A new stretch of track for a car-obsessed family

Laura Thompson Barnes, vice president of the Thompson Organization, shown here at the new high-tech Thompson Lexus dealership in Willow Grove.

Just off the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Willow Grove, a family continues a business tradition while breaking new ground — literally and figuratively.

The Thompson Organization, a Doylestown legacy whose original Thompson Toyota was built on Main Street in 1969, has migrated some 13 miles south on Route 611, out of its beloved Bucks County, to seek new business opportunity in Montgomery County through sales of Lexus, Toyota’s luxury brand.

Its 42,000-square-foot complex there is ultra-tricked-out with high-tech gadgets, a well-stocked cafe, and a purposeful investment in comfort and communication — including cozy seating, multiple flat screens that provide real-time updates on each vehicle’s progress through sales and servicing, and glass privacy panels with waterfall imaging to help keep customer anxiety down.

“It’s all about the experience,” said Laura Thompson Barnes, vice president of the Thompson Organization, started by her father, Jack.

To the business, she brings an experience he can’t — that of a woman.

Hers is an increasingly important perspective, given that more than half of all car purchases are made by women and nearly 85 percent of all automobile-purchasing decisions are influenced by them, said Kevin Mazzucola, executive director of the Auto Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia. The industry is adjusting, with women representing about 18 percent of dealership employees, up from under 4 percent in 1990, said Mazzucola, whose group represents 190 dealers in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties.

“Is that enough? No,” he said. “It’s a male-dominated industry, but it is changing.”

Barnes, 58, is the only female on Lexus’ National Advertising Advisory Board, comprising dealership principals and general managers from throughout the country. In earlier gender-barrier-busting behavior, she raced open-wheel Formula Fords from the mid-1980s to 1997, hooked on the speed, noise, and engines. She eventually became a pace-car driver for Championship Auto Racing Teams.

“I love cars. In the genes, I guess,” she said in an interview at the new Lexus property.

Camera icon Laura Thompson Barnes
Laura Thompson Barnes, vice president of the Thompson Organization, in 1989, indulging her other passion: racing Formula Fords, this time in Lime Rock, Conn.

In his more adventurous years, Thompson, now 86, was into racing, too. Joining him were Bob Holbert, a Warrington native who became one of the country’s first Porsche dealers, and Roger Penske, who followed up his racing career as a Chevrolet dealer in the Philadelphia area.

Today, as “principal dealer” (although he’s really not a titles kind of guy), Jack Thompson is a daily presence at company headquarters in Doylestown, coming in from the farm in Bedminster he shares with his wife, Loraine, and where Barnes, sister Mindy and brother John, also a vice president at the Thompson Organization, were raised.

Camera icon Thompson Organization
Jack Thompson, “principal dealer” of the Thompson Organization, standing in 1976 at what was then a construction site for Thompson Toyota at Route 313 and the Route 611 Bypass in Doylestown, where he relocated the dealership he opened in 1969 on Main Street.

Thompson, who grew up in Germantown, brushed off questions about retirement or succession plans.

“People who retire get old,” he said. “I like to go to work.”

Instead, he spoke of a desire “to continue with our reputation” and, in so doing, mimic in a sense “one business in the market that’s most successful — that’s Wawa. They make things comfortable and easy for people. You’ve got to make it easier for the customer; they want convenience.”

Which was the thinking behind building Thompson Lexus Willow Grove  — one of six dealerships in the Thompson Organization, along with a collision center — and the only holding not in the Doylestown area. The new place is a can’t-miss presence on six of 10 acres the company owns along Maryland Avenue, just down the block from Jefferson Health-Abington Health Center. It opened in May, joining two other high-end dealers in the neighborhood: Audi of Willow Grove, part of the Holman organization, and Faulkner Infinity of Willow Grove.

Located on the site of the former George Washington Motor Lodge, Thompson Lexus Willow Grove was “12 years in the works,” Barnes said. Part of the challenge was finding the right amount of land in the right location with appropriate zoning that was “not too close to a competitive Lexus dealer,” she said.

Camera icon Jessica Griffin
Jack Thompson, shown here at the new high-tech Thompson Lexus dealership in Willow Grove. (JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer)

More than half of Thompson customers who buy their cars in Doylestown live near Willow Grove, so branching out there “was obvious,” Thompson said. He and his daughter would not disclose revenues. Barnes said only: “With the opening of Lexus Willow Grove, we anticipate a 32 percent increase in total revenues for the Thompson Organization.”

The car industry is in its eighth year of growth after a disastrous post-recession 2009. The last two years have set records, with 17.5 million vehicles sold nationally in 2015 and 17.6 million in 2016, compared with 10.4 million in 2009, Mazzucola said. The Philadelphia market — consisting of about 500 dealers in Southeastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and all of Delaware — is the fourth largest in the country, recording 393,000 sales last year, or 2.2 percent, he said.

Realizing that shopping for cars has become a largely online affair — with consumers  researching makes, models, and pricing, and often just showing up at a dealership to place an order and pick up vehicles — “some of the things we’re doing to keep people coming back is comfort,” Thompson said.

Efficiency and communication are paramount, Barnes said. To that end, at the new Thompson Lexus, all vehicles get a bar code that, for instance, alerts the parts department to prepare a bay for the car when it arrives for servicing, and lets waiting customers know how soon it will be ready.

What was a workforce of 45 around the time Thompson Lexus opened is expected to grow to 120 within a year, Barnes said. The entire company has close to 700 employees, 19 percent of whom are female — including a general manager, a service manager, a parts manager, and two technicians.

“Certainly we are interested in increasing this,” Barnes said.

Following success with John C. Thompson & Son, a meat-delivery business he started with his father, Jack Thompson got into selling Toyotas with a partner he bought out a year later.

Barnes was 12 and immediately got involved, washing cars behind the shop. By the time she was 14 or 15, she was helping the parts manager take inventory. Home from college in summers — she went to the University of Delaware, where she majored in business and fashion merchandising — Barnes worked at the dealership in bookkeeping, eventually adding sales to her resumé.

“The only way I could get a car to drive back to college is if I earned it as a demo, so I sold cars at night,” she said.

After graduating in 1980, she created an advertising and marketing agency, closing it in 2000 when she brought marketing for the Thompson Organization in-house.

Now, she holds an influential position, with a perspective neither her father nor brother can have — one key to connecting with a consumer segment interested in far more than vanity mirrors and cup holders.