Cheri & Don Fleming
Co-Owners, Valencia Acura

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor

Sunday, December 25, 2005
(Television interview conducted December 21, 2005)

Cheri Fleming
Cheri Fleming
    "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmakers are Cheri and Don Fleming, co-owners of Valencia Acura.

Signal: Is it really true that you're always "having a great day" at Valencia Acura?

Don: Yes, it is true, actually.

Cheri: Some days are better than others, but all in all, we are always having a great day.

Signal: You just had a big Christmas party for your employees, didn't you?

Don: We did. We have 55 employees, and we invited the employees — we do this every year. It's a luncheon. The employees bring their families, and I think there were 44 kids. Cheri went out with some of the girls in the office; they bought gifts for each one of these kids. We had a real Santa, and we had snow —

Signal: Santa flew all the way down?

Don: Oh, yeah, absolutely. But he had to leave the reindeers in Palmdale because it's not cold enough down here for them. He had to leave them up in the High Desert. But it was wonderful. And those kids played in the snow for over two hours.

Signal: What are you getting Scooter and Sparkplug for Christmas?

Cheri: Scooter and Sparkplug are big present-openers, so I've already been to quite a few of the pet stores. They like the squeaky plush toys; treats are big on their list. But they all have to be wrapped, and they're very good at opening their own presents.

Signal: Do they just rip them open, or are they careful and save the wrapping paper?

Cheri: No, they don't save the wrapping paper. They have a great time, though.

Signal: You were Man and Woman of the Year in 2004. One thing people say about you is that it's not just the money. Sure, you give a lot of money to charity. But you guys put in a lot of hard work. How do you find time to help all these charities and run a business at the same time?

Don Fleming
Don Fleming
Don: Well, Cheri is a harder worker than I am. She's like the Eveready battery — she never runs down. And secondly, I think the important thing is, we enjoy doing it. When you enjoy doing things, you find time for it.

Signal: What's on your "A" list of charities these days?

Cheri: Coming up in 2006 — Don, you're chairing the hospital's golf tournament; I'm chairing something new for me this year. I'm chairing the Arthritis Walk, and that's on April 30.
    I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when I was 28 years old. It's not something I talk a lot about, because none of us likes to talk about the things that are maybe the negative parts in our life — it's something I would rather kind of put on the back burner and kind of go on with a positive attitude — but I'm going to try and help. Because I know some of the medications that I've been on in the last couple of years have made a big difference for me, so if I can help make a difference in someone else's life, I'm happy to do it. Hopefully that will be a success.
    Don and I are going to co-chair the Boys and Girls Club Auction again this year.

Don: We did it last year. We netted $515,000. Isn't that amazing?

Signal: Chairing those things is a lot of work.

Don: Well, but you've got people like Judy Belue and all those volunteers. They're incredible volunteers. They build that stage; they build everything from scratch. They do it. We don't have any paid labor in there to do it. It's wonderful, the volunteerism.

Signal: Why is it important for business people like you to help charity? Isn't your business suffering at the same time?

Don: Well, sometimes it does, of course. But what's interesting to me is that if you — this is only my opinion — but if you're taking money out of a community, it's your duty to give some of it back. And then, interesting things happen when you do. All of a sudden, it helps your business. I mean, you don't give it back for that reason, but that's a benefit that comes from it.
    People's lives become much better when you give. Not only money, but when you give of your time, as well.

Cheri: I think if you're a business person, you need to invest in your own future. We have so many amazing charities here in Santa Clarita — so many that affect children, and will directly affect all of our futures. It's building your own community. If you support your community, they'll support you back.

Signal: It's just a guess, but there are probably more people in town who know who Don and Cheri Fleming are, than can name Santa Clarita's mayor for 2006.

Don: Don't tell Laurene (Weste) that.

Signal: That said, you guys haven't been around Santa Clarita forever. It wasn't too many years ago that you burst on the scene. How did you gain that recognition? What tips do you have for the new business person who wants to get known?

