Sitting at his new desk nestled on the third floor of a former hospital office complex, Jim McNatt recalls washing cars and handling janitorial duties as a 12-year-old at his father’s auto dealership in Greenville.
Today — 60 years later — McNatt is embarking in a new direction after selling the Jim McNatt Auto Group dealerships in Denton. The family continues its trademark business with two locations, the Luttrull-McNatt Chevrolet dealership in Sanger and the Luttrull-McNatt Buick/Chevrolet/GMC location in Gainesville.
McNatt is a partner in both, where he plans to stay active as well as work with his brother, Al McNatt, in managing real estate endeavors, including the previous campus of Denton Regional Medical Center off Interstate 35 and surrounding properties.
Amid the ongoing interior renovations of his new office, the longtime automotive dealership owner said he feels both excited about the future and reflective about the years spent overseeing a company that — at its height — operated eight dealerships in the region and in Mississippi.
“I’m taking a rest and am going to re-evaluate my next career,” the 72-year-old said.
In his father’s footsteps
“Our family had a strong work ethic,” he said of his father, Leon McNatt, who established the family’s Oldsmobile dealership in 1932, adding Cadillac and Studebaker in 1946.
Over the years, other franchises — Jeep, Honda and Dodge — were added as Jim McNatt continued to work six days a week in sales and attended classes at what is now the University of North Texas. Leon McNatt Oldsmobile, Cadillac, GMC was founded in 1961.
His father’s profession then became his own.
“I never made a decision to follow. I just don’t think I ever took the time to opt out,” Jim McNatt recalled with a chuckle.
In 1980, Al McNatt bought Banner Chevrolet in Denton. In 1983, construction was finished on the new Chevrolet dealership on Interstate 35 as well as the Jim McNatt Honda facility in Lewisville. The brothers bought Bill Utter Toyota Dodge on University Drive in 1985.
In 1987, construction was finished on the new Jim McNatt Acura in Jackson, Miss., three years before Jim McNatt Mazda was founded in the same city. In 1988, the brothers bought Hilz Chevrolet in Sanger. A new Jim McNatt Honda opened in 1989 in DeSoto.
In 2003, Jim McNatt Toyota Dodge relocated to I-35E, while Jim McNatt Honda relocated next door in 2007. And in 2009, Jim McNatt bought Brown Chevrolet, Buick and GMC in Gainesville.
“I’m proud of everything we’ve accomplished,” he said of the company. “We tried to do it in an honest and upright fashion.”
Jim McNatt believes in giving back to the community.
After all, he’s made it a tradition, from supporting the local North Texas Fair and Rodeo to making a $500,000 donation to the Denton Animal Shelter Foundation to name a new animal shelter after his wife, Linda, as a surprise anniversary gift.
In recent years, the Jim McNatt Auto Group has been helping schools in Denton, Wise, Montague and Cooke counties with fundraisers by allowing students and parents to sell tickets for the chance to win a new vehicle.
The winner then gets the vehicle with McNatt picking up tax, title and licensing costs. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised through the ticket sales, McNatt said, and the program will be continued at least for the current school year.
With the theme of giving back in mind, McNatt also wanted to remind people to shop locally.
“We need to encourage our people to shop in Denton,” he said. “They’ve got to know the sales tax dollars pay for parks and roads.”
The sales tax for an automobile can range from 6 percent to 7 percent, which can do a lot, McNatt said.
“Denton needs that money; Denton needs their support,” he said.
Choosing to sell
McNatt listed several reasons for selling the Denton location situated off I-35E: a seller’s market, impending interstate construction, his age and time for a change.
The change included losing a longtime business associate who passed away, he said. The loss was felt across the company, and left McNatt to begin reflecting on his own future.
There also wasn’t another generation ready and willing to follow his and his father’s footsteps — footsteps that he’d been following since his teenage years, learning the business from his father before launching out on his own.
At the same time, McNatt said he knew that, eventually, construction on I-35E could affect the business — a fact of which he says the new owner is also aware. I-35E is slated for expansion in Denton County with construction for the foreseeable future.
And, as with any business, automotive dealerships have business cycles — periods when sales and inventory are down and periods when both are up. The current business cycle for dealerships, particularly in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and in Denton County, is on the upswing. In fact, sales have been very strong and the inventory the largest it has ever been, he said.
It was either get bigger or get out, McNatt said.
Time has also brought a lot of changes to the industry with cars operating on built-in computers and a growing number of auto sales now being made online, he said. And as the years passed, as more women bought automobiles, he hired more female sales and service personnel.
The growing population in Denton County also boosted automotive sales, he said, prompting him to acquire neighboring properties to hold his inventory — even if he had to rent the space.
Once the decision to sell was made, McNatt said he looked for a buyer who followed his same principles.
“I talked to a lot of people,” he said. “I was looking for a success story with non-Wall Street money and that had a good reputation with its people.”
He eventually found the right one, but selling was and is still hard.
“For the first time in 53 years, there’s not a shingle [with the McNatt family name] hanging in Denton,” he said.
Saying goodbye but not for good
It hasn’t been easy to let go of day-to-day involvement in the automotive dealerships, McNatt said.
“For 53 years, I got up and put on a coat and tie,” he said, having donned more casual attire during a recent interview.
But after a bit of a respite, expect to see McNatt back part-time in the auto dealership businesses in Sanger and Gainesville as well as in real estate ventures.
“With the real estate business, I will continue to invest in Denton,” he said.
DAWN COBB can be reached at 940-566-6879 and via Twitter at @DawnCobbDRC.