Cousins Cole-laborating

Other kids peddled newspapers or flipped burgers, but Jay Cole and his cousins David and Tom Cole spent their free time as teen-agers painting walls, washing windows and sweeping floors at the Warren car dealerships their fathers owned.
Now they're joining forces, merging three family owned General Motors dealerships in a plan they believe will strengthen their business financially and give them the resources to consider future acquisitions.
Jay, 52, owner of Downtown Motor Sales on Niles Road S.E. in Warren, is merging his 73-year-old Oldsmobile dealership with Cole Valley Pontiac-Cadillac on Elm Road in Warren, owned by David and Tom.
The three are now equal partners in the Elm Road dealership, to be renamed Cole Valley Pontiac-Cadillac-Oldsmobile, under a deal inked late last week.
The partners also own Jay Cole Chevrolet-Geo-Oldsmobile in Newton Falls, formerly a Jay Cole property, but its operation will continue unchanged. They will continue operating Downtown Motor Sales, but as a used car dealership, body shop and wholesale parts operation -- new vehicles will not be available there.
David, 43, and Tom, 40, will maintain their joint ownership of a fourth dealership, Cole Bros. Dodge on Youngstown Road S.E. in Warren.
Together the Coles say their four Trumbull County dealerships had gross sales topping $71 million the past 12 months. Their Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Cadillac sales have consistently ranked them among the top 50 GM dealerships in the north central region, which includes most of the Great Lakes states.
Reason: The merger plan has been in the works for about two years, the Coles said, and GM's decision to stop building Oldsmobiles in 2004 was not a factor in their decision. The said they were discussing their plans long before GM announce plans to phase out the Olds and to close about one-fifth of its Olds dealers across the country.
Instead, the partners cited location and business size as the key motives behind their merger.
They said their Elm Road location is the kind of high-traffic spot General Motors prefers for its dealerships and is preferable, in that way, to the Downtown Motor Sales site. Cole Valley is just off state Route 82 with four other dealerships nearby and close to a busy shopping-restaurant district.
Merging the family owned businesses will produce a financially stronger company, the partners said, making it strong enough to consider future business acquisitions.
There are no plans to cut staff, although some employees were reassigned. In fact, David said the owners have added some positions and are looking to hire more repair technicians.
History: The automobile was still somewhat of a novelty in 1914 when Clyde S. Cole Sr., grandfather of Jay, David and Tom, opened his first dealership in his hometown of North Jackson.
He founded Downtown Motor Sales in 1928 on West Market Street in downtown Warren, relocated to Pine Street downtown, later moved to East Market and finally settled at the present Niles Road location.
The business survived the Great Depression, saw its automotive sales take a back seat to maintenance and service during World War II, then watched business boom in the late 1940s and 1950s. Cole Sr.'s sons James and Clyde Jr. eventually bought their father's business, then Clyde Jr. sold out to his brother and joined another Warren dealership, Clyde Cole Motor Co., a Cadillac and Buick operation.
The Cole family is now in its third generation of selling cars in the Mahoning Valley. Jay bought Downtown Motor Sales from his father, James, and later added the Newton Falls dealership; David and Tom purchased Cole Valley from their father, Clyde Jr., and later added the Dodge dealership.
The partners have three other siblings who are not in the car business locally: Dave's brother Scott, who owns a dealership in Carollton, Ohio; his brother Rob, who owns Logangate Homes in Youngstown; and Jay's sister Lynn Jones, a homemaker living in Greenville, Pa.
Started young: Auto sales was the only career Jay ever considered. "From the day I was 12 years old I was pinpointed to running a car dealership, and I never ever turned my head," he said.
Growing up, he worked every summer at his father's business.
"I remember the first job I ever had to do was wash the windows in the body shop," he said, grinning. "They were so dirty that first time I had to use lacquer thinner."
A U.S. Air Force veteran of the Vietnam War, he earned a bachelor's degree in business administration and automobile marketing from the Northwood Institute in Midland, Mich., then joined the family business.
Tom earned the same degree as his cousin, also at Northwood Institute. David earned an accounting degree at Bowling Green State University.
"Our dad never pushed us. He wanted us to make our own decision on whether we wanted to join the business," David said, admitting that he considered other occupations before deciding to stick with the family business.
All three partners remain active in sales, as well as management of their dealerships.
"Thirty years in this business and I still love every minute of selling a new car," Jay said. "I still love seeing that smile on their face. It makes people happy."
Tom's specialty is used cars, and he spends three to four days a week on the road, attending auctions and searching out the best deals he can find. "The better deal he gets, the better deal we can offer our customers," David said.
The Coles say much of their success lies in building relationships with others in the community through service club memberships, serving on boards and committees and by supporting local businesses.
"Dad taught us early, buy locally, buy from your customers," Jay said. "And they buy from us too. It's a reciprocal relationship."
Next generation: The three partners together have seven children between the ages of 4 and 25, but they're determined to follow the examples their fathers set by allowing them the freedom to choose whether they want to join the family business.
"The opportunity is there for our children, but we want them to do what they want," David said. "I think you enjoy things more if you're not forced."