Don: I would think you need to be unique in what you're doing. You need to have a plan, and you need to live that plan. You need to believe in it. And when you do — we found something unique in the car business: (It's) mostly men in the management end of the car business. Which is probably unfortunate. Because 90 percent of all car deals are influenced by women, and 60 percent of all car deals are made by women. So it seems strange to me that we don't have more women in the industry.
    In any event, Cheri is actually the dealer principal. We all work for her. We put Cheri out front; it showed a softer touch. Our dogs have been a part of our lives forever, so that was a natural. They just kind of fit in —

Signal: Do they have an ownership position?

Don: Well, boy, they should. Those guys are very popular. We have families bring their kids in during the week to meet Scooter and Sparkplug.

Signal: Did you have schooling in marketing? With all due respect to Scooter and Sparkplug, they are great marketing tools.

Cheri: When we first came here, we did do cable advertising here locally, and it was a big success for us. It kind of got "who we were" out in the community. Scooter — that was before Sparkplug was born — was always in our ads. People would come on the lot and walk right past me and point at that dog and say, "I've seen you on television before." So I think he was an integral part (in getting known).

Don: I'm not sure that it was something that we set down and planned to market that way. We had a lot of help. The Signal, right across the street. Every event that we went to, The Signal was covering, and then when we would have an event at the dealership, The Signal would cover it. So The Signal did a great job in helping us get our name out.
    It's amazing to me that all of this came together when it did. And it did. It all meshed at the same time. We were very fortunate to have been a part of it.

Signal: When did you come to Santa Clarita?

Cheri: We will be in Santa Clarita 10 years this coming spring.

Signal: And before that?

Don: We lived in Westlake Village and we were in the car business. Prior to that, we've always been entrepreneurs, and we've always worked together. Now, some people can work together, husband and wife, and some people can't. We've been very fortunate that we can. And probably the reason that we can is because Cheri is smarter than I am. Cheri keeps everything together.

Cheri: Don is kind of our visionary. He's (got) the vision. He's the one who says, "We can do that. Let's go buy this dealership. We can do this." I'm more of the person who carries out our mission. I'm more of the business person —

Signal: "Now, wait a minute, Don, here's the reality—"

Cheri: Exactly.

Don: That happens on a daily basis.

Signal: What attracted you to Santa Clarita?

Don: That's a good story, too. In 1980, I was dating Cheri, and Cheri lived up here. I came up here a couple times to see her, and there were two places to eat. There was Happy Steak, and Tips. I don't know why I liked it, but I did like it up here. Cheri liked it up here, and when we had an opportunity to be a part of this dealership, it made sense to us.

Cheri: It really felt like I was coming back home. Because I lived out here when Santa Clarita was a much different place. We've seen great growth. And it felt good. It felt like coming home.

Signal: When you got here 10 years ago, Norm Gray of Magic Ford was the big dog on the block. He was the big salesman, showman, charity giver — and he outsold everybody by a factor of about 5.

Don: There's no question. I think at that time, he was one of the largest Ford dealerships in the country.

Signal: What's the situation today? Is there a big dog on the block?

Don: I think, if you want to call it a big dog, you'd have to say it's Joe Caso at Frontier Toyota. He has done a wonderful job with that store. That store does $175 million to $200 million a year in business.

Cheri: And it does a great job in the community, as well.

Signal: We've seen a lot of new dealerships crop up in just the last couple of years. Do we have one of everything now?

Don: I think we pretty much do. We don't have some of the exotic sports cars; we don't have the Porsche and things like that. But yes, we do. And this new Mercedes dealership, (owned by) Kevin Malone and Eddie Murray, that's coming in — what a plus that will be for all car dealers.
    The more car dealers we can have in our auto mall, the more shopping the people can do. Cross-shopping. Sometimes if we don't have a franchise here and they go to the (San Fernando) Valley, we may never see them again.

