Interview by Elaine Earle
Born and raised in Coolidge, Jim Garrett left town to attend Arizona State University, met his wife Lisa, returned after graduation and stayed for good.
His commitment to the family’s car business, where he started working at 12, has ensured the continuity of new vehicle sales that most towns of its size have lost or never had. To this day Garrett Motors is thriving on Arizona Boulevard, and his sons are eager to carry ownership into a fourth generation.
Garrett is committed to the community through the Coolidge Chamber of Commerce, Industrial Development Authority of Pinal County, Central Arizona College Foundation, Pinal County Workforce Development Board, Coolidge Lions, Coolidge Nazarene Church and other organizations; he makes frequent donations to local causes through the dealership and building community by driving a church van for the last 30 years.
Coolidge has rewarded his dedication with, among other things, a slot in the second class of inductees into the Coolidge High School Hall of Fame for illustrious alumni who have made significant contributions to the greater good.
Golden Corridor LIVING: You’ve been in this area for a long time. How long has your family lived here, and what’s your history?
Jim Garrett: My grandfather came from Texas after World War I and worked in Florence. His name was Jack and he was a cowboy, used to break horses in the main street of Florence. Then he worked at some ranches that a guy named Johnny Zellweger owned, who also owned the bank in Florence. He worked on the ranches, then Zellweger moved him to the bank. After the bank, he moved him over here to an Oldsmobile and Case farm equipment store, right at this location where we are right now, and that was in 1936.
Golden Corridor LIVING: Wow.
Jim Garrett: This was the main highway between Phoenix and Tucson, and the main rail line is a half a mile to the east of us. So, it was a busy place. There was a lot of farming with the San Carlos project, and it was very much an agricultural community. There were many businesses in downtown Coolidge, and more of it moved up to the Arizona Boulevard here, the state highway.
Golden Corridor LIVING: So were you born here in Coolidge?
Jim Garrett: I was born here. My dad was born in Florence, but he moved here after the war, and my grandfather lived here after the war, too. My three sisters and I, we all went to Coolidge High School.
Golden Corridor LIVING: You graduated from Coolidge High School in 1977 and were inducted in the Coolidge Hall of Fame. Just like your father, you were athletic. What did you like to do in high school?
Jim Garrett: Played baseball, ran track and played football. We actually hunted a lot, and we just wanted to drive cars. That’s what you wanted to do back then. But the Hall of Fame, it’s not an athletic Hall of Fame. I was in the second class for that, just for things I’ve been involved with, and things I’ve done with the school and community.
Then I went to CAC, and then ASU for a couple years and graduated. I was going to go in the military and fly, but then I got a pilot’s license and I didn’t like flying that much. It wasn’t that interesting, so I just got into the car business with my dad. Back then we had a guy that had worked for us for a hundred years, an old guy, and others who were just great, great people. We had such a great time. We worked all the time, but we enjoyed it.
Golden Corridor LIVING: Right, you kind of got absorbed into the car business from there.
Jim Garrett: You can’t get out. The only other job I’ve ever had was a paper route.
Golden Corridor LIVING: Any other careers you were intending or contemplating at the time?
Jim Garrett: No. When you’re in the car business, you need to be here.
Golden Corridor LIVING: So, how did your grandfather get the Oldsmobile franchise?
Jim Garrett: They just went to Oldsmobile. Back then, franchises were very easy to get, and Coolidge at one time had a Studebaker and other stores that closed. But I don’t know a lot about how he got it. I know that this guy Johnny Zellweger had money during the Depression.
Zellweger had money, and he liked my grandfather, so he put my grandfather in here and then just gave him the store. This isn’t what Johnny wanted to do. Anyway, after that, my grandfather plugged along during the Depression, because those were tough times, you couldn’t get cars. Then the war hit. My father was a freshman at ASU, and he enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor. He was in for four years until the war was over, and then he came back and got into business himself.
Golden Corridor LIVING: OK. So, when did Chevrolet appear?
Jim Garrett: In 1984 we got Chevrolet. They gave us the Chevrolet franchise because the guy that had Chevrolet closed. Once you close, you lose your franchise. We were glad to have it because that gave us trucks. There weren’t many SUVs then, but having trucks was great for us. So we had Chevrolet and Oldsmobile until 2001 when we bought the Buick Pontiac and GMC store, and then moved that down there.
Now we have Chevrolet, Buick and GMC, because GM dropped Oldsmobile and Pontiac.
Golden Corridor LIVING: OK. You met your wife Lisa in college?
