Business

Auto empire still growing

Rob Larson, center, and sons Josh, left, and Rob Jr. pose Thursday at Larson Cadillac-Saab. The elder Larson expanded his auto empire to 10 dealerships by buying Fife's McCann Cadillac-Saab.
Rob Larson, center, and sons Josh, left, and Rob Jr. pose Thursday at Larson Cadillac-Saab. The elder Larson expanded his auto empire to 10 dealerships by buying Fife's McCann Cadillac-Saab. The Olympian

Ask Rob Larson how many dealerships his Larson Automotive Group owns these days.

In reply, you’ll get a hesitant answer as Larson makes the mental calculation.

There’s no wonder. Larson Automotive Group is on a building and acquisition track, and the number, both of brands and dealerships, is growing.

Larson just last month completed acquisition of McCann Cadillac-Saab in Fife.

From a single Chrysler Plymouth dealership on South Tacoma Way, Larson’s Pierce County automotive empire in two decades has multiplied to 10 locations selling 14 different brands. The automotive group now employs some 450 people.

Those auto stores – all in Pierce County – are scattered from South Tacoma Way to Puyallup and Fife. They’re a diverse lot. From the U.S. come Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Ram and Cadillac. Larson sells Toyota, Scion and Nissan from Japan, and Hyundai from Korea. Its European brands include Saab from Sweden, and Porsche, Mercedes, Volkswagen and Audi from Germany.

The McCann dealership broadens Larson’s luxury line. That dealership, which was a landmark on South Tacoma Way for many years, includes a Saab franchise and a service operation for the now defunct Hummer brand.

That acquisition follows the purchase of two dealerships in 2008: Nissan of Fife that September and Puyallup Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep earlier that year in August.

Larson said he was attracted to the McCann dealership because of its long legacy – it opened in 1958 in the Nalley Valley – and its first-class new store in Fife.

‘AWFULLY TOUGH’

Larson’s purchase of the Pierce County’s only Cadillac dealership from owner Melaine McCann is, in part, a local reflection of a nationwide trend in the auto business.

As the recession has weakened sales numbers at some dealers, financially stronger dealers are buying those stores and adding to their repertoire of brands. Many dealerships, strong in better times, are unable to cope now that sales have fallen dramatically.

“The economy has left a number of dealers in dire straits,” Larson said. “Some have decided it’s time to let someone else run the business.”

“These haven’t been very fun times in the car business. It’s been awfully tough on all of us.”

Larson said he’s survived because of a broad foundation in the automotive business. Last year, Larson’s automotive operations sold 8,382 cars. That compares with 8,566 in 2008.

Larson is not the only auto family in Pierce County adding to its network. Both the Harnish and Korum families in Puyallup have added new franchises as the industry has reorganized over the p ast two years.

Rob Larson himself comes from a family that has a lengthy history in the Pierce County car business. His dad, Robert L. Larson, opened his first dealership, a store selling Ramblers, in 1963.

Even as Larson’s automotive enterprise is absorbing the new Cadillac-Saab operation and its 45 employees, it is engaged in a major construction project on the other side of Interstate 5 in Fife.

There Larson is bringing his Nissan dealership’s facility up to corporate standards. And on that same 10-acre tract, he is in various stages of planning and construction for three other new dealerships to hold his Porsche, Audi and Mercedes-Benz operations. Those three new dealership buildings will total 73,000 square feet of showrooms and service departments.

The Porsche and Audi operations will move from South Tacoma Way. The Mercedes dealership will move from the south side of I-5 to the north.

LOOKING FORWARD

Even as the 57-year-old Larson continues building his automotive conglomerate, sons Josh and Rob Jr. are working their way up the corporate ladder. Josh runs the Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep dealership in Puyallup. Rob Jr. has taken the reins of the former McCann operation.

Though his plate is nearly full with new construction projects and new brands, Rob Larson’s “bucket list” of acquisitions is still incomplete.

To round out his automotive group, Larson said he’d eventually like to add three more brands, Honda, Chevrolet and Lexus, to his company.

Some of those could be difficult to acquire because the incumbent players are stronger and the franchise numbers are limited, he said.

“The auto business is at least a six-day-a-week job, but it’s one I continue to enjoy a great deal even with the situations we’ve seen in the last couple of years,” he said.

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