Signal: Why is it good for car dealerships to be clustered together?

Don: First of all, I think there's a lot of energy on the street. When you get a lot of car dealers together, there's a lot of energy. And there's a lot of energy from the people who are purchasing or leasing the cars.
    But the most important thing is that we want to have all the brands, so that our local people, the people of Santa Clarita, can shop each and every brand, right here.

Cheri: Someone might be shopping a model we have, and then might be considering a Mercedes, and before we had a Mercedes dealership here, they would possibly go down to the valley to look at Mercedes and then maybe decide, "No, I don't want a Mercedes," and end up buying an Acura down in the valley.
    Having everything up here gives us all an opportunity to service all of our local community.

Signal: Do you see other types of businesses for whom the cluster concept would work?

Don: I think the only one that I can think of maybe would be fast-food restaurants. But car dealers are — you know, there are only 23,000 car dealers in the United States, so it's a relatively small group of people. And they're all entrepreneurs.
    I was just reading something from the National Automobile Dealers Association today — how much money the car dealers across this nation gave in charity. It's mind-boggling. And most of them do it without any fanfare at all. So it's a good group of guys.

Cheri: And girls.

Cheri, Don, Sparkplug, Scooter Don: And girls. I'm not pitching car dealers, but I'm trying to give you an example of what kind of people make up the car business. It's a great group.

Signal: There has been some buzz in recent years that maybe we'll see some new car dealerships on the county side of Interstate 5. What's going on there?

Don: You know the main revenue source for this city is sales tax income. And the car dealers, generally, in any community, generate (the biggest share) of the sales tax revenue. So naturally the county would love to have this revenue.
    So if there were a place across the freeway, maybe somebody might try to build an auto mall over there. I think the thing that would stop that is the commitment to this community that all of the car dealers have, and the investments that we have in brick and mortar on Creekside (Road).

Signal: So you don't see somebody who's already on Creekside jumping to the other side of the freeway.

Don: No. I don't see that at all.

Signal: Do you see anybody who's not here, thinking about going somewhere other than the Creekside area?

Don: I can't imagine that. I mean, I wouldn't want to be that lonely little dealer out there by myself.

Cheri: And I think we've had a great relationship with the city of Santa Clarita. They've been very supportive of the Shop Local campaign, and I think it's been a successful campaign. I think that we'll all stay on Creekside.

Don: Also, the car dealers — we don't have an agenda. We're not trying to get something approved through the city or anything. It's just a perfect example of government and private business working together. It has benefited us, and it has benefited the city.

Signal: Isn't it about 20 percent of the city's sales tax revenue that comes from the automotive sector?

Don: I heard Carrie Rogers (the city's economic development manager) today say it was 25 percent. Twenty-five percent of all the (sales) tax dollars generated in this community come from the car dealers.

Signal: So ... you could say that what's good for the car dealers is good for Santa Clarita.

Don: I would think so.

Cheri: Yeah! We like to think of it that way.

Signal: Driving the freeways of Los Angeles, you see that most auto malls are right along the freeway, so they get all that lookie-loo traffic. Would it not benefit the local auto dealers to be along the freeway — whether on the county or the city side?

Don: Well, sure. If we had our choice, yes. But we're also happy where we are. What we could use out there on that freeway is an electronic reader board. Now, I know that might offend some people, but I do think it would help sales, and it would help revenue if we had something like that.

Signal: Don't you use the one that's out there now, at Valencia Boulevard?

Don: We share that. The car dealers share that with the city, they share it with the Westfield shopping center, they share it with Newhall Ranch — so I guess, if we had our wish, it would be that we had our own, dedicated sign somewhere on the freeway.

Signal: Don, you started the Santa Clarita Auto Dealers Association. What is that?

Don: But also, The Signal was a big part of that, as well.

Signal: Former Signal Publisher Will Fleet.