Jim Garrett: At ASU. She’s from Tucson. We met, we dated for six years, and we got married. We’ve been married 35 years. And we have two sons, 32 and 34.
Golden Corridor LIVING: Lisa helps you with the businesses?
Jim Garrett: Oh, yes. She worked for a microchip company in Chandler when we first got married. When we had had our first son, and she needed to be closer to home, she started working with us, and she’s our controller.
Golden Corridor LIVING: And now your sons are in the family business?
Jim Garrett: Our older son J.D. is the general manager, and then his brother Charlie handles finance and inventory. Those are both big jobs, the inventory especially. If you don’t have used cars and stuff like that, you don’t have anything to sell. They both do a great job.
Golden Corridor LIVING: Did they go right into that from high school?
Jim Garrett: No, I had a rule where both had to work someplace else two years after college before they came here. JD graduated from ASU and then worked for Northwest Mutual. We talked him into coming to work for us in service, and that’s where he started, as a service writer. But he’d worked at the store forever, since he was a young kid. He can drive the tow truck, sell cars, he can do just about everything in the dealership, so he had a great upbringing in the store and learned a lot about service and parts.
Charlie went to Southwestern University in Texas and was a baseball player. He graduated and then he came back and worked for the Coolidge schools as a teacher and a coach; so he played a lot of ball. Then he eventually came to work for us about six years ago.
They’re both members of the Elks, just like I am. Both live here and their wives are from here, and each of them have one child.
Golden Corridor LIVING: Do your sons aspire to be the next version of Garrett, to run the dealership and stay in Coolidge?
Jim Garrett: Oh, yes. They’re both running me out of the business; they’re ready to go. And they’re very good at what they do, and they’re nice people. They’re good with customers. The service department under J.D., has working 13 technicians now with oil changers. There is plenty of business out there.
Golden Corridor LIVING: Good! So you’ve sat on various local boards.
Jim Garrett: Oh, yeah. I’m on the Chamber board, Coolidge Industrial Development Authority and a member of the Coolidge Lions.
My wife was on the Coolidge Unified School District board for 12 years. We were part of the Coolidge football boosters, Coolidge baseball boosters and Coolidge basketball boosters. Both my kids played a lot of sports, so we did a lot with that, and just had a great time. My son Charlie played college baseball, so we played baseball a lot.
Golden Corridor LIVING: You know a lot of people here. I mean, you must know so many.
Jim Garrett: My dad, his name was also Jim, he had a lot of friends. He had a good reputation, and people liked him and we just fit in together. I’d worked there ever since I was 12 years old. This old guy that worked for us, he and I would go on service calls, and he talked a lot about customer service. He was just a nice guy, everybody liked him, just like my dad. We had about 15 people at that time, and I got to work a lot.
Golden Corridor LIVING: Coolidge has changed since you grew up, obviously. At one point it was in the path of growth because of the highway, and then at one point it wasn’t. It probably seemed like it died off a bit, and now it’s being rediscovered with new development. What are your thoughts on how Coolidge has changed?
Jim Garrett: Oh, Coolidge has plugged right along and hung with it. When we had the highway, and had a lot more going on, business was great. Then of course when the interstate moves over, a lot goes with the interstate, the development and everything else. But Coolidge just hung in there and took care of itself. Now, those zombie subdivisions, they’ve all started to fill up from the crash of ‘09, and they’re starting new housing.
For a long time, Coolidge was about 7,500 people, and now we’re about 14,000, 15,000 and growing fast. It’s just wonderful to see, because there’s new businesses. People need rentals, as far as business. There’s just a lot going on, mostly here on the boulevard. Downtown gets better all the time. But there’s a lot of new faces in town. Tag’s Cafe has different people, there’s new people getting their groceries, and it’s just great.
Golden Corridor LIVING: You’re seeing a lot of Phoenix commuters now, or not yet?
Jim Garrett: I think we see some commuters. They say that about half the newcomers are from California. It’s just nice to have new people. We’ve got, I think, three council spots open and seven people running, which is great. You want to have some people to choose from. Anyway, we see a lot of positive things.
There’s a lot of jobs with Nikola, Bright International, and others. A lot of people don’t know about them. That’s a big business in Coolidge. It has 250, 300 employees. Stinger is a great employer in Coolidge. I’m trying to think of who else. Anyway, we’ve got good jobs and a lot of available land for development.
Golden Corridor LIVING: Is there anything you wish would come to Coolidge?
Jim Garrett: Well, they say we’re going to get a hotel, that’s really needed. I’d like to see some small businesses come in that are more locally owned by people who come in and participate on boards and committees and different things like that. We have Shope’s IGA, Safeway and Walmart, so we have plenty of groceries.
