Pat Koballa ended 32 years as an executive general manager with Stevenson Automotive Group to begin his new journey as an owner of the Stevenson Kia franchise.
His dealership is called Pat Koballa’s Coastal Kia at 6103 Market St.
Koballa, known for his longevity in the local car sales business and long-running Stevenson radio commercials, said he decided to purchase Stevenson Kia because it has always been a profitable location and because the opportunity to purchase it came at the right time.
“I was at that point in my life that if I didn’t venture out on my own, I probably never would,” Koballa said. “So, I jumped at the opportunity.”
He said he always ran the stores as if they were his, but now he will have added responsibilities.
“I don’t know that there’s going to be too much of a transition other than feeling financial pressure of making sure things work on a day-today basis for the operation for all my employees,” Koballa said.
Koballa began his car dealership career in 1986 as a finance manager at a Cadillac dealer in Sanford. He worked there for six months and then started working with Stevenson Automotive, where his role in the company grew and he ended up managing six locations.
He said what he initially enjoyed at work was the interaction with customers and employees. However, as his role grew in the company, it became harder for him to have time for those coversations.
“I was not able to as closely interact with either my employees or the customers because I had so many other roles to fulfill,” he said. “The personal touch that I was able to provide to the customer base, as well as really getting to know my employees, and what they’re all about kind of went away.”
Koballa said that being an owner will allow him to once again have the interactions he used to have.
“I’m looking forward to getting back to the grassroots of things and properly taking care of my customers and really getting to know my employees and try to become a part of everyone’s life,” he said.
Koballa is not the only former Stevenson Automotive Group employee who has experienced recent changes.
CHANGES AT STEVENSON
The Stevenson company, which was founded by Johnny Stevenson in 1983, had 500 employees and multiple locations in Swansboro, Jacksonville and Wilmington. Stevenson passed away in October of last year, and there have been some changes in the company since then.
Stevenson Honda of Wilmington and Stevenson Toyota of Jacksonville entered into a partnership with Charlotte- based Hendrick Automotive Group in June. Susan Stevenson, Johnny Stevenson’s wife, remains as a consulting partner. One week later, it was announced that Koballa purchased the Wilmington Kia franchise. According to the news release, most of the staff are workers of the previous Kia dealership.
One of them is Peggy Roberts, operations manager at Coastal Kia. Roberts has worked alongside Pat for 23 years. She said she did not hesitate when Koballa asked her to work with him.
“When Pat first let me know that he was going to be purchasing the Kia store and he said, ‘I hope you’re on board,’ it was a done deal,” Roberts said.” I was flattered. I was honored, and there was no thinking twice about it.”
THE CHANGING CAR INDUSTRY
Throughout Koballa’s many years in the dealership business, he has noticed how the industry has changed.
Some changes include the population growth in Wilmington, which has allowed car dealerships to expand. He also said online research is a new influence.
“The internet is a big piece of the puzzle now,” Koballa said. “They do all their research online, and they’ve got a good idea of what they want to purchase when they come to the dealership.”
He said over the past 10 years, there has been little seasonality in terms of months when the most cars are sold. August, September and October were big selling months due to new models coming out during that time. However, new models are coming out throughout the year these days, and business is more consistent.
Some types of cars sell better than others.
“Since the gas mileage is getting better in SUVs and as you have compact and midsize SUVs, they provide much more versatility to consumers,” Koballa said. “There is a trend where we see many more customers shopping SUVs than we do others.”
With the growing industry, there is also growing competition. CarMax, a national car dealer, is opening across from Coastal Kia in September.
Koballa said he doesn’t see Car- Max as a threat, but rather as a sign that the car market has room to grow and will have even more business to come.
“It makes a statement about the state of the automobile business in Wilmington – a big organization like CarMax would not be coming to town unless they knew it was the right thing to do,” he said.
Koballa has set customer service as a priority. He plans to hire an additional 10 employees with the expectation of business growing.
And his two decades-long presence as a radio and TV commercial personality will continue, with broadcasts starting recently of TV and radio commercials for Pat Koballa’s Coastal Kia.
“I certainly want to grow in terms of volume, and ultimately I want to be able to take care of my customers better than anyone else in the community,” Koballa said. “I’m going to personally be involved in the interaction with customers and employees every day.”