This small business, family man is carrying on the family legacy by simply doing what he does best — buying and selling unusual, fine cars.
The showroom at Lee F. Slaughter Fine Cars is the opposite of what one might expect of a car dealership. Dim lighting sets a relaxed mood. Reclaimed wood touches and a metal roof add a classic feel. A handful of fine cars are intentionally positioned around the room, including a corvette with the hood open, allowing for a look at the nuts, bolts, and the force that drives this machine. Music plays in the background. Surf paraphernalia lines the walls. Out front is a collection of less than 30 select cars for show and sale. It’s approachable and unassuming here. It’s anything but over the top. And it’s everything one could hope a car buying experience would be. It’s a setting and an ambiance that embodies the personality and character traits of owner Rhys Slaughter, a down to earth family man committed to the thing he loves to do, and has proven to do successfully.
“I do one thing really well — buying and selling really nice cars,” said Rhys. Rhys has been going to car auctions since he was 10, and buying cars since the ripe age of 16.
Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, this Flagler alumnus is carrying on the family legacy, putting his own spin on the business of supplying the local community with a selection of unusual, fine used cars. Think Porsche, Jaguar, BMW, Land Rover, all with low miles, minimal changing of hands between owners, clean records, and representing a range of price points.
IT’S IN HIS BLOOD
Cars are in Rhys’s bloodline, and have been since long before he was born. Following in the footsteps of his family, Rhys’s grandfather Lee F., started his own new car franchises in small-town Smyrna, Delaware in 1948, selling Ford, Chevrolet, Lincoln, and Studebaker.
“It was a small town. He sold everyone their cars. Even the police officers were driving around in his Studebakers,” said Rhys.
Factory warranties weren’t exactly a thing of the time period. And as a result, Lee F. eventually found himself in the position of fixing as many cars as he was selling.
“He would sell them, and then he would fix them,” said Rhys. “He built his reputation this way, but it was breaking him to continue selling new cars when he was spending his time fixing them.”
THE LEGACY OF LEE F.
Although Rhys wasn’t able to get to know his grandfather to the level he hoped during Lee F.’s lifetime, he was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to hear stories from his grandfather’s best friend who lived well into his 90s. The stories suggest that Rhys is living out his life in a similar fashion to Lee F., from what he likes to wear to the cars he chooses to drive.
Rhys attests to the fact that Lee F. was the epitome of a daredevil. “He was far more of a loose cannon than I am,” said Rhys. He regularly flew his private plane under powerlines, landing on back roads. He once drove a motorcycle off a dock into a lake and left it at the bottom.
Beyond his adventurous nature, Lee F. was a reputable business man. Though the car industry has shifted leaps and bounds since Lee F.’s time, today Rhys keeps the emphasis on family, quality, and running an upstanding business. The result? A trusted, no gimmicks kind of operation.
After a long period of success in the new car business, Lee F. shifted his focus to used cars, a move that seemed a bit taboo. Then, a car was considered disposable by the time it reached 80 or 100,000 miles. Nowadays, they are just getting started.
Much like the cars Rhys buys and sells today, Lee F. had an eye for unusual, low mileage cars. The shift to selling such vehicles was a move that paid off and kick-started the fine, used car buying and selling empire his son Mark (Rhys’s father) would build upon.
Though it was Lee F. who built the foundation and reputation, it was Mark who really put the family business on the map and took it to the next level.
In the 1970s, when Lee F.’s health left him unable to continue to run the show, Mark stepped up and took over the business, and moved it to Dover, Delaware. Here he erected a new, iconic dealership, specializing in corvettes, muscle cars, and vehicles that are now almost untouchable money-wise. “He was really immersed in the whole car culture and was looked to as an authority,” said Rhys.
“Everyone in the area knew the name for years and years, and for miles and miles. The caliber of cars went up. He built a huge business. As a result, he worked ding to dong, nine to nine, seven days a week. He went at it very hard.”
Since he was a kid, Mark loved surfing as much as he loved cars. This love took Mark and his family to the coast of Delaware, and then eventually all the way to the East Coast of Florida.
When Rhys was late into his elementary school years, his dad’s love of surfing and longing to be near the water led their family from inland Delaware to Rehoboth Beach. Here Mark bought a farmhouse that had been used as a fruit stand. He turned this newly acquired rental space into a modest dealership, starting by placing a handful of classic cars out front with for sale signs on them.
“It was a 100-year-old place with a couple of garage doors,” said Rhys. “He would leave a sign on the door that said something like ‘In Dover – be back by appointment after 6pm.’”
The cars went like hotcakes. As they sold, he continued to add more, and as those sold, came even more. Within a month he decided to close Dover and opened full-time in Rehoboth.
It was surfing that led the Slaughter family to Rehobeth. And it was surfing that ultimately destined them for another coastal town, this time farther south—St. Augustine.
When it came time for Rhys to consider colleges, he embarked upon a father-son surfing trip. First along the West Coast. Then down the East Coast. “The College of Charleston was supposed to be the last school I looked at, until dad said, “We haven’t looked at Flagler. I responded, ‘ Where’s St. Augustine?’ ”
As soon as they arrived in St. Augustine, Rhys felt at home. “It felt just like the town I grew up in, but warmer. I fell in love right away.”
Where Rhys led, his family eventually followed. Immediately after graduating from Flagler College in 2008, Rhys put his know-how and love for surfing to use, working for Pit Surf Shop. His parents’ desire to be where it was warm, drove them to follow Rhys to St. Augustine and retire here. Lee F. Slaughter Fine Cars was put to rest — at least temporarily.
