HUNTSVILLE, Alabama Jerry Damson opened his own pre-owned car business on July 28, 1961, on a 300-by-400-foot lot on Meridian Street, using $20,000 his father, Harry Damson, gave him.
At 22, he’d been selling cars for Arthur Cole, a Ford, Chevrolet and Pontiac dealer in Huntsville, and found a job he loved.
“I don’t think you can be successful with anything if you don’t truly love what you’re doing,” Damson said last week before a celebration of the dealership’s 50th anniversary. Founded as Jerry Damson Motors, the business – now called Damson Automotive Group – is still family-owned and operates five automobile dealerships in North Alabama: Jerry Damson Honda on Bob Wallace Avenue and Jerry Damson Acura on Leeman Ferry Road in Huntsville, Honda of Decatur and Jerry Damson Honda and Jerry Damson Nissan in Florence.
When Damson first started the business, he was selling about 150 cars a year, said his son, Deke Damson, who now runs the business with his brother-in-law Bruce Park. “Now we sell in excess of 7,000″ in retail sales alone across the five locations. There are close to 300 employees in all.
Jerry Damson, who said he hasn’t sold a car in some 30 years, still has a small ownership stake in the Huntsville Honda store since his retirement a dozen years ago, while other owners of the dealerships are Deke Damson; Jerry Damson’s daughter, Susan Park; and son-in-law, Bruce Park.
“God has been with me,” said Damson when asked how the business has survived through the ups and downs of the automobile industry. “And we’ve been blessed to have had good people for a long time.
“Your people are No. 1. If your people aren’t happy, they won’t make your customers happy.”
Damson stayed at the Meridian Street location for 13 1/2 years before moving to the corner of Cook Avenue and Memorial Parkway.
In 1979, he bought Philip Bentley Sr.’s share of Lee-Bentley Chrysler, Plymouth, Honda GMC, which became Lee-Damson Chrysler, Plymouth Honda GMC at that same location on Bob Wallace Avenue. The Chrysler and Plymouth lines were dropped in 1981, and a year later, Damson bought out Louis Lee Jr.
The GMC franchise was sold to the Bentley Automotive Group in 1999.
The Acura franchise had been added in 1989, and the Acura store was on University Drive before its moved to Leeman Ferry Road. The used-car operation was recently expanded at that site.
In the auto industry, Jerry Damson said, “you have to change constantly to improve and keep up with the times.”
Deke Damson recalled that when his father bought into the Bob Wallace dealership, his mother, Butch Damson, using the name “Betty Green,” would make a follow-up call to customers the day after their visit to the service department.
The family is looking to continue Jerry Damson’s legacy.
Deke Damson’s oldest child, Brandon, a senior in college, plans to join the dealership next year, marking the third generation to be involved in the business.
During the 50th-anniversary celebration last week, Deke Damson said his father built a solid reputation here by “satisfying the customer, satisfying his employees, and surrounding himself with good people, people who believed in his philosophy.”