty on a new Jeep.
“And it’s fun to watch them do it, but we still want it to be safe,” Lamb says. “Back in the day, you could make a Wrangler look really cool, but it would drive like hell.”
Lamb credits his dealership teams for their success with Jeep and says he is continually inspired by the passion and loyalty those vehicles generate among customers. He plans to remain dedicated to the brand for as long as they do.
“Our mission is to give people an experience they can’t get anywhere else. We will find the right fit for them and their budget. The repeat business we get speaks for itself.”