WORDS: Bre Jones Mulock
PICTURES: Whitney Patton
Sun-drenched and coated in sand, a young kid with wobbly legs and a warm smile stands upon a donated surfboard, bobbing in the beach’s rolling waves on White Avenue on Anna Maria Island for the first time at Eternal Summer Surf Camp. Pure joy radiates as Kris Cox – a Bradenton native who helped found the non-profit Christian surf camp in 2008 – cheers from the shoreline.
Across town, you may catch Cox, along with his sprawling family tree of relatives, coaching a lacrosse player to a first score, packing Cox Chevrolet Dealership trucks with mounds of Toys For Tots gifts, patiently doling out interview tips to youngsters, or bonding with Manatee County’s youth in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
Like beacons scattered throughout their hometown, the Cox Chevrolet family quietly and steadily pours light into their community, a tradition their forefathers paved during the Great Depression’s shadows when they would barter goods like crops in exchange for selling cars to farmers.
“Giving back is crucial,” said Kelly Cox. “It’s our culture. It keeps us connected to our community and brings everyone together for a cause that’s bigger than themselves.”
Daydreaming about the worn and distinct pages of Manatee County’s history, it’s hard to visualize the story without Cox Chevrolet of Bradenton. This sixth-generation company crawled out of the Great Depression, problem-solved through World War shortages, and survived a succession of economic ups and downs. Against a tropical backdrop of the famed Manatee River Hotel and Tamiami Trail, Cox Motor Company opened its doors in 1932 and illuminated a theme that has flowed like a tributary for generations to follow: Love and care for the community.
“Bradenton poured into us as children and being generational, it is a continual process for us,” said Tamra Cox Leavell. “We are giving back and growing our future leaders and possibly even our future employees.”
Faded and grainy black-and-white photographs of Cox ancestors and automobiles, like the 1928 Chevy Sedan, fill a 75th Anniversary book of Cox Chevrolet published in 2001. Advertisements decades-old with boasting ladies donning fancy hats and Chevrolet as the “Aristocrat of small enclosed cars” paints a vivid impression of the past. Proudly smiling with shovels dug into the mud around their shoes, a handful of Cox employees gather for a snapshot in 1977 at the groundbreaking of the Cortez Road site, a current location of Cox Chevrolet.
Diving deeper, colorful narratives pop from the pages like how J.O. Cox Sr. navigated the company around war-time obstacles and forged a business relationship with Ringling Bros. Circus – selling trucks and buses to the traveling show. In those days, customers could catch a glimpse of the circus ringmaster or lion tamer Charlie Bauman peering inside a new Chevy in the showroom. Perks included free circus tickets that Cox Sr. eagerly gifted to employees and neighborhood children.
“I remember going down to Venice and meeting the lion tamer,” said Gary Cox, his eyes smiling at the memory. “We got backstage tours, too.”
Armed with innovative ideas and a creative spirit, Cox Chevrolet rallied with Manatee County as World War II created shortages like car parts and rubber tires in the community. The Cox family dove into action, establishing its own machine shop and creating spare parts when none were available to keep Cox customer cars traveling the roads.
When rubber tires grew increasingly scarce, the Cox Chevrolet service department devised a creative solution: Re-grooving. Mechanics would carve new grooves into previously bald tires, squeezing a little more life out of them.
“I think my forefathers did what they could to help,” said Gary Cox. “They were blessed with being in a high-growth area and grew with Bradenton.”
Waiting in the wings to provide for an expanding Manatee County, Cox Chevrolet witnessed the Five-Bridge Program’s construction, a series of bridge-building projects launched in 1957 that reshaped the county and connected residents out west toward the islands and north to Palmetto.
While the company carved success through many years, hardship did not escape Cox Chevrolet. An economic dip in the ’70s coupled with a Cortez Road construction debacle presented a tempting offer to sell the company and profit.
“My father struggled with a big rent, road disaster, and a recession,” said Gary Cox as his jovial tone muted. “It was a triple whammy, and he had a big decision to make.”
Ultimately, James Olin Cox, Jr. weighed out his hardships, walked away from the sale, and secured the business for more generations to cherish.
As the Cox family members buzz behind the scenes of a meandering, breathless list of charities, they are quick to point out, giving back writes only part of the narrative. Since taking a leap of faith in the turbulent 1930s and following the sun and tourists to seek out opportunities in Bradenton, Manatee County has been good to Cox Chevrolet, too.
“If it weren’t for the loyal support of our county, Cox Automotive wouldn’t be able to be one of the few family-owned organizations that have been in business for almost 100 years and six generations,” said Kelly Cox. “It is crazy to think we have been here that long-serving our county.”
Gary Cox quickly added: “When you are born here, and it is all you know, you realize this is paradise, and you give back through a kind of osmosis.”
Philanthropy shines essential to the Cox family because members view success not only in monetary ways, but also in how they can impact their community.
“With a family business of a group of six we have the ability to spread out and volunteer and support our community in so many different ways, ” said Kyle Cox, who recounted a cherished memory of supporting PACE School for Girls when the dealership jumped on the opportunity to donate a vehicle to the Lucky Ducky Race for Pace.
Even though the company has grown parallel with Manatee County, it is easy to forget Cox Chevrolet operates under a franchise. The humble, down-to-earth Cox clan (who jokingly refer to each other as G-4’s, G-5’s, and G-6’s to indicate their generation) exude a homegrown family business where there is always at least one Cox family member at the dealership.
“I think our humble nature comes from all of us having to work hard and work from the ground up,” said Jennifer Cox Lipsey. “We were not given anything. We all had to work and relate to every aspect of the business, from filling the soda pop and ice cream machines to helping out the mechanics and sales department. We had to know every part of the company.”
Chuckles roll out from family members when pondering what it’s really like working together in a family business. While they tease and share this tight-knit setup is not without obstacles, they all express gratitude.
“I would never be as close with my cousins if we didn’t work together,” said Jennifer Cox Lipsey. “Since we work together, it is like family time. We come into work and see each other and stay connected and don’t have to feel guilty about giving up time together when we are working.”
As the G-5’s brainstorm new ideas to steer the growing company, they are quick to emphasize the heart of Cox Chevrolet still lies in helping others, especially kids playing on fields all across the county.
“We focus a lot on kids’ athletics like lacrosse and volleyball,” said Kris Cox. “Kids take it all in. They are looking for a coach to put in 100 percent to make a difference. To be able to do that – to make a real difference in their life is amazing.”
Reflecting on a revolving projector reel of past volunteering opportunities like Meals on Wheels, Kiwanis Club, and apprentice programs at the dealership, the family members unanimously agree giving back makes them feel good.
“It’s the photo you receive years after a birthday party – one your kid wasn’t even at – that shows you taking the kids for a spin in a new Corvette,” said Kris Cox. “People have sent photos years later with a note attached saying, ‘Thank you, Mr. Cox. You made an impact on me.’ It’s the affirmation that you are doing the right thing.”