Abajian sells auto dealership

The family-owned business with roots in auto sales for more than 60 years was sold to McCurley Integrity Dealerships.

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WALLA WALLA — A new owner will be behind the wheel of Walla Walla’s Toyota dealership starting next month.

Abajian Motor Sales has been sold to McCurley Integrity Dealerships, the two operators announced in a joint release.

The Abajian Toyota-Scion dealership owned by Scott Abajian and Gary Hanson officially closes Jan. 31, and will reopen Feb. 3 as McCurley Integrity Toyota of Walla Walla.

Financial terms of the purchase are not being disclosed, Abajian said.

“I was so lucky to have a franchise that was so strong — through the recession, floods, tsunamis,” he reflected this morning. The McCurley dealerships, based in the Tri-Cities, have served Walla Walla and the surrounding region through Subaru, Mazda, Honda, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz, Sprinter and Isuzu Commercial Truck.

“We believe in the economic strength of Walla Walla, and we have wanted to find the right opportunity to make an economic investment in Walla Walla for many years,” McCurley Chief Executive Officer Henry Field said in a prepared statement.

Abajian said he doesn’t know if another franchise will be introduced, but the 5-acre property at Wilbur and Melrose avenues is large enough to support an addition.

McCurley has an inventory of at least 400 used vehicles in addition to new ones, Abajian said. Vehicles that might not be on the lot in Walla Walla are still easily accessible because of the other dealerships an hour away.

No major changes are planned for the facility itself, which underwent a complete renovation in 2007 and meets the latest Toyota design standards. However customers may notice some organizational changes expected over the next six months as the McCurley dealerships business model is implemented. Peter Orlich will be the new general manager, and Mason McCurley will be president and principal of the dealership.

Abajian’s 38 employees have been invited to apply to McCurley in a transitional move apparently common to dealership turnover. Abajian said McCurley will try to hire all of the employees. Additional staff is also expected to come on board and new and used vehicle inventory is added.

The idea to sell came about nine months ago, when Abajian said he received back-to-back solicitations from other dealers. One wanted to sell a dealership to him; the other wanted to buy his. The calls prompted him to consider a change as the automotive industry recovers from the recession.

Rather than advertise in an automotive industry publication, he and Hanson opted to choose a successor for the business that in 2012 was named the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce’s “Business of the Year” in the annual Business Awards Showcase.

In the McCurley team, they believe they found owners who most match their own ideals and who be accepted by Toyota.

“We are pleased that our long-term commitment to customers and community proved in the end to be a good fit with the Abajian philosophy, ” Mason McCurley said in the announcement.

Abajian’s family roots in the automotive world date back to 1949, when his dad, John Abajian, joined the Teague Ford dealership as a partner. After he sold out his interest in the dealership in 1969, his son — Scott Abajian’s brother — Jim Abajian followed in the footsteps of his father and became a partner in the same dealership in 1974.

A decade later the brothers partnered to buy the Toyota dealership and soon after hired Hanson as parts manager. In 1991 they moved their burgeoning dealership from downtown Walla Walla to the current corner spot in Eastgate.

When Jim Abajian retired in 2000, his younger brother and Hanson bought out his interest. They reduced what had grown to seven franchises and focused on Toyota.

Though he came of age in the era of the big-personality auto dealers like Tex Brotherton, whom he remembers with awe for his giant Cadillac with the tire on back and a cigar in his fingers, Scott Abajian was anything but flashy. He drove around in a Corolla and has managed to make it to the golf course only twice a year, a habit he hopes to change with more time on his hands.

Just as Abajian sees himself different from the dealers of his youth, he also sees the industry evolving in a new direction. With 15½ million vehicles sold last year, auto dealers across the country are recovering and business is expected to improve.

But it’s different now. It’s a month-to-month operation that’s relying more and more on technology to reach customers.

“It happens in all industries. Look at Polaroid — there was a time they probably thought ‘Who’s ever going to take over our business?’ But then you have digital camera makers, and now everyone’s using their smartphones,” Abajian said. “It’s kind of the same scenario for the car business.”

Oil change program to cease

The ownership change at Abajian Motor Sales will put the brakes on a long coveted oil change maintenance program.

For years the dealership was known for its sweet offer of lifetime gratis oil changes. Over the years, the offer has changed to include a fee that’s inched up to its current cost of $14.99 per oil change. In 2007 the program was discontinued to newcomers. However, about 1,600 customers have been grandfathered in, Scott Abajian said.

Customers who are part of the program have three weeks to take advantage of and oil and oil filter change at the $14.99 price before it ends under the new ownership. With an onslaught of customers anticipated, the dealership may not be able to accommodate everyone. But customers are encouraged to call and try.

The oil change program is not the only element of the dealership expected to flourish in the coming weeks before Abajian Toyota-Scion becomes McCurley Integrity Toyota of Walla Walla. Abajian said major sales on new and used vehicles will be offered for the remainder of the month.

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