Aaron Carter first came to The Dalles years ago on a visiting high school football team. Now he’s moving his family here for his new post as managing partner at the new Columbia Gorge Toyota and Columbia Gorge Honda dealerships, formerly Griffith Motors.
Mario Hernandez of Idaho Falls purchased the dealerships from David Griffith in March, expanding his portfolio of dealerships to four locations. He is also in Idaho Falls and Pocatello in Idaho and in Winnemucca, Nev.
“We specialize in these smaller hometown markets where we feel like we can establish a long-term relationship with our employees and our customers,” Carter said.
Winnemucca has just 7,000 people, while Pocatello has 40,000 and Idaho Falls has 50,000. “So we’re not big city people,” he said.
The dealerships have expanded their hours, and are now open until 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday. They previously were open until 6 p.m. They also significantly expanded their offerings of used cars, from about 20 to about 80. They have Toyota certified and Honda certified used vehicles, meaning they have been through a rigorous inspection and come with a warranty, he said.
The two dealerships employ about 50 people. “We’ve retained all the staff that wanted to stay,” Carter said. “We have a really good staff, which is why we kept them.”
When Griffith was ready to sell, he reached out to Hernandez, who he knew from previous gatherings of fellow top sales performers for Toyota. “I think we were his first draft pick,” Carter said.
“David’s community involvement and care for employees was really a draw to Mario,” he added, saying the two men shared business philosophies.
“We’ve already sponsored the Easter Egg hunt, we continued that tradition. That went off really well, I thought. Got to meet a lot of people there,” he said. “We are very involved in city events.”
He said, “We’re really excited to get to know everybody, we’re going to get really involved in the chamber of commerce. We intend to be really involved in the community. We plan to be here for a long time.”
In Idaho Falls, the dealership donated two new cars to the local school district to be raffled off, with proceeds going to after-school programs, he said.
“Education and schools could always use more funding, especially after-school events,” he said. Locally, the Columbia Gorge dealerships have also sponsored a middle school play, "Mulan Jr."
He also has a cause the dealerships support that is personal to him. “I’m a veteran, I know there’s a lot of people who served in the area, so we will be involved in that stuff,” he said.
Carter grew up in Veneta, a small town outside Eugene. He remembers coming here with the JV football team when he was a freshman in high school. “We were down by one with no time left and we went for two and we didn’t get it, so we lost,” he recounted.
He joined the Army, where he was in air defense artillery. Shortly after leaving the service, Carter began working as a salesman for Hernandez, and worked his way up.
“I’ve really enjoyed it,” he said. “Being able to help customers and people in an industry and an area where people haven’t had the best experiences in the past is a good feeling.”
He sees working sales as more of a problem solving position. “I think you have to be willing to put away your own personal notion of what you want and what you think.”
He said, “You can do a bunch of research online but until you drive in it and sit in it it’s hard to make a decision.”
Carter’s wife, Rachel, has worked as a paid and volunteer art teacher and is also a Girl Scout troop leader, so she will be looking for a local troop to be involved in, he said.
He also treats the dealerships equally when it comes to cars for his own household. “I drive a Toyota and my wife drives a Honda,” he said.
Their children are Noah, 12, and Molly, who is 8.
Carter grew up fishing and hunting and is looking forward to backpacking in the Gorge. “My son’s really excited about trying kiteboarding. He’s 12, he’s kind of our adventurer.”
Carter said this was a permanent move for his family. “I plan to retire here.”