Don: Exactly. Most areas have associations. For some reason, and I don't know why, this association never got together. So when we came up here, The Signal thought it was a good idea; I thought it was a good idea; and we got a couple other car dealers together. We struggled with it the first couple of years, and then all of a sudden it clicked. As a result of that, a lot of good has come from that. (For instance), if there's a fraud at one dealership, we pass that word on to the other dealerships. It has really helped us a great deal, and also it has helped us to get our message across about shopping local.

Cheri: It has been a great vehicle for us, advertising-wise. I think the Shop Local campaign has been spectacular for all of us. We can pool some of our advertising dollars. The Signal has been a tremendous supporter of the Auto Dealers Association. It's been a win-win for all of us.

Signal: What does the association want to see accomplished on a governmental level?

Don: We don't have an agenda that way. I think that what's good for us is good for the city, and vice-versa. We have marketing that we have to do; we've spent a lot of money on marketing outside of this valley. Norm Gray was perfect with this. Everybody in that (auto) center, and a lot of the retail establishments in this town, benefited from Norm Gray's advertising. Because it brought people into our community. And when people come to a community, they spend money.

Signal: Some of the local environmentalists objected when Newhall Land wanted to grade the area along the Santa Clara River for the new dealerships on Valencia Boulevard. Didn't the Auto Dealers Association get involved with the city on that?

Don: Certainly we lent our support to it; Newhall Land did a fabulous job. Those guys — what happened was, when they graded that project, I think I understand that some of the environmentalists were afraid for the river and so forth and so on. But they did the soil-bank stabilization, and then, Newhall Land turned around and donated that entire (PONY) baseball field. I understand it's the largest privately owned baseball facility of its kind in the country. And they deeded that back to the kids of Santa Clarita. They put a sewer system in; they did a wonderful job. So it was a win-win again, I think, for the city, for the community, and for the kids.

Signal: Today, from Creekside, the Valencia Auto Mall runs down Valencia Boulevard and out Magic Mountain Parkway toward the freeway; now it's extending the other way on Magic Mountain. Will we see dealerships at Magic Mountain Parkway and San Fernando Road?

Don: I don't know. Maybe. There's some property over there. I think it would be an excellent spot for a couple more dealerships. And that's really all we probably need, wouldn't you think?

Cheri: Yes, I think we've just about got it covered.

Don: Just two or three more franchises, and we've got just about everything.

Signal: Don, you headed the SCV Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Committee. What kind of support do the businesses need from government, and what kind of new businesses do we need here to support the community?

Don: We need businesses that hire people and pay them good wages. I think with all the industrial parks that we have in our community, that's happening. I think that a lot of jobs are being created and a lot of good things are being built and manufactured right here in Santa Clarita.
    I think the city is constantly recruiting and trying to get other businesses to come in. and I think they're doing an excellent job. (City Manager) Ken Pulskamp and his staff have done an outstanding job, as far as I'm concerned.

Signal: What is the city doing for anybody?

Don: Well, they've streamlined the building permit (process). They have a fast track now for getting licenses and permits for buildings. They've done an excellent job. Somebody said to me that Santa Clarita was business-friendly; I believe that. I think so. I think they realize how important business is to a community. Not only the car dealers, but all businesses.

Signal: You've both been involved with helping Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital. Cheri, weren't you involved in a capital campaign for the hospital?

Cheri: I was on the committee for the capital campaign, and we're very excited that we reached our $12 million goal. In fact, we exceeded it with Roberta Veloz's $3 million donation that she just made.
    (The capital campaign) is for increasing our emergency room, which we certainly need, and also to build a cardiac cath lab. Because we're all getting older. That's going to be a really vital part of our community, I think.

Signal: How do you pick the charities that you become involved with?

