AMP News Business July 2018

Steve Landers Jr. Charts a New Path

Man with hands in pockets

 


July 2018 Issue

by Caleb Talley
Photography by Jamison Mosley

Steve Landers Jr. has been in the car business since he was old enough to drive. It’s in his blood. His father, and his father’s father, dominated the car business for a generation. It was only natural that he would follow in their footsteps.

“It got into the blood and never really got out,” he says. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Landers first started selling cars the summer after his senior year of high school. He would try his hand at college, attending for a semester, only to come back to his first love. “It’s wasn’t just something to do,” he says. “It’s what I enjoy.”

And for more than 24 years, Landers built upon his family’s reputation of distinguished deal-making in the world of transportation. First, at the Benton-based Chrysler dealership his father, grandfather and cousin opened and ran for years. Then, alongside his father with Penske Automotive. By the early-aughts, he and his father and brother, Scott, were running their own Toyota dealership in Little Rock.

Along the way, Landers opened a used car lot and a chain of pawnshops, dubbed iPawn, too.

Sculpture on table

A bronze sculpture at Cowboy Auto Group by Frederic Remington.

And for most, that would have been enough. Had he chosen to, Landers could have continued to operate one of the state’s most successful car dealerships in the state’s largest city. He could have rested on the Landers laurels, kept living the big city lifestyle.

But that ain’t Steve Landers Jr. He wanted something different. Last fall, the auto heir bought a pair of rural car dealerships, packed up his family and headed for the hills. And while it may not be John Prine’s Spanish pipedream, it’s certainly close.

Landers credits a friend who sells Fords in Harrison for his conversion. After some convincing, he and his family bought a farm in Clinton, at the base of the Ozarks, and nearly two dozen cows. “We really didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as we have,” he says from inside his newly renovated office. “My best friend talked me into it… He said, ‘You have to get in cow business.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to get in the cow business.’ So, we bought 26 cows. And once you do that, it’s an addiction. The only thing money’s good for is buying more cows.”

In November 2017, Landers purchased a pair of dealerships from John Payton – one in Clinton and another in Heber Springs. A complete remodel of the Clinton store, parked right alongside Highway 65, is nearing competition. They’ve added office space and three acres of land for display space. There’s a remodeled showroom and customer lounge.

The move was part of a larger plan to get out of the city and back to the basics, back to what drew him to the car business in the first place.

“Having to drive thirty minutes across Little Rock doesn’t interest me,” Landers says. “I’ve been in big stores all my life. It’s all I’ve ever been involved with… I’ve gotten back to what I enjoy, which is the direct involvement with the customers. I like helping people handle their transportation needs. That’s the fun part of the business.

“I’m not any less busy,” he adds. “But I’m busy doing the things I want to do.”

And it didn’t take Landers and his family long to fall in love with his new rural community. “My kids have really enjoyed it,” he says of the move. “My wife, this is what she wants to do and what she loves to do. Being on the farm, taking care of our animals – that’s what we do.”
The Landers spend their time riding horses and driving up the Highway 65 corridor visiting other ranches and buying cattle from neighbors. “That’s just not something you get to do in Little Rock,” he says with a grin.

And it’s fitting, then, that he would name his new company Cowboy Auto Group. The theme is evident in the lobby of the Clinton dealership, where a large bronze sculpture by Frederic Remington of mounted cowboys, pistols raised, sits. In his office, cowhide covers chairs and steer horns hang overhead.

“We wanted to get back to: ‘Yes sir. No sir. Yes ma’am. No ma’am,’” Landers says when asked about the company’s brand. “We want to make the deals where you say what you mean, you mean what you say… I want people to know that they can count on us, and we’re going to do our dead level best to do what’s right. The easy thing would have been to a slap ‘Steve Landers’ on everything, say it’s the new Steve Landers store. But I wanted to call back to a time that was a little simpler and a little bit easier.”

Man with foot up on truck

Back to the basics, Landers is happy selling cars in his new rural Arkansas community.

It’s what the Landers have done in their lives. It only makes sense to do the same in business, he says. “We tried to get back to where they should be: family and friends. We’re going to do business, but we’re going to do it in a way that is supportive of that lifestyle.”

And that way of life and business is also reflected in the way Landers has introduced himself to his new community. Since taking the Clinton and Heber Springs dealerships, he and his staff have worked to give back their neighbors, sponsoring sports programs, working with local schools.

“We’ve really gotten into the two communities and tried to help,” he says. “We’re very involved in the betterment of this community. We’re not here just to sell cars. We want to give back and be a part of what’s going on here.”

Landers says he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of expansion, but adds that he has no plans for doing business in the big city. Those days, he says, are behind him. Selling cars is personal. And that’s how he likes it.

“I wouldn’t mind picking up another couple of stores. But I don’t anticipate going back into the big-city markets. I don’t want to turn it into a numbers thing,” Landers says. “I want it to be a situation like what we’re doing here, which is to get involved in the community and try to be a part of it.

“We’re just trying hard to make a difference.”

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