By PAUL J. SPETRINI
NORTH KINGSTOWN—Ed Tarbox stood on the showroom floor of his brand-new car dealership located on Quaker Lane in North Kingstown Friday afternoon and, for a moment, pondered all the obstacles he had to go through over the past nine years to make the 49,000-square foot complex a reality.
When Tarbox first considered moving his location from Post Road in 2004, he had no idea of knowing how much a stagnant economy would hurt the car-buying industry as a whole, how big a hit the Toyota brand itself would take thanks to a country-wide recall and PR mess and he could certainly have never predicted how much of an effect a series of natural disasters in Japan and Thailand would have on his service department, his brand and his dealership.
“I got very familiar with that spot above my bed wondering if I was doing the right thing,” Tarbox said Friday, on the eve of his new location’s official grand opening event.
Of course, those issues all pale in comparison to the struggles Tarbox’s potential move faced at the local level as a series of water supply issues made progress so slow that it took four years for Ed to go from the pre-application phase with the planning department to the point of actually breaking ground.
Through it all, Tarbox said, the temptations to leave North Kingstown were there—East Greenwich was just one surrounding community open to his business relocating there—but Ed could never quite pull the trigger to leave the only place his family business has called home for nearly 80 years.
And if you wonder how important that legacy is, stop by the showroom and take a look up. There are pictures and displays of the Tarbox and North Kingstown relationship up and down the walls and in and outside the corridors.
“Frankly, this town is where we wanted to be,” Tarbox said Friday, the eve of his official public grand opening celebration. “And because the town manager [Michael Embury] and the town planner [Jon Reiner] encouraged us to stay the course, we did so. We had other options and we chose to stay here because North Kingstown is where my family’s from.”
Tarbox’s new dealership has been open for a little less than two months and, already, business is booming at the site. In addition to selling over 200 new and used cars since the move, Tarbox estimates that his service department fills nearly 200 repair orders a day.
And, given the location’s close proximity to two major highways—it’s a stone’s throw away from Route 4 and on Route 2—the potential for future growth at the largest Toyota dealership in Rhode Island is even more dramatic.
It is, after all, the reason why Tarbox moved in the first place.
“Well, the new concept for car dealers to survive is you can’t just service the local communities that you’re in,” he said. “A car dealership needs to attract business from say Warwick, Cranston, Johnson and get considerations from those places so you need highway access that’s convenient.”
Add to that the fact that the former Post Road location was spread out over four buildings—each housing a separate part of the business—and it’s easy to see why Tarbox spent so much time planning the details on his new digs.
It had to be just right, right from the start.
Gone were some of the tentpoles of the car-buying business—instead of desks for his sales staff, they now work at rounded tables to foster a friendlier atmosphere with customers and instead of having sales managers hide behind Wizard of Oz-type enclosures, they’re right next to their staff members and can interact with said customers directly.
In their place are a variety of small details most customers might not even notice but Tarbox feels sets his dealership apart.
They include a number of quiet areas where his customers can sit while they wait for their vehicles to be serviced, free internet access, a snack area, play areas for children, a glass elevator connecting all three floors, a painted service station that resembles 80 years of Tarbox history and even a small salon offering manicures while you wait.
And that doesn’t even include the large number of behind-the-scenes details Tarbox has installed to make his new location as eco-friendly as it can be.
In all, the new location has plenty of reasons for potential car buyers to stop in, not the least of which is the location itself.
Whether or not they do, Tarbox said, will determine how successful the move ultimately proves to be.
“I’ve got two fantastic brands and it didn’t take Toyota long to bounce back but the industry is far from where it needs to be,” he said. “Just in the United States we were selling 16 million vehicles and Rhode Island would sell 70 thousand. Rhode Island last year sold about 35 thousand. This year, maybe we’ll be around 45 thousand so we’re far from where we need to be.”
Still, Tarbox said, there’s reason to be optimistic.
“We’ve bounced back with Toyota and with the new facility,” he said. “We’re already the No. 1 Toyota dealer in the state of Rhode Island and this year we’re going to equal our best year at the old store so already the facility is paying for itself.”
So far, the move has come with its own challenges—early on, Tarbox found out he would have to buy four golf carts for his sales staff to get around the massive inventory lot and it took time to figure out how to use the building’s air conditioning unit—but, like he did in the nine years he planned the project, Tarbox is taking each day as it comes and remains positive about tomorrow.
“It’s a great feeling until the mortage comes through every month,” Tarbox said with a smile on his face.