On June 3, two days after General Motors declared bankruptcy, the showroom at Buzz Chew Chevrolet-Cadillac on County Road 39 in Southampton was empty. Some of the cars—a red Corvette, a beige Malibu, a maroon Cadillac CTS4—sat lonely, looking frozen in time.
Down a hall, in a large corner office decorated with a Dale Klee print called “Chevy Farm” and antique Oldsmobile and Cadillac badges, Buzz Chew sat at his desk, reading a letter from GM. It assured Mr. Chew that his dealership would remain open as the fallen giant reorganized for the future.
The news was not too surprising. Buzz Chew is one of the most ubiquitous names on the East End of Long Island, seen written on the back of Chevrolet pickup trucks and vans, or spelled out on license plate frames. Mr. Chew, who has lived in Mattituck all his life, has been selling GM cars and trucks in the area since 1969. He has a good base in the local market, especially in truck sales.
That said, the recent crisis has not been easy for Mr. Chew. In the last year, his new car sales dropped by almost 50 percent, he said, and he had to cut inventory—from an excess of 350 vehicles down to 200—and oversee staff layoffs. His five NASCAR race cars remained in the garage, and their driver, his son Bryon Chew, who also helps to run the dealership, missed a year of competition.
Explaining this from across his desk, Mr. Chew still seemed calm, confident, unflappable. The truth was, it turned out, that Mr. Chew had persevered through much harder times.
“I started with nothing,” Mr. Chew said. He was born on Long Island in 1943 as Hull Slater Chew III. At the time, there was a character in a Daily News comic strip named Buzzy, and his mother decided that would be his nickname.
His father was never around and died on Mr. Chew’s 17th birthday. As the years passed, his mother suffered numerous health problems and was a semi-invalid by the time Mr. Chew was an adolescent. He started working when he was 11, doing anything he could to survive. At one point, his mother spent almost three years in the hospital and Mr. Chew had to fend for himself.
“I cooked every meal—canned beans, spaghetti...” he said. “My mother did everything she could so I wouldn’t have holes in my socks, but I still had holes in my socks.”
With a difficult home life, Mr. Chew turned his attention to cars. He worked as a mechanic in Cutchogue and his job soon became his passion. By age 16, he was drag-racing at the Westhampton Raceway in an old jalopy a man had given him, which he fixed up with an old, “no-good stock car engine.”
“I was a motor head,” he said. “I loved the thrill of racing and I used to win, in my category though, which was the very cheap, used parts category.”
Out of high school, he got a job at the Grumman Aerospace Corporation in Calverton as an aircraft mechanic, then in 1968, he took a job as a car salesman at a Chevrolet dealer in Riverhead. He had found his calling. In 1974, he became a manager at Pastor Chevrolet in Westhampton, and then became a part-owner at Kinney Chevrolet.
He attributes his fast success to hard work and ambition that in part arose from his tough childhood and the sacrifices his mother had made. “I wanted more,” he said. “That motivated me.”
Around this time, Mr. Chew’s mother was in a nursing home and he decided to bring her back home, where he could care for her. But in 1978, while she was alone one morning, her house caught fire and she died in the blaze.
Despite the tragedy, Mr. Chew was able to persevere. In 1981, he bought the small Lester Motors Chevrolet-Oldsmobile dealership in East Hampton.
“It was the wrong time to buy a dealership. And I went into that store very undercapitalized,” Mr. Chew said. “I suffered for a couple years. I walked the floor and smoked a lot of cigarettes at 3 a.m. trying to figure out what to do.”
After years of working six days a week from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., wearing many hats, including working as his own service manager, he began to make a profit. The dealership went from selling 100 cars a month to 800 cars a month and received the best customer service index rating for Chevrolet dealers in the entire nation for four consecutive years.
Mr. Chew attributed part of his success to his attention to the locals, as opposed to the wealthy summer folks. “I came to town and said I can’t be a two months a year dealer, I’ve got to be a 12 months a year dealer,” Mr. Chew said. “We stocked trucks and took care of the guy that worked for a living.”
In 2001, Buzz Chew built and moved into a new Southampton facility on County Road 39, on the strip where the majority of the East End’s car dealerships are now located. The move was the product of GM’s push for dealership consolidation; Buzz Chew bought out Southampton’s Hull Chevrolet.