Don: There are a few of the charities that really touch us. The hospital, for an example. My goodness. Everybody should give to that hospital. It's the only hospital we have. And at one time or another, we're all going to need it. We really are.
    (It has) a great staff with (CEO) Roger Seaver, (who) brought his staff in, and they took (Henry Mayo) out of bankruptcy, and the hospital is profitable today. It's just wonderful, what they've done.
    And what people don't know in our community — and it would be nice if they could find out — we have some unbelievable doctors who work out of that hospital. Incredible doctors. Very talented people. A lot of people don't know that.

Signal: You're also involved with the Betty Ferguson Foundation?

Cheri: Yes, I sat on the Betty Ferguson board for a few years —

Signal: And now you're doing the Arthritis Foundation, and you've been involved with the American Cancer Society. It seems you're very health-oriented.

Cheri: The American Cancer Society (is) near and dear to both of us because we both lost our mothers to cancer. I co-chaired Relay for Life for two years, and I'm on that committee again this year. That's an important one to us. I've been on the Child and Family Center foundation board for, gosh, probably eight or nine years now, because that's a great organization that does a great service.

Don: I think the Cancer (Society), that's obvious; our parents both died of cancer, and that's an ugly disease. That's a horrible, horrible disease. And we were part of raising money for the Sheila R. Veloz Breast Imaging Center. Tom Veloz put up a ton of money to start with, and built that in honor of her, and we've been fortunate enough to be able to support it. For an example, we just had our Crawford-Fleming (Golf Tournament) — that's Wayne Crawford, a partner (in Valencia Acura), and I. Years ago, when we first came up here, Cheri hosted the breast cancer awareness (event) at Valencia Acura. And it started off, I think we had 10 women the first year —

Cheri: I think we made $1,000 our first year.

Don: Eight years ago we added the golf tournament to it, and this year, Wayne and I (on Wednesday), along with Cheri and Diane, Wayne's wife, presented a check (for) the Sheila R. Veloz Breast Imaging Center for $113,000 that we made off of our golf tournament. It was wonderful. And we did it with a lot of fun. The same day that we had the golf tournament, Cheri held a tea at the Valencia Country Club, and that was well attended.

Cheri: It was a great day and it's a wonderful cause. We built that imaging center actually when our hospital was entering into bankruptcy, so it was quite a challenge. Diana Vose, from the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Health Foundation, and I and a couple breast cancer survivors toured breast centers to see what — if we could have what we wanted — what we would build in Santa Clarita. And I'm so excited. The Sheila R. Veloz Breast Imaging Center is a state-of-the-art facility that now, people from all over, different areas, are actually bringing patients into. So I think we've accomplished our goal and we're saving lives there.

Signal: The Signal recently ran a list of the 51 "most influential people" in the SCV and both of you were on it.

Cheri: I don't know why Don was "more influential" than I was, but yes —

Don: I don't know either.

Signal: As far as you're concerned, who are the five most influential people in town?

Don: I'm not going to answer that! I don't know who my five people — it would be Cheri Fleming, Cheri Fleming and Cheri Fleming.

Cheri: Right back at you, Don.

Don: When you take a look at that list, there are some incredible people on there. We've got some genuine heroes in this town. And you know what's exciting? What we're beginning to see now is a whole crop of new, young people getting involved in the charities — people like Marty Stohl (Landco), Mike De Lorenzo from Santa Clarita Studios — those kinds of people are really coming on board and participating in these charities. And that's what we need. We're not getting any younger. We need to bring some new blood in, and we're excited about that — that that's happening.

Signal: What do you do for fun?

Don: What we do. Everything is fun.

Cheri: When I'm home, I love to cook. We're kind of homebodies, because we are so active in the community and we're pretty busy people. We normally start our day with a 7:30 a.m. meeting at one of the charities, and then I work all day, Don works a lot of the day; he works on the golf course, too, sometimes, which is good. That works, as well. And we normally have some engagement or something in the evening.
    We try to take Sundays off, and kind of just like to tuck in, and maybe have some friends over and just relax.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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