The highest concentration of luxury cars in Columbia is across town from the big dealerships, tucked away in a nondescript strip mall at Peach Tree Plaza, between a pizza restaurant and a custard shop.
The showroom at Woods Auto Gallery features cars made by Mercedes Benz, BMW, Infiniti, Lexus and Porsche, with an occasional Maserati, Lamborghini, Ferrari or Jaguar. Ask owner Gregg Woods to pick a favorite among the cars at his boutique dealership, and he can’t do it.
“I like a variety,” says Woods. “It’s the nice thing with a dealership; you can drive whatever you want.”
Woods was looking for more variety in his profession when he started the business with his wife, Angie Woods, in 1998, after he had worked at Legend Automotive for 12 years. He started with 15 cars on the lot. His current inventory includes about 70 cars with sticker prices ranging from $5,000 to $300,000.
But sales have generally fallen at dealerships across Columbia and around the country in the past few years, and Woods Auto Gallery is no exception. Woods sold 554 cars in 2004, 465 in 2005 and 332 in 2006.
The low profile of Woods Auto Gallery is about to end, however. Woods is moving the dealership to the Cingular building on Nifong Boulevard, across from Gerbes, on June 1.
“The location is more visible from Nifong,” says Woods, “and it has more parking space than we have now.”
Woods bought the building in 2003, intending to move in when Cingular’s lease expired. He also bought a building at Lake of the Ozarks recently and plans to open a second location there this summer.
“I was presented with the opportunity,” says Woods. “I believe there is a great market down there, although it is obviously more seasonal in nature.”
The local automobile market has changed significantly recently. There has been a decline in overall car sales and a decline in the number of dealerships both statewide and in Boone County during the last few years.
Despite competing with the Internet and the large dealerships in St. Louis and Kansas City, Woods says he is still competitive because he has lower overhead costs.
“The Internet opened up a wide market,” says Woods, “but it has actually made [my work] easier. People come in with realistic expectations and are prepared to make a deal.”
The dealership has not been without growing pains.
Dennis Carter, a sales specialist, recently left Woods after two years. He went back to his employer of 15 years, Joe Machens. Carter says he enjoyed the two years at Woods and expanded his product knowledge about other luxury vehicles.
“The licensed dealerships have a better support structure,” says Carter. “There is more flexibility in a large dealership, and my passion is BMW.”
Woods says entrepreneurship is a process of trial and error and that his bachelor’s degree in theology from Hannibal-LaGrange College did not prepare him for the management side of the business. He says Angie’s management experience was invaluable the first eight years.
Their first year was slow, he says, but business picked up as his loyal customer base followed him over to the new dealership.
“I want to treat people the way I want to be treated,” Woods says. “And people want you to make a fair living, because they want you to be successful.”
Dr. Steven Dresner first met Woods at the Legend Automotive Group in the early 1990s shortly after he moved to town and wanted to replace his old Mazda.
“The prices on Japanese cars had gone up drastically,” Dresner says. “I was a bit exasperated over this, so when we pulled into the car lot after a test drive, I pointed to a Mercedes and said ‘I bet I can get that car for the same price.’“
Woods replied that he probably could and Dresner left the dealership with the used Mercedes. It was the beginning of a customer relationship and friendship for the two of them that continues today.
Woods says he goes to great lengths to get customers what they want. If there’s a new hot car that just hit the market, he will sometimes buy one for himself and quickly resell it as a used car to the customer who wanted it.
To ensure that the cars are properly serviced, the Auto Gallery contracts with local mechanics, as well as auto shops in St. Louis and Kansas City that specialize in particular luxury vehicles. The service includes having drivers bring the cars to St. Louis or Kansas City if needed.
“A car is a big investment, and I get to know my clients really well,” Woods says. “People like to deal with someone they know and trust.”
One of the local auto shops Woods uses for tires, inspections and some mechanical work is Big O Tires on Peachtree Drive. Assistant manager Russ Burkett says that the guys from Woods make sure the work is done right.
“I have been in this business a long time and have known a lot of used car salesmen,” Burkett says. “They are a very credible used car dealership. They take care of their customers.”
Alex Terzopoulis, owner of G & D Pizza and Steakhouse in the Crossroads Shopping Center, says Woods makes car ownership effortless.
“I call him and say, ‘Gregg, I got something wrong with my car,’” Terzopoulis says. “He brings another car and takes care of the problem.”