Despite his newfound retirement, Mark went ahead and obtained his Florida business license, in case he decided to buy and sell a car here and there.
A NEW GENERATION
All it took was Rhys returning to auction with his dad just once, and the rush of the car buying experience came back. “It came out of nowhere. I thought it was in the past,” admitted Rhys. “As soon as I got there, I felt that adrenaline — getting pumped up about the cars. I came home that night and was like, shoot…I think I want to do this again.”
A partnership opportunity opened up at a location on San Marco in 2013. “We were just going to sell a couple of cars on the lot,” said Rhys. Once it grew to be more than a couple of cars, Rhys was all in. “I only know how to do it one way. If I’m going to do it that way and sell that way, I knew it had to be Lee F. Slaughter Fine Cars.”
By 2014, Rhys decided to run the show. A new generation of the family business was born. And Rhys has been defying the odds of being a third generation business, ever since. “If you consider this a third generation business, statistically, I have a high rate of failure. Second generation businesses fail 60 percent of the time. Third generation businesses fail 90 percent of the time,” said Rhys. “Even though I am a third generation business, it’s a totally different state, business, and set up.”
Immediately after introducing the St. Augustine community to Rhys’s own interpretation of Lee F. Slaughter Fine Cars, people wanted to do business with him, liked the cars, and the business organically accelerated.
“I always saw Lee F. Slaughter Fine Cars as what it was in Delaware. To start something here and watch it take off has been really neat. We’ve been in the green since day one which is really hard to do with a small business,” said Rhys.
As of late summer 2015, Rhys made the move over to a new location on US 1 which allows for a showroom and a space that is entirely his own.
KEEPING TRUE & STAYING SMALL
Throughout the multiple generations of Lee F. Slaughter Fine Cars, although the preferences of the buyer has shifted generationally, the characteristics of the cars bought and sold remain the same. “I always look for the one and two owner cars, low mileage, no paintwork, no accidents, and clean history. Every car on my lot is going to meet these guidelines,” affirmed Rhys.
As for the types of cars, “It’s cars people want to buy, not that they have to buy.” Though Rhys certainly sells vehicles that can and do function as the sole car for transportation, the bulk of what he sells are considered toys. “I feel like I have a niche in the toys. I am selling a lot of people their third, fourth, and fifth fun car,” he said.
Rhys still goes after many of the same types of cars as his forefathers, including Mercedes, Jaguars, BMW, Land Rovers, and Porsches. Though he keeps a couple of high end cars on hand, rather than stocking and selling toy cars with price tags upward of $50,000, Rhys would rather appeal to the middle market of individuals who are able to pay between $10,000 and $40,000 for a vehicle, and forgo having millions of dollars worth of inventory. He also makes a point to offer a handful of automobiles in the highly accessible sweet spot — between $5,000 and $15,000.
These decisions align with Rhys’s priority of keeping things manageable and staying small.
“I saw dad do small, medium, and large. And to me, small makes the most sense. “I just want to keep the tiger by the tail and keep things controlled,” he said. “I know what I want to do — how I want to do things, and it works.”
Ultimately, for Rhys, his idea of success includes low stress and the ability to lay his head down at night peacefully. “I am not looking to buy a yacht. I want to go home at 5pm and see my kid and experience the lifestyle St. Augustine has to offer. I like being outside and doing things with my family.”
His small-scale business approach means keeping a small inventory and small overhead. Rhys’s inventory typically includes between 25 to 30 automobiles, increasing as needed to keep up with demand. “If I sell five cars a month I’m happy; 10 I’m stoked, 15 then Merry Christmas, it’s wonderful.” Rather than running a rapid-fire car selling model, Rhys doesn’t haggle or hassle his customers, he simply sells cars in a straightforward manner.
With the help of his dad, Rhys remains virtually a one-man show. Though Mark is still technically retired, he remains a valuable part of the business, and is part of the buying and selling with Rhys. “He helps me, but it feels more like we are hanging out together. Now it’s just fun we get to work together and I try to keep it as low stress as possible. That’s why I’ve set it up the way I have.”
At one point during college, Rhys returned to Rehoboth for a time, to help his dad manage the business. At that point, the operation had grown to once again include a number of employees. As a result, Rhys found himself putting in more than 80 hours a week, which was enough to help him determine that if he ever ran his own business, he would keep it small and have a lean crew.
In addition to his dad’s involvement, Rhys’s “lean crew” as he refers to it, is a single, highly valuable employee — Jesse. “I’m happy with the lean crew I have right now. I was like that at the surf shop too. I would rather have someone like Jesse who works with me six days a week who is on his game and a jack of all trades.”
Rhys is playing for keeps here in St. Augustine, that is, he considers this a forever kind of home. Today, Rhys and his immediate family, along with his parents and brother, all live on Anastasia Island. His immediate family now includes his wife Kelly, whom he met the second day of school at Flagler, and their seven-month-old son Gray. Rhys’s brother Breck also owns a notable small business on the island—Breck’s Beach Billboards. In addition to the support the Slaughter family has provided each other over the years, they’ve received the same support from the St. Augustine community.
“We have a really cool community here where everybody does the support local, go local thing. People are willing to go out of their way to shop with the small business owner and eat with the small business owner,” said Rhys. “I am very happy to be able to do business here, live here, work here, and have my family here. They would have to drag me out kicking and screaming. I’m not going anywhere.”