Business

Federal Way's Jet Chevrolet: Used cars help family-owned dealership stay afloat

Dan Johnson, left, and brother Jim Johnson own and operate Jet Chevrolet. The dealership has been selling vehicles since 1987 and was once owned by the Johnson brothers
Dan Johnson, left, and brother Jim Johnson own and operate Jet Chevrolet. The dealership has been selling vehicles since 1987 and was once owned by the Johnson brothers' dad, Martin.
— image credit: Jacinda Howard, The Mirror

While other car dealerships have called it quits, Federal Way’s Jet Chevrolet continues.

The business is operated by brothers Dan and Jim. Their mom, Barbara, also plays a role. Their dad, Martin, started the business, but has since passed away. Operating a family-owned dealership is good for business. Even so, local codes, technology and the economy are making it a struggle to stay afloat in a city that is dotted with vacant storefronts.

Dan and Jim know cars. Their father started in the dealership business in the 1950s. From a young age, the brothers helped out with the family business.

“We were washing cars when we were 10, 11-years-old,” Jim Johnson said.

All in the family

Jet Chevrolet has always been a family endeavor. When Federal Way’s Chevrolet dealership went up for sale in the 1980s, Martin Johnson jumped on the opportunity to purchase it. The Chevrolet brand is General Motors Company’s most lucrative make, Dan Johnson said.

The Johnsons left behind the award-winning family-operated Lakeside Pontiac GMC in Bellevue, which they owned and operated from 1975 to 1981, to try their luck in Federal Way. In 1987, Jet Chevrolet opened at 35700 Enchanted Parkway S.

Customers familiar with the family’s way of doing business still come back to Jet Chevrolet. About 60 percent of Jet’s clientele are returning or referred customers, the brothers said. Customers know Jet’s owners and staff will be the same when they return. Some employees who worked for Martin Jonhson still work for Dan and Jim.

“We’re a lot more hands-on with our people,” Dan Johnson said.

Challenges

Despite a close-knit staff and loyal customers, the dealership has experienced its share of hard times. Jet Chevrolet is one of only a few local dealerships located alongside Interstate 5. That attracts business, Jim Johnson said. Prior to 2001, large signs advertised the dealership to passers-by.

Then the City of Federal Way revised its sign code. Though Jet Chevrolet fought the code for some time, it eventually was made to remove three 40-foot-tall signs that could be seen from the freeway. A 30-foot-tall sign out front and an entrance sign also had to come down. Smaller signs were allowed.

“Our business has never been the same since we took down those signs,” Jim Johnson said.

The Internet has also made business less lucrative. Where potential customers once visited dealerships, they now use the Internet to do their shopping, Dan Johnson said.

“They sit at home and shop five dealers at a time,” he said.

Jet Chevrolet has hung on, but the economy surely hasn’t made it easy. The overhead on new cars is costly, and Chevrolet is manufacturing higher-quality vehicles, but at a rate slower than in recent years. The result is dealerships trying to keep their top models stocked, such as the Equinox and Malibu, while simultaneously attempting to avoid getting stuck with less popular models that cost big bucks to keep on the lot.

Where Jet once stocked up to 350 used vehicles and up to 250 new cars only two years ago, it now carries roughly 200 used cars and around 60 to 100 new vehicles on site. Roughly 90 vehicles, total, are sold per month. Two years ago, that number ranged from 150 to 200, Dan Johnson said.

“We concentrate on used cars,” Dan Johnson said. “That’s what keeps up alive.”

The dealership relies on used vehicles, as well as its service and parts departments, to stay in business. The service department works on all makes and models. The parts department is the largest GM Powertrain Dealer in the Northwest, Dan Johnson said.

The economy is sure to rebound, but the car dealership business will never be what it used to be, the Johnson brothers said.

“It’s the ugliest the car business has ever been,” Dan Johnson said.

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