Golden Corridor LIVING: Good. What are some of your hobbies and interests? What do you like to do when you’re not selling cars?
Jim Garrett: I train and hunt with dogs, and you saw one of them this morning. It’s mainly just quail hunting. Upland game, quail, pheasants and others like that. We always spent a lot of time with our kids as they were growing up, and now we have grandkids to spend time with as well.
I don’t play golf or anything like that. In the car business, you tend to work a lot. Luckily we’re closed on Sunday. But no, it’s a great business. We have a real good business, a good crew. We have people who have been here a long time. Two women have been here over 30 years. We have a guy that’s been here 29 years, a technician.
A lot of people are at 20 years.
Golden Corridor LIVING: How many employees do you have?
Jim Garrett: We have right at 50 employees. In the ‘80s we had about 15, and then we just gradually built it up. When Coolidge really started to grow in the last 10 years, we got up in the 40s and now we’re about 50. There’s a lot of work, especially in service.
Golden Corridor LIVING: You do have a big reach. I mean, even though there is a dealership in Casa Grande, I see Garrett throughout Casa Grande.
Jim Garrett: That guy you saw this morning that said hello to me, he’s from Williams, Arizona, up near Flagstaff. We just have customers that have done business with us, or their family has for years. They order vehicles and just buy from us because it’s just so easy. We’re not going to lie to you, we’re just going to take care of you. We’ve taken care of them for years. It’s really easy.
That’s why there’s so much service work, is because it’s a big area. We’ve added a couple buildings just trying to keep up the service and parts business because there’s tons. We’re restricted only because we can’t hire enough people. The more people we hire, the more business we have.
We did hire two technicians last month, and they do a good job. They’ve got a good process, and we provide a good work environment where people want to come to work. We work hard at that. It’s a team approach. You got to take care of the customer, but we got to take care of your coworkers too, and make it a good place to work.
Golden Corridor LIVING: So, tell us about the pandemic and the impact on the auto industry?
Jim Garrett: They initially went into the pandemic thinking that this was going to pretty much stop sales, so the manufacturers kind of let their orders for these (computer) chips go by the wayside. Well, that created a big effect, because it didn’t really slow down business as much as they thought it would.
So factories couldn’t produce, and some of the suppliers couldn’t produce. They are trying to catch up now. When they really started to try to ramp back up, parts of China are still closed. They make a lot of chips in China, or part of the assembly. It’s going to be a few years before we get caught up. Two years ago I had about 150 new cars on these lots, and now most of the vehicles that we have incoming are sold orders, or people buy while they’re still inbound to the dealership.
Golden Corridor LIVING: Wow. But a lot of ordering.
Jim Garrett: A lot of that. We got 11 vehicles last week, and nine of them are already sold. We’re selling because there’s such a shortage. Used car values are higher, and the new car prices haven’t gone up much, so it’s really a good time to buy a new car if you can find something you like. Your used car values have come up, so your difference is less if you trade a car in. Trade-ins are crazy, because there are no new cars.
Golden Corridor LIVING: Right. When do you see that easing up?
Jim Garrett: It’ll be a few years. There’s a backlog, and there’s a lot of different things with the supply chain. Getting vehicles from the plants, and when they have vehicles on the ground, but they need to ship them and the rails, the semis and things like that.
Golden Corridor LIVING: Right. So, if someone orders, and that might be a 2022 or a 2023, what is the lead time now?
Jim Garrett: We figure a couple months, might be four months. Depends on the specific vehicle. It is getting better, and they’re trying to fill more of the sold orders, but it’ll take a little time.
Golden Corridor LIVING: Wow, OK. So, we covered this a bit, but what do you see in the future for Garrett Motors?
Jim Garrett: Just keep taking care of the customers and growing. Electric vehicles are a big topic right now; we’ll just see where that takes us because they will be a new part of the market. You’re still going to need service and a lot of other things, and Coolidge is going to grow a lot. I think I saw where Coolidge has water for about 40,000 people, so we’ve got a lot of growth to come.
Golden Corridor LIVING: Do you see yourself adding any other brands at any point?
Jim Garrett: If they come along, we would, but it’s so hard to start a new store, and very expensive. It’s hard to do, but we’ve got a lot to work on here. Our cars are American made, and American grown, and the GMC, Chevy, Buick, isn’t going anywhere.
The whole area’s growing. Florence, Eloy, Arizona City and Casa Grande are all growing, and we get a lot of traffic from all of them. We figured a 25-, 35-mile radius is our main market area, and that whole area is growing fast.