After 115 years, 28 different vehicle franchises and three generations of Smart family ownership, President/CEO J.R. Smart is handing his family’s legacy to a new owner. Madison’s Smart Motors, founded in 1908, making it one of the longest-running automotive dealerships in the United States, has selected the Anderson Family of Omaha, Nebraska, to continue its long legacy of service to its clients and the community. The sale is effective January 8th.
The Anderson Family entered the automotive business in 1957, when Tal Anderson started working part-time at Baxter Chrysler-Plymouth in Omaha. Tal’s work ethic and common sense caught the attention of Johnny Baxter, who eventually made Tal a partner and ultimately sold the dealership to Tal Anderson in 1983.
The Andersons retained the Baxter name, both out of respect for Johnny Baxter and understanding the value of continuity in business. That history of honoring the past and serving the community made Baxter Auto Group the right owner for Smart Motors.
The two families, the Smarts and the Andersons, have much in common, including multi-generational ownership and navigating their way through many obstacles, including gas shortages, wars, a pandemic and supply chain interruptions.
“I celebrated my 52nd anniversary at the dealership earlier this year,” said Smart. “And while my time is sunsetting at the helm of our family business, I had to ensure my teammates and the communities we serve were well cared for.”
The Anderson family has deep roots in the automotive industry and a solid reputation in the communities they serve. “I could have sold the dealership to any number of organizations,” said Smart, “but I chose Mickey Anderson and the Baxter Auto Group. Commitment to quality, customer satisfaction and continuous improvement are our core values and I’m convinced they will continue to build off what our family has created since 1908.”
“We’re so pleased and humbled at the opportunity to carry on the legacy and work of the Smart Family in Madison,” said Mickey Anderson. “To build upon that history and commitment to quality is a challenge that we welcome and will be diligent every day to carry on this great tradition.”
“At Toyota, we wish Baxter Auto Group a successful entry into the Madison market. They’ve already proven to be a valuable partner with Toyota dealerships in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska,” said Shane Sizemore, general manager, Chicago Region, Toyota Motor North America. “We also want to thank the ownership at Smart Toyota for nearly 60 years of automotive excellence. During this time, three generations of Smart family members helped grow the Toyota brand in south central Wisconsin, through award-winning sales, service and extraordinary community involvement. They epitomized Toyota’s mantra of ‘respect for people’ by providing exceptional customer service.”
The history of the Smart Family’s involvement in the automotive industry is a very interesting story.
“It seems like every decade or so something throws a wrench into the works,” said Smart. “I’d say the very first hurdle my grandfather’s new business had to overcome was a lack of inventory… and the cost of a new car.”
The first car that founder O. D. Smart, J. R.’s grandfather, sold was an Apperson Jackrabbit, which he sold out of his father’s livery in Waukesha. The Jackrabbit was built by hand, and the car sold for $5,000, which is around $155,000 in 2023 dollars.
While the Model T continued to be very popular, Smart Motors sold smaller brands such as Studebaker, Packard, Crosley and Hudson. O.D. Smart focused on educating the community on cars, resulting in him becoming a spokesman of sorts and was often quoted as a “Specialist” in Madison on topics like proper care and general maintenance. That place of prominence continues for Smart Motors to this day.
“Starting in 1925, my grandfather’s business started to thrive,” says J.R. “The business was now in Madison, which made it a central point for people from Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis. Smart Motors was doing quite well.”
Then in 1929, the stock market crashed, and over the next three years, car sales fell by 75%. Through hard work and ingenuity, O. D. Smart managed to be the only one of the 14 car dealerships in Madison to avoid declaring bankruptcy in the 1930s and 1940s. He accomplished this by moonlighting as a machinist at a local factory to keep the lights on at his dealership.
Having survived the Great Depression, O. D. Smart faced a new challenge: World War II. This meant no inventory, as there were no cars manufactured for the public between 1942 and 1945, with all steel and manufacturing capacity being used for the war effort. Again, O. D.’s hard work and creativity kept his dealerships operating during this most difficult of times.
Following rapid change in the auto industry in the 1950s, James “F. J.” Smart took control of Smart Motors in the 1960s. His ingenuity led to what turned out to be a pivotal decision for the business and the family: Smart Motors became Wisconsin’s first Toyota dealer in 1966.
“My father was just as innovative as he took a chance on a number of unknowns in the automobile industry,” said J.R. “He was always able to anticipate the need for a new product or service and make the correct decision.”
F. J. Smart’s decision to partner with Toyota in 1966 paid enormous dividends in the 1970s, when America found itself in a lengthy oil crisis, driving up the price of gasoline and ending Americans’ long love affair with very large, gas-guzzling vehicles. Toyota had been a relatively unknown, fuel-efficient brand. The energy crisis drove more demand for more efficient cars, with Toyota taking a prominent role in filling that demand.
The Smart and Anderson Families share a long history of community involvement and support. The Smart Family’s legacy in Madison included deep involvement in the American Red Cross, the University of Wisconsin’s Carbone Cancer Research, American Family Children’s Hospital and the Susan G. Komen Pink Lights in October project.
The late Tal Anderson founded the Children’s Scholarship Fund of Omaha, which provides tuition for at-risk youths who otherwise would not be able to attend private schools. The Anderson Family continues its support of that organization to this day, in addition to its support of a wide range of charities, including The United Way, Chambers of Commerce, Economic Development Initiatives, as well as primary, secondary and higher education.
About Baxter Auto Group
Baxter Auto Group is one of the nation’s leading automotive retail groups, operating 21 automotive retail stores across the Midwest and Mountain regions and representing nine of the nation’s top automotive brands, including Toyota, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, INFINITI, Audi, Honda, Subaru, Volkswagen and Ford. Additionally, Baxter takes special pride in being a remarkable employer and supporting efforts to build stronger communities, showing gratitude for all the community has done to support its operations